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Newsletter Article: What You Need to Know About Western-Style Hand Saws

What You Need to Know About Western-Style Handsaws

by Luther Shealy


Hand tool woodworking saws fall into two basic design categories: Western-style saws and Japanese-style saws.  This article focuses on western style saws, but before we begin let me do a quick comparison between these two styles of saws.


Western Style Verses Japanese Style Handsaws


Beginning woodworkers always ask the question, “What is the difference between western and Japanese style handsaws.”  The short answer is, “a lot!”  Western and Japanese saws are two totally different concepts in saw design and each was created to deal with the native woods found in their respective parts of the world.  Japanese saws were developed to deal with the woods common to Japan (pine, cedar, and other typically softer woods) while western saws were developed to deal with the woods commonly found in Europe (oak, beach, walnut, and other harder woods). 




The design features between these two saws are so different that the beginner woodworker should choose one style or the other.  After mastering your chosen style only then should you venture to the other style.  I prefer western-style saws, but I do own a couple of Japanese saws !


Japanese saws have a much thinner saw plate as compared to western saws.  Because of this, Japanese saws cut with a pulling action as compared to a western saw which cuts with a pushing action.  This pulling action keeps tension on the thin saw plate.  The good news is this thinner saw plate makes a much smaller kerf than a western saw, so the Japanese saw tends to cut slightly easier.  The bad news is that in unskilled hands, a Japanese saw plate is so thin it can bend and kink easily.  If the blade bends a little bit you will saw away from your intended line, if it bends a lot you can kink the saw permanently.


Japanese saw teeth are longer and more delicate than western saws.  This makes for a smoother cut wall than the typical western saw, but it also means the teeth will break or bend easily – a common problem with Japanese saws.  Western saws, with their thicker saw plate, have much more robust teeth that rarely break off or bend.


Japanese saw teeth have a more complex design than western saw teeth making sharpening Japanese saws very difficult.  Expensive Japanese saws need to be sent to a Japanese saw sharpening specialist for re-sharpening and this specialist probably lives in Japan!   (A Japanese saw sharpener apprentices for seven years in Japan to learn his trade)  Inexpensive, mass-produced, Japanese saws have hardened teeth making them last a long time, but the hardening process also makes them brittle and impossible to sharpen. When they dull you must replace the blade.  In contrast, western saws have a very simple tooth pattern that is easy to sharpen and any woodworker with 20 minutes of practice can sharpen their saw.  200+ year old western saws are still around in abundance, most just need a good sharpening and they are ready to go.


For most woodworkers, the above reasons are a compelling enough to use Western style saws – I do.  Now that we have that out of the way, on to western-style saws


Western Style Saws


Choosing a Western Style Saw   For many beginning hand tool woodworkers, deciding which western style handsaws to buy can be a real tough decision.  One of the main reasons this can be a tough decision is because of all the confusing terminology associated with saw design and saw tooth geometry.  The intent of this article  is to cut through all the jargon, help you understand what the important characteristics of western-style saws, and arm you with the understanding you need to make your saw purchasing decisions, and to be an informed sawyer.


Western Saw Types.  Western saws come in three general types: Hand saws, back saws, and frame saws. 


  1. Hand saws.  Hand saws have a handle and a flexible metal saw plate with no rigid back or frame.  Hand saws typically have the largest teeth of all the three types of saws and are generally used for quickly rough-cutting boards to length or width.  They generally range in length anywhere from around 32 to 18 inches. 




  1. Back saws.  Back saws have fine teeth, thin metal saw plates and are used for making precision wood cuts.  They have a rigid brass or steel backs to keep the saw plate from bending, which provides rigidity for accurate cuts of wood joints.  Back saws are used for fine cuts need to make joints.




  1. Frame saws. Frame saws also called “bow saws” or “turning saws” use tension to tighten a blade between two saw arms.  When used with a narrow blade, a frame saw works great for cutting curves (like a power bandsaw) and can also be used for rough cutting boards when a larger blade is added. Frame saws come in all sorts of sizes, with small teeth for fine work to large teeth for rough-cutting.  Use of the large frame saws are not that common today but they are trying to make a comeback.  Much more common are the smaller frame saws like a “coping saw”.




Parts of the Saw.   Let's start by defining the relevant parts of western handsaws and back saws. Below is a picture of each saw with the relevant parts labeled. 






Saw Tooth Configuration.  Handsaw and back saw blades are usually sharpened to one of two different tooth configurations: “Rip” or “Cross-cut”.   There is also a little used “hybrid” tooth configuration that is in between a rip and cross-cut configuration; however, like most multi-purpose tools it can do both jobs OK, but it’s not as proficient at ripping or cross-cutting as a dedicated rip or cross-cut saw.  


  1. Rip Teeth. Saws configured with  “rip” teeth are designed to cut parallel or along the length of a board’s grain, “ripping” the wood.  A rip tooth is shaped like a woodworking chisel and pushes through the wood like a chisel.  Since the tooth is cutting parallel to the wood fibers it cleanly removes bits of wood like a chisel chopping out wood; tear-out is not a concern.



  1. Cross-cut Teeth. Saws with “Cross-cut” teeth are designed to cut perpendicular or across a board’s grain, “cross-cutting” the wood.  A cross-cut tooth is shaped like a knife blade and cleanly severs the wood fibers.  Since the tooth is cutting across the wood grain instead of along the grain, the teeth must slice through the wood to cleanly remove the wood avoiding tearout.




 Saw Tooth Design


Saw Tooth Design Basics.    Regardless whether a saw tooth is configured as rip or cross-cut, they have some common terminology.  The figure below shows a saw with rip configured teeth labeled with common terminology.




Saw Tooth Design.  There are four important saw-tooth design factors that the beginning hand tool woodworker should understand, they are:

  • Pitch
  • Rake
  • Fleam
  • Set

    Pitch.  Pitch is the number of points or teeth that are located within one inch as measured along the point line. It is expressed as either points per inch (PPI) or teeth per inch (TPI); however, tpi is the most common measurement of pitch.




    Larger saw teeth (low tpi) will cut quickly through wood but leaves a rough surface. Smaller saw teeth (high tpi) will cut through wood slower than large teeth but leaves a smoother surface. 



    Pitch also plays a role in determining how deep the gullets are.  Gullets carry the sawdust out of the saw kerf; therefore, the bigger the gullet the more efficiently the saw clears the sawdust out of the kerf.  This in turn relates to the speed and the cleanliness of the cut.


    Some saws are configured with a “progressive pitch”.  The purpose of progressive pitch is to make starting the saw easier with the small teeth upfront, then once the saw is started switching to the larger teeth in the middle and rear of the saw to cut rapidly.  This is accomplished in one of two ways. The first is to simply configure the first few inches of the saw with finer teeth  then switching to larger teeth after the first few inches of small teeth. The second is to gradually increase the pitch over the entire length of the saw.   


    A general rule of thumb is:  as the requirement for sawing accuracy increases (e.g. cutting a joint) the sawyer chooses a saw with smaller (high tpi) teeth; however, a limit is reached when the gullets of the teeth become too small to carry out the dust or shavings and the saw begins to bog down.  When speed is more important than accuracy, the sawyer chooses a saw with larger teeth (small tpi); however, a limit is reached when there are so few teeth its too hard to push the saw through the wood.


    Rake and Fleam.  The saw tooth angles of rake and fleam are interrelated with pitch and set to maximize efficiencies for the type and size of wood you want to saw.  One saw tooth configuration will not work for all species of wood and thickness of the board (see Hybrid tooth configuration discussion in “saw tooth configuration” paragraph above).  As a minimum, you need one tooth configuration for hardwoods and another tooth configuration for softwoods.  Additionally, not all hardwoods are created equal; some hardwoods are denser than others.  If you work predominantly in the denser hardwoods (e.g. hard maple, white oak, most tropical woods) you need a tooth designed for those woods.  On the other hand, if you primarily work with the softer hardwoods (e.g. walnut, popular, cherry) you need a different tooth configuration.  Therefore, it’s important to understand how rake, fleam work together with pitch and set to cut effectively on softwoods and hardwoods.


    Rake.  Rake determines how aggressive your saw will cut.  Think of rake as the amount the leading tooth face “leans back or forward” from the direction of the cut.  At 0 degrees, the tooth face is vertical. As the tooth face slants away from the cut, a negative rake angle is created which is less aggressive or more “relaxed”.   As the tooth face slants towards the cut, a positive rake angle is created which is more aggressive or “stiffer”.    The more you relax the rake the easier it is the push the saw through the wood because the teeth can skate over the wood more easily. Relaxing the rake makes starting the saw easier but it slows down how fast the saw cuts as the teeth tend to lift-up and away from the cut.  Saws used primarily in hardwoods should have a less aggressive rake than saws used in softwood because hardwood is denser and more difficult to cut.  Since its easier to push the saw through softwood than hardwood, saws used primarily to cut softwood can have a more aggressive or a “stiffer” rake than saws used in hardwoods.


    For example, 0 to 6 degrees of rake is considered aggressive, which is great for ripping softwoods. A more relaxed rake of 6-10 degrees is appropriate when ripping through most hardwoods. Particularly tough hardwoods can mandate a rake of 10-12 degrees.


    Like pitch, some saw makers design their saws with a “progressive rake.”  The teeth in the first inch or so of the saw will have a very relaxed tooth design (maybe up to 30 degrees even) making it easier to start the saw cut.  After the first inch or so the rake becomes more aggressive, appropriate to the wood type, so that the saw can rapidly cut through the wood.







    Fleam.  Fleam (how a tooth is beveled) is only used on crosscut configured teeth; rip configured teeth have no fleam.  Fleam (or bevel) on crosscut teeth turns the teeth into little knives that slices the wood fibers as you saw across the grain.  This slicing action is what makes a crosscut saw do its job without splintering and tearing across the grain.  The degree of fleam for a traditional crosscut saw runs 20-30 degrees. The more fleam the cleaner the cut but as the fleam angle increases you get a smaller tooth front and the steel becomes brittle and gets dull faster.  A high fleam angle (25-30 degrees) should be used on saws primarily used in softwoods and a lower fleam angle (20-24 degrees) should be used on saws used primarily used in hardwoods.  







      Set.  Set is created by bending the tips of the teeth in alternating directions away from the saw plate.  Set widens the kerf and allows the saw to cut through the wood without binding.  Like rake, fleam, and pitch; set is a good thing but too much causes issues.  The wider the kerf the more wood you remove and therefore the more work that is required to push the saw through the wood.  Additionally, the wider the kerf the more difficult it is to keep the saw straight in the cut.   A wide kerf lets the saw wiggle about in the kerf, easily wandering off course.  Not enough set and the walls of the cut will grab and bind.  For saws used to cut joints that demand high accuracy, the perfect set is one that creates just enough kerf to prevent the saw binding in the wood but small enough to support both sides of the saw plate guiding the saw straight in the cut.  A set of around two-thousands of an inch on each side of the saw plate is a nice set.  When speed is more important than accuracy, in a back saw used for rough cutting for example, then a wide set is useful, so the saw can easily and quickly be pushed through the wood.



    Sharpness.  While sharpness is not an angle, sharpness has a tremendous effect on how well a saw cuts.  A saw with sharp teeth allows the tooth angles to effectively do what they are designed to do.  Dull teeth do just the opposite, making it harder for the teeth to do their job.  Therefore, one of the most important skills a traditional hand tool woodworker must master is how to sharpen (or how to find a good saw sharpener) .  Unlike Japanese saws, western saws are easy to learn how to sharpen.  There are many articles and videos on sharpening.  Read or watch one, then go and buy an inexpensive saw from a flea market and practice sharpening it.  Within 20 minutes you will be a pretty good sharpener.  Saw sharpening just seems intimidating until you try it.


    Handle.  You want a saw with a handle that fits your size hand like a glove. If the handle is too tight for a proper three finger grip, using the saw will be uncomfortable. If the handle is too large, your hand will move around too much and you won’t grip the saw consistently every time you pick it up. The only way to know if a handle is right for you is to try the saw.  There are generally two types of handles:  The pistol grip and the closed handle grip.


    Hand Saws


    Hand Saws. Hand saws are used for breaking down stock into smaller more manageable pieces.  Many woodworkers today reach for a circular saw or go to the table saw to cut rough stock but using hand saws can be much faster; certainly, less noise and dust, and for me is much more enjoyable.   There are really two categories of the hand saw to consider: full-length hand saws and panel saws.  Before power tools, hand saws were made by the tens of thousands and they are very easy to find, easy to sharpen, and easy to restore.  For full length hand saws, I much prefer older saws to new saws.  For panel saws, either quality new saw or an old one is good.




    Full-length Hand Saws.  What is a full-length hand saw? Sounds like a weird question, but it’s not.  The saw must fit the sawyer’s body.  Small framed woodworkers need a shorter saw than a taller woodworker.  Because of this requirement saws were made in many different lengths.  For starters lets call a full-length saw any saw between 20-32 inches long.   So what size full length hand saw is right for me? There are several body mechanic items to consider when choosing a full-length hand saw.  


     First, a full-length hand saw is designed to be used in conjunction with a saw bench.  The height of your saw bench should be about the height of your knee cap, or just above, in order to position your body for holding the stock on the bench with your knee and sawing without discomfort. If your saw bench is too high, it will force your knee too high and cause pain in your hip. If the bench is too low, you will have to bend over too far, causing back pain, and you may hit the floor with your saw.


    The next thing to consider is the length of your saw stroke. Your saw stroke is the distance that your hand travels when your arm is fully extended to where travels when it is fully drawn to the side of your chest.  Your saw blade needs to be a little longer than this length.  If the blade is shorter than this distance, you’ll pull the blade out of the cut on the back stroke. If the blade is a lot longer than this distance, you won’t be cutting while using the full length of the blade and you take the chance of hitting the floor with the toe of the saw on the forward stroke.


    The goal is to size your saw just an inch or two longer than the length of your saw stroke. The best method of fitting a full-length hand saw to your frame is to try a bunch of hand saws in different lengths and different styles. However, this isn’t always possible, so you can measure the length of your arm from the shoulder to the farthest knuckle of your clenched fist.  This will give you a good estimate of the length of your saw stroke. Add an inch or two to this measurement and you should have a general idea of how long of a saw you should be looking for.  Just so you have an idea, an average 6-foot man uses about a 26-inch-long saw.


    What full-Length Saws do You Need?  Remember that the purpose of these saws is to break down long boards into rough dimensions.  Sometimes you will need to rip a board and sometimes you need to crosscut a board, therefore you need both a rip saw and a crosscut saw. You want both saws to be aggressive, so you can get the job done quickly; accuracy is not a concern here.  I recommend a rip saw from 5-8 tpi and a crosscut saw with 8-12 tpi.


    Panel Saws. Panel saws are quite simply just shorter hand saws; from 16 to 20 inches in length.  Like their full-length siblings these are used for rough cuts.  Unlike full-length saws, panel saws are typically used at the work bench not at the saw bench.   These are handy for making cuts on a board while it is secured in a bench vise or on a workbench accessory like a bench hook.  They are handy for cutting very large tenons, re-sawing by hand, and cutting off the very end of a piece of stock.   They also fit in your tool box easier than a full-length saw so when you must travel, they can do the work of a full-length saw.


    Which Panel Saws Do You Need?  Like full-length saws you need a rip and a crosscut.  I little less aggressive since you are using these at the workbench.  Somewhere between 8-12 tpi is typical.


    Back Saws


    Four Back Saws.   Before the age of table saws, woodworkers cut wood with hand saws.  Just like the enormous number and different types of blades there are today for table saws, back in the day there was an enormous number of different types of back saws; one for just about every operation you can think of.  However,  back saws are generally categorized into four basic groups: dovetail, carcass, sash, and tenon.


    Basically, they are all the same saws, the only real difference being length and tooth geometry.  The back (top) of the saw plate is usually made from either brass or steel and is there for just one purpose - that is to stiffen the blade and hold it true, thus the name, “back saw”.  An added benefit of the back is a bit of extra weight which helps gravity work in your favor when sawing.

    1. Dovetail Saw. The smallest of the back saws and is specifically made to cut dovetails. This saw is for fine joinery, so it has a thin plate, smaller teeth , and minimal set. The teeth filed rip and are generally between 14 and 18 tpi but can go as many as 22-23 tpi depending on the level of detail the woodworker wants.  The blade length ranges from 6″ to 12″ long with a blade width between 1-1/2″ and 2″ (Dovetails aren’t very big!).


    2. Carcase Saw. This saw is so named because it was primarily used for building furniture carcasses.  Carcase saws are the workhorse of back saws.   Slightly longer and with a thicker blade than a dovetail saw they are for general use at the workbench.  They have a few less teeth per inch than a dovetail saw because of the need to occasionally cut deeper stock and they are generally not used for fine joinery cuts.   The blade of a carcase saw is 10″ to 14″ long and 2″ to 3″ wide. It typically has 12 to 14 ppi and the saw teeth and are sharpened in crosscut configuration.


    3. Tenon Saw. Tenon saws are used to cut the checks of a tenon.  The blade of a tenon saw is similar in dimension to a carcass saw being 10 to 14 inches long and 2 to 3 inches wide.  Although I have seen even bigger tenon saws.  The teeth should be filed rip since cutting tenon checks is a rip cut (parallel to the grain).  Since the check of the tenon is inserted into a mortise and thus hidden, the cut does not need to be as smooth as say a dovetail saw.  Because of this most tenon saws are in the 10-12 tpi range.


    4.  Sash Saws. As their name suggests,  they were used for cutting the joinery for window sashes.  Knight’s dictionary, a reputable saw resource, says that a sash saw has a blade that’s 14″ to 16″ long and 2 1/2″ to 3 1/2″ wide. The sash saw has 11 tpi.  And can be filed either rip or crosscut!


    What does it all Mean?  Still confused on back saws?  I am.  I think the best way to understand what back saws you need is to forget the names and just think about the application.  Do you need a rip or a crosscut saw?  Does the cut demand accuracy and a smooth wall like when cutting dovetails or can you get away with a rougher cut?


    What Back Saws Do You Need? It all depends on the type of joinery you do.  To cover all the basics, I suggest the following back saws.


    1.  Two fine joinery Back saws: One filed rip for dovetails and one filed crosscut for tenon shoulders.  Each in the 10-12 inch long range with 14-15 tpi, progressive pitch is good too. 


    2. A tenon saw: A tenon saw for cutting the checks of tenon and general rip cutting.  It should be filed rip, 11-14 inches long, and 10-14 tpi.


    3.  General purpose crosscutting back saw. Used to cut lumber to length. 11-14 inches long, filed crosscut, and 10-14 tpi.