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Handsaws: still making the cut.

Legend has it, the first handsaw was invented 4,000 years ago by a Greek hunter who grabbed the jawbone from a snake skull and used the teeth to cut firewood.

Today we use power saws - circular, jig and reciprocating - for most of our cutting. Yet handsaws continue to play an important role, often finishing cuts started by power saws. A handsaw is the tool of choice if you're working in a confined area or if you want a precise cut. And for times when you don't want to drag out a power saw and cord for just a few cuts, handsaws are simply more convenient.

One word right off the bat - unless you're using a sharp handsaw, forget it. Few things are more frustrating or tiring than using a dull handsaw.


Manufacturers list their saws by "points" or "teeth per inch." Generally, the fewer teeth per inch, the faster the saw will cut and the rougher the cut will be. The teeth on woodworking saws also have "set," referring to the slight outward bend of the teeth. Set produces a cut wider than the blade so the blade doesn't stick and bind as it cuts.

If you do any woodworking, you should have these four saws: 1. An "all-purpose" saw, $10 to $20, for making or finishing straight cuts (opening photo). This saw is a compromise between two specialized saws - "rip saws," which excel at rapidly cutting boards to width (cutting with the grain) and cross cut saws," which excel at cleanly cutting boards to length (working across the grain). The "all-purpose saw" rips slower than a rip saw and leaves a more ragged cut than a cross cut saw, but it suffices for most general uses. Some of the new quick-cutting handsaws on the market cut on both the push and pull stroke to speed cutting. If you do a lot of precision hand sawing, purchase separate rip and cross cut saws. 2. A coping saw, around $8, for cutting curves and moldings (Photo 1). Make certain the teeth in the saw face the handle; otherwise the frame of the saw will flex on the push stroke. 3. A back saw, about $10, for precision cuts (Photo 2) or for use in a miter box. They're ideal for cutting moldings or model-making. 4. A keyhole saw, around $7, for cutting openings (Photo 3) and working in confined areas. The blade can be reversed for close-in cutting, when the handle might get in the way.

There's a host of other specialty handsaws - drywall, pruning and hacksaws. Buy them as you need them - they rapidly pay for themselves in time and arm muscle saved. Japanese saws (Photo 4) are lightweight and easy to control because they cut on the pull stroke - features my woodworking son and I both love.


A handsaw is like a car - anyone can operate one; the trick is to operate one safely and efficiently. Follow these steps when using a cross cut or all - purpose handsaw: * Firmly secure short pieces of lumber to a workbench with a vise or clamp. Longer boards can be held across saw-horses by kneeling on them with one knee. A knee-high sawhorse puts your shoulder and arm in the best position to cut straight and square (Photo 6). * Grasp the saw with a handshake grip. Hold the saw so the blade and your arm are square to the board. * Always cut to the waste side of your line; that is, into the scrap piece rather than into the piece you'll be using. * Start the cut by taking two or three short backstrokes with the butt end of the saw blade held at a low angle. You can use a block of wood as a starting guide (Photo 5). When you've cut about 1/4 in. deep, raise the angle of the saw to about 45 degrees (60 degrees for ripping) and go at it.

The first few inches of the cut must be straight and square; this sets the course for the rest of the cut. A sharp saw should cut on its own with most of the cutting done on the push stroke. Use the full length of the saw so all the teeth are used, not just the middle ones. Move your arm in a nice, even rhythm. As you near the end of the cut, grip the waste piece with one hand to prevent the last, little section from cracking off.

If you wander off your line, slightly twist the saw back toward the mark as you saw. Don't overdo this; you can bind the saw.


First of all, make certain your saws are sharp. Unless you are a true sharpening fanatic (with a lot of time to spare) take them to a pro who can machine sharpen them for around $5 each look in the yellow pages under "Sharpening").

Here are a few tips to keep your saws in tiptop shape: * Protect the teeth with a sheath or blade guard (most saws come with one). * Wipe saws with a light coat of oil to fend off rust and help them cut easier. * Avoid cutting painted wood - paint dulls the blade very quickly and conceals buried nails. I keep a "beater" saw around for such tasks or for working near concrete and metal. * Most large home centers stock wooden replacement handles for saws.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:tips and usage technique
Author:Carlsen, Spike
Publication:The Family Handyman
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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