Woodworking Hand Tool Buying Guide #4:

Handsaws (Part 4/13)

By Joshua Farnsworth

Introduction to Buying Handsaws

In this saw buying guide article I’m going to talk about the 5 hand saws that you’ll need to get started in traditional woodworking: dovetail saw, carcass saw, tenon saw, rip hand saw, & cross cut hand saw. I’ll also discuss other urgent, semi-urgent, and non urgent handsaws for you to consider.

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First off, let it be known that I’ve grown to love traditional hand saws. I also love the satisfaction I get from restoring a neglected antique handsaw.

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

Best Brands of Hand Saws

The great thing is that you can find great antique hand saws for as low as $5. But before I discuss the urgent, semi-urgent, and non-urgent hand saws that you need, let’s talk about handsaw brand names / manufacturers (this will apply to all the types of hand saws below).

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Aside from modern heirloom saws (like Lie-Nielsen & other high-end custom saw makers) I would stay away from any hand saws manufactured after World War II. Yes, this is the same advice that I gave with hand planes. Tool quality really declined after WWII. What brands should you look for? There were a lot of hand saw makers, because saws are easier to manufacture than hand planes. Here are some of the old and new quality saw makers (in alphabetical order)…the links lead to eBay & other searches for those brands of saws so you can compare different models (rarer saws not always available on ebay):

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Sound overwhelming? Then just start off focusing on Disston hand saws. The Disston saws are the easiest to find, and most are of exceptional quality…especially the below common models. Remember to buy pre 1940’s era tools. Here’s some ebay searches. Click “sold” to see what they’re selling before and to see which saws are desirable:

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The Disstonian Institute is a fantastic free resource (compiled by Erik von Sneidern) for identifying Disston saw models, their years, and quality level. I’ve literally spent hours on the Disstonian Institute website. Just don’t email Erik asking him to value your saw.

Another great resource is this saw sharpening tutorial.

If you want to learn about finding the proper saw models to fit your hands and height, this DVD is a great tutorial on the subject.

Also, in this fun Woodwright’s Shop episode, Roy Underhill really simplifies handsaws:

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1. Urgent Hand Saws (Buy these first)

Now let’s get started with the 5 first saws you should buy, and some other saws that you should start out with:

Buy a Rip-toothed Hand Saw

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Hand saws are used for rough cutting a board to an approximate size. Rip hand saws, in particular, rip down the length of the grain (“ripping”). Look for a rip saw between 4-7 ppi (points per inch / teeth per inch).  The ppi will usually be marked on the blade (can you see the number 5 on the above saw blade?). A 4 ppi rip saw will remove more, but may be more difficult to cut.

Shorter hand saws (around 20″ long) are officially called “panel saws” because they can fit in the panel of a large tool chest, and they are more suited for fine furniture making. Most hand saws run from 24″ to 30″ long. Try out different sizes to see what length you’re comfortable with.

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If you can only afford one hand saw, then get a rip saw. A rip saw can indeed make cross cuts (cutting the board to length) though it will require more cleaning up than if you purchase a cross cut hand saw (read more below). I have several rip hand saws from different saw makers, but mostly Disston. Rip saws are simple to sharpen and refurbish. This diagram will help you understand the shape & angles of rip teeth:

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Buy a Cross Cut-toothed Hand Saw

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Cross cut hand saws are used for rough cutting a board to a rough length, across the grain. Their teeth are shaped like knives so they can cut across the wood fibers:

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Cross-cut saw teeth are more difficult to sharpen than rip saw teeth, but very possible (I enjoy it actually). Look for cross cut hand saws with 7-9 ppi (points per inch). PPI (points per inch) can sometimes assist in identifying a hand saw as a rip or cross-cut (often rip saws have fewer ppi), but the shape of the tooth is the best identifier.

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Buy a Rip-toothed “Dovetail” Backsaw

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“Backsaws” are specifically designed for fine joinery work (they have a rigid steel or brass back to keep the blade stiff). Dovetail saws are the smallest backsaws (typically 8-10″) and are configured with fine rip-filed teeth (15-20 ppi) for cutting along the grain (think dovetails). Thinner blades (0.02″ ish) are preferred and I like the pistol grip handle because of my big hands (see above).

I went through several vintage and new dovetail saws until I finally decided upon Lie-Nielsen’s dovetail saw. Let me tell you about how I arrived at this dovetail saw. I originally purchased a couple vintage Disston dovetail saws, like this No. 2 Disston brass back dovetail saw:

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

…and this Disston No. 2 “Manual Training School” dovetail saw:

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They both are super nice, but neither cut quite as well as the “progressive pitch” Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw that I’d tried at one of my traditional woodworking classes. The Lie-Nielsen had the perfect thickness and such a comfortable pistol grip. I finally realized that I had spent more money on two dovetail saws that didn’t quite satisfy me than I had on a perfect new Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw ($125). So I ordered this dovetail saw from Lie-Nielsen, and love it! Almost more than any other tool, because I use it so much.

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I actually ordered the “progressive pitch” version. The teeth at the front of the saw are slightly smaller than the rest of the saw. The smaller teeth make it easier to “break the arris (edge) of the wood.” But I don’t think Lie-Nielsen offers the progressive pitch anymore. But that’s not a big deal.

So just make the decision: either spend $125 (pretty affordable) for a sharp and sexy new dovetail saw or spend $50-$200 on a vintage dovetail saw. I typically advocate buying the vintage tool, but in the case of back saws I prefer new Lie-Nielsen saws. I don’t currently see the progressive pitch saws on Lie-Nielsen’s website, but you can always call them and ask them for one…or the normal dovetail saw will work great (not the thin plate saw).

If you’re really on a tight budget then you can always buy a vintage dovetail backsaw (they really are good if you spend time tuning them) or even a very inexpensive “gents” dovetail saw to start out with, like this one (I bought two for my sons for around $20), but make sure that you really tune it up.

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

Here’s a great video tutorial by Chris Gochnour (Fine Woodworking magazine) on tuning up an inexpensive gents dovetail saw.

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Buy a Cross Cut-toothed “Carcass” Backsaw

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Traditionally, the frames of furniture casework were called a “carcass”, so the common crosscut backsaw (used a lot for mortise & tenon joints) was called a “carcass saw”. A Carcass back saw can be configured to rip or cross-cut, but most joiners find cross-cut most useful for precise cross-grain cuts (like tenon shoulders and dados). Vintage carcass saws are rarely listed as “carcass”. A lot of uninformed people list them as “dovetail saws” or “tenon saws”. But at around 11-14″, they’re obviously not dovetail saws or tenon saws. So keep that in mind when searching around for one. Carcass saws will have around 12-14 ppi.

Read the above section on “buying a dovetail saw” to see why I chose to invest in new Lie-Nielsen back saws. So after a lot of research I decided to also purchase their 14 ppi cross cut back saw (see it here) for cutting joinery across the wood grain (e.g. cutting tenon cheeks).

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I love this cross-cut saw like I love bacon…i.e. I’ll never give it up. Look at the curly maple handles…actually, they kind of look like bacon..mmmm….

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I also own a couple Disston carcass saws, like this Disston No. 4 backsaw:

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

It really is a great backsaw, but requires a lot of tuning up to get it cutting perfectly.

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If you decide that you’d prefer to buy a vintage/antique carcass backsaw, make sure to inspect the blade for kinks.

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You can often smack the back of the steel/brass back on a piece of wood and it will straighten out, but not always. Also check the handles for broken pieces.

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Buy a Rip-toothed “Tenon” backsaw

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Next to miter saws, tenon saws are the largest backsaws. And they’re used for ripping down the grain, predominantly on tenon cheeks. On eBay and in flea markets you’ll see people trying to pass carcass saws off as tenon saws, which is incorrect. Tenon saws are much larger (22-ish inches long with a 16-ish inch long blade x 4-ish inches tall) with 10-12 ppi.

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After talking to some friends I decided to purchase Lie-Nielsen’s Tenon Rip Saw (16″ long blade version) for around $150. You can find it here. I chose the “thin plate” version ( .020″ thick) for easier sawing. It was much cheaper than trying to find a descent vintage tenon saw…believe me, I tried.

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But if you really want an antique tenon saw, then check with some tool dealers or on eBay (just remember to find a true tenon saw or you won’t get very deep into your tenons):

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Buy a Miter box saw w/ Miter Box

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

I use my miter box and saw more than any other saw. Why? Because I can set the angle and make very precise cuts across the grain. And I can repeat the same length cut over and over again for multiple pieces. The accuracy and cleanliness is even better than with the power miter saw (a.k.a. “chop saw”). Using a miter box saw saves you from having to spend a lot of time truing up the edges with planes or chisels.

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Most of the antique Disston, Stanley, or Millers Falls miter saws will work just fine, if sharpened properly (stay away from saws manufactured after the 1940’s). But most antique miter boxes will be paired with a saw, so just find a descent miter box and the saw will likely be good enough.

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There are different types of miter boxes to consider. I would avoid the type of miter box that uses your precious back saws (like the Stanley No. 150). When I tried one, it injured the blade of my back saw. If you stick with the antique Millers Falls miter boxes or Stanley miter boxes, you should be happy.

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I own a Millers Falls 75 miter box (gift from a friend), a Millers Falls 74 C (Craigslist for $20), and some other Millers Falls (can’t read the model). I’ve also successfully used a Stanley 2358. Just check the parts to make sure they function properly.

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For example, make sure you can lock the box at any angle and make sure no screws are missing from the guide posts (arms that bob up and down).

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Try to find your miter box saw locally, like on Craigslist, if you can. I’ve paid $15-$25 for local saws. Having them shipped to you is definately an option but the shipping can raise the price substantially. If you can’t find any locally, then check some of these saws out:

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Buy a 12″ or 14″ Bow Saw

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Bow saws are like the big brother to the coping saw (cuts curves), and a good traditional alternative to a power band saw.

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I like a smaller, more maneuverable  blade on my 12″ bow saw. You can get a bigger blade for a bigger bow saw.

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So how do you use a bow saw? You simply tension the top string by twisting the stick, and it makes the saw tight and rigid. Hold onto the handle and turn the saw where you want to go…just like driving a car. Just make sure you un-tention the string when you’re finished.

I purchased a beautiful 12″ maple & walnut bow saw for around $60 from a gentleman named Chris Yonker (CME Handyworks).  He mostly sells his beautiful saws and foot powered treadle lathes on his eBay store. Click here to find his store. I feel like his saws are an incredible value and very affordable for the quality.

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Buy a Coping Saw

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

I use a coping saw all the time, especially for cutting out the waste in dovetail joints. But because it’s not a precision tool, I’m not yet sold on spending $100+ on one, like some of my friends have (like this one). In fact, I haven’t spent $75, $50, or even $25. I spent only $19 on a coping saw. Is it amazing? No. But I haven’t tried any other amazing coping saw. Maybe the $100 coping saw works better…maybe I’ll try it one day. Like with any coping saw, just make sure you have plenty of replacement blades on hand. I bought these compatible coping saw blades. But I may just eat crow one day and see the value in an expensive coping saw…but not today.

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BTW, coping saws like this are great starter saws for kids, as it’s harder for them to seriously insure themselves…but I’m not liable :)

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2. Semi-Urgent Hand Saws (Buy these next)

This list of semi-urgent hand saws reflects my experience getting started out. You may encounter the need for some of these early on, depending on the projects you want to build.

 

Buy a 18″ or 20″ Bow saw

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

Read my section above on 12″ bow saws to learn more about bow saws and to see who I bought my bow saw from. You can find his 18″ or 20″ box saws here:

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Buy a compass saw

© Joshua T. Farnsworth

I wound up with a free compass saw awhile ago and wasn’t sure when I’d use it. But I recently took a hand plane making class, and actually used the compass saw for trimming inside the bed! I wouldn’t recommend buying one until you need one however. Besides, they’re not really collector’s tools. But if you see one for a couple dollars at a flea market, you may as well pick one up! In case you do need one now, you can check some vintage compass saws out:

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3. Non-Urgent Hand Saws (Buy as needed)

Below is a list of some non-urgent specialty hand saws…you may find that you eventually need them, but you also may not. You definitely don’t need them for getting started in traditional woodworking.

Check out my Pinterest board with beautiful Hand Saws:

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Next I’ll cover buying Chisels…

NEXT >>>

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