INTRODUCTION TO BUYING HANDSAWS
By Joshua Farnsworth
Finding and restoring antique handsaws can be extremely enjoyable, affordable, and fairly simple when compared to other tools (like handplanes). I love the satisfaction I get from restoring a neglected antique handsaw. 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. Before jumping into the hand saw buyer’s guide, there are 3 handsaw characteristics that are important to understand: (1) Handsaw Type, (2) Saw Tooth Shape, and (3) Saw Tooth Count. I’ll briefly summarize these characteristics:
1. HAND SAW TYPES
In my mind I divide traditional woodworking hand saws into three general categories: “Hand Saws”, “Back Saws”, and “Frame Saws”. Below I summarise each of these three saw types:
Sometimes called “Panel Saws”, these saws have a handle and thin flexible metal saw plate with no rigid back or frame. They have larger teeth and are mostly used for quickly rough-cutting boards to length or width. These saws were manufactured in very large quantities and are easy to find and quite often inexpensive.
Backsaws have fine teeth and thin metal saw plates, and are used for making precision cuts. They have rigid backs to keep the saw plate from bending, which provides rigidity for accurate cuts of wood joints. The smaller the teeth, the finer the cut. Backsaws were more specialized to joiners and cabinetmakers, and are more expensive than normal handsaws.
Frame 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 (similar to 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.
2. HAND SAW TOOTH SHAPE
Handsaw blades are usually sharpened to two different tooth configurations, “Rip” and “Cross Cut”. You can change any saw’s tooth shape with saw sharpening tools. (There is a hybrid tooth configuration that’s in between a Rip and Cross Cut shape, called “Sash”, which is useful if you can only afford one handsaw…but it’s not as proficient at either ripping or cross-cutting). Here are some tooth shape diagrams:
Handsaws with “Rip” teeth will rip down the length of the board’s grain (“ripping”). The tooth is shaped just like a chisel, and pushes through the wood like a chisel.
Handsaws with “Cross Cut” teeth cut across the grain (“cross cutting”). The tooth is shaped just like a knife. It cleanly severs the wood grain, just as if you used a knife.
3. HAND SAW TOOTH COUNT
The number of teeth per inch (or points per inch) is another important factor in selecting a handsaw for a particular purpose. Large teeth will cut quickly through the wood, but will leave a rough surface. Small teeth will cut finely and accurately, but are not practical for cutting long lengths or widths. When dealing with normal hand saws or frame saws, “Rip” teeth are typically larger than “Cross Cut” teeth. In backsaws, rip and cross-cut teeth can vary in size. The number of teeth per inch are usually expressed as “points per inch” (ppi) or “teeth per inch” (tpi) and the number is usually stamped into the saw plate. However, you can change the tooth count during your sharpening. Here are examples of large (rough) and small (fine) saw teeth:
This photo shows a dovetail backsaw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 15 ppi.
This photo shows a handsaw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 5 ppi.
What are the 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).
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):
- A.F. Shotwell (really desirable)
- Adria (desirable – new saws)
- Atkins (E.C. Atkins & Co.)
- Belknap Blue Grass Colver (desirable)
- Colver Bros (desirable – Sheffield)
- Disston (Henry Disston & Sons – desirable)
- Drabble & Sanderson
- E.C. Atkins (desirable)
- E.C. Simmons Keen Kutter Fitchew
- G.H. Buck (somewhat desirable)
- George H. Bishop (desirable)
- Harvey W. Peace (desirable)
- Hoole Staniforth & Co (desirable – Sheffield)
- J. Cranstone (somewhat desirable)
- Jackson (somewhat desirable)
- James Howarth (somewhat desirable)
- Kaye & Sons (desirable – Hull)
- Kenyon (desirable)
- Lie-Nielsen (really desirable – new saws)
- Mathieson Moulson Bros Pax (desirable)
- Richard Groves & Sons (really desirable)
- Richardson (somewhat desirable)
- Richardson Brothers (really desirable)
- Sandvik (desirable)
- Simonds (desirable)
- Slack Sellars & Co (desirable – Sheffield)
- Smith (desirable)
- Sorby (somewhat desirable)
- Spear & Jackson (somewhat desirable)
- Taylor Brothers (desirable – Sheffield)
- Thomas Flinn (somewhat desirable)
- Thomas Tillotson & Co. (really desirable)
- Thomas Turner (really desirable)
- Tyzack Sons & Turner (desirable)
- Wenzloff & Sons (really desirable)
- Wheeler, Madden, & Clemson (desirable)
- Winchester (desirable)
- Woodrough & McParlin (desirable)
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:
- Disston Rip Dovetail Saws (8″-10″) No. 2 , No. 4, No. 5, etc.
- Disston No. 4 Rip Tenon Saws
- Disston No. 12 Cross Cut Carcass Saws (12″ blade…probably won’t say “carcass”)
- Disston No. 7 Hand Saws
- Disston No. 12 Hand Saws (very nice)
- Disston No. 16 Hand Saws (very nice)
- Disston D-8 Hand Saws (I love the optional thumb hole)
- Disston D100 Hand Saws
- Disston No. 112 Hand Saws
- Disston No. 7 Hand Saws
- This guy (woodnut4) beautifully repairs, sharpens, & sells amazing saws on ebay…very popular.
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 spent quite a few 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.
HAND SAW BUYER’S GUIDE
A. Urgent Hand Saws (Buy these First)
This is my list of handsaws that I feel would be the saws that you should buy to get started in traditional woodworking. Other woodworkers may have slightly different priorities and terminology, but this is from my perspective.
Buy a Rip-toothed Hand Saw
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.
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). Rip saws are simple to sharpen and refurbish. I have a good number of rip hand saws from different saw makers, but mostly Disston. If you find multiple saws for a good price, you can certainly sharpen and set them in different ways to make certain jobs easier.
Buy a Cross Cut-toothed Hand Saw
Cross cut hand saws are used for rough cutting a board to a rough length, across the grain. As mentioned above, their teeth are shaped like knives so they can cut across the wood fibers.
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.
Buy a Rip-toothed “Dovetail” Backsaw
“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:
…and this Disston No. 2 “Manual Training School” dovetail saw:
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.
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.
Here’s a great video tutorial by Chris Gochnour (Fine Woodworking magazine) on tuning up an inexpensive gents dovetail saw.