Row of antique back saws with price tags at a Midwest tool collector's meeting

Introduction to Buying Hand Saws

By Joshua Farnsworth

At first glance hand saws seem to be simple tools. Heck, they look like they’re just a piece of flexible steel with sharpened teeth and a handle. But most woodworkers who are new to hand tools quickly get confused when trying to understand which hand saws they need, and what all the confusing terminology means. Words like “fleam”, “rake”, “tooth count”, “nib”, and “saw taper” are enough to make someone’s head spin. But hand saws are indispensable for traditional furniture making, so it’s important to understand the different types of hand saws and how to use them. In this article I’ll attempt to simplify everything for you, and help you understand which hand saws you absolutely need to get started, which ones can wait until later, and which ones you probably won’t ever need.

Woodworking Hand Saw Characteristics

 steel back backsaw with price tag

Before jumping into the hand saw buyer’s guide, there are four hand saw characteristics that are important to understand, which I’ll cover below: (1) Hand Saw Type, (2) Hand Saw Tooth Shape, (3) Hand Saw Tooth Count, and (4) Parts of Hand Saws.

1. HAND SAW TYPES

In my mind I divide the most common traditional woodworking hand saws into three general categories: “Panel Saws”, “Back Saws”, and “Frame Saws”. Below is a brief introduction to each of the three types of hand saws:

PANEL SAWS

Henry Disston & Sons No. 16 Crosscut Panel Hand Saw Cutting a poplar board in a woodworking workbench vise

“Panel Saws” are hand saws that have a handle and thin flexible metal saw plate with no rigid back or frame. Panel saws have larger teeth and are generally used for quickly rough-cutting boards to length or width. These hand saws were manufactured in very large quantities and are easy to find and usually inexpensive. For clarification, this type of saw is actually just called a “hand saw”, and a “panel saw” is a hand saw that’s short enough to fit into the top lid panel of a tool chest. But to help avoid confusion with the overall category name, I often just call all of these saws “panel saws”.

BACK SAWS

Lie-Nielsen dovetail brass back saw handle

Back saws have fine teeth and thin metal saw plates, and are used for making precision wood cuts. They have rigid brass or steel backs to keep the saw plate from bending, which provides rigidity for accurate cuts of wood joints. The smaller the saw teeth, the finer the cut. Historically, back saws were used primarily by joiners and cabinetmakers, and are typically more expensive than normal hand saws.

 

FRAME SAWS

Mini Howarth Bowsaw Hand Saw sitting against a blue tool chest on a woodworking workbench

Frame 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 (similar to a power bandsaw) and can also be used for rough cutting boards and logs 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

Hand saw 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 also a hybrid hand saw tooth configuration that is in between a Rip and Cross-cut shape, called a “Sash” tooth configuration, which is useful if you can only afford one hand saw…but it’s not as proficient at either ripping or cross-cutting). Here are some tooth shape illustrations:

RIP SAW TEETH

hand saw rip teeth close-up detail

CROSS-CUT SAW TEETH

hand saw cross-cut teeth close-up detail

Hand saws with “Rip” teeth will cut along the length of the board with the grain. This is referred to as “ripping” a board. Each tooth is shaped like a woodworking chisel, filed straight across. So the teeth push through the wood like a chisel.

Hand saws with “Cross Cut” teeth cut across the grain. This is referred to as “cross cutting” a board. Each tooth is filed with two angles, to make it shaped like a knife blade, so the teeth can cleanly sever the wood grain, just as if you used a knife.

*TIP: A rip saw can be used to cross-cut a board, and a cross-cut saw can be used to rip a board, but this isn’t an ideal situation if a clean cut is required. This becomes less of a concern when using very small saw teeth, like with backsaws.

3. HAND SAW TOOTH COUNT

Hand Saw tooth count number eight (8) stamped into steel hand saw plate

The number of saw teeth per inch (or “points per inch”) is another important factor in selecting a hand saw for a particular purpose. Large hand saw teeth will cut quickly through the wood, but will leave a rough surface. Small hand saw 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 back saws, 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. PPI is determined by counting from one point to another, and TPI is determined by counting full teeth. PPI is a more common method for tooth count. Also, you can change the tooth count during your sharpening. Here are examples of large (rough) and small (fine) hand saw teeth:

Lie-Nielsen brass back dovetail back saw with rip teeth

This photo shows a dovetail back saw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 15 ppi.

Rip hand saw cutting down the grain of a piece of Southern Yellow Pine lumber

This photo shows a hand saw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 5 ppi.

4. PARTS OF A HAND SAW

Parts of a hand saw diagram showing antique disston hand saw

In the above diagram you will see the different parts of a traditional hand saw. Below you will see the parts of a traditional back saw. The obvious main difference between the two saw types is the saw’s stiff metal back:

Parts of a hand saw diagram showing antique disston back saw

What are the Best Hand Saw Brands?

I’m often asked, “what is the best hand saw brand?” Well, it’s hard to narrow down all the many vintage and modern saws to one best hand saw maker, but below I do share a list of old and new saw makers that made and make quality hand saws. The great news is that you can find fantastic old hand saws for as low as $5. And you can also spend several hundred dollars on a new or collectable vintage hand saw. And the purpose of this guide is to help you understand how to find the best handsaws for your hard earned money.

Henry Disston & Sons No. 16 Crosscut Panel Hand Saw Before and After restoration

Aside from some certain quality modern saws, I would stay away from most cheap hand saws manufactured after World War II, especially if they are found at a hardware store. Yes, this is the same advice that I gave with hand planes. Tool quality really declined after WWII. Many cheap modern hand saws now have impulse hardened teeth, which are not possible to resharpen, thus making them disposable hand saws.

What brands of hand saws should you look for? Historically there were a lot of hand saw makers, because saws were easier to manufacture than hand planes. Here are some of the old and new quality saw makers (in alphabetical order). The blue links lead to eBay and other searches for those hand saw brands so you can compare different models.

***Note: some of the antique brands are not always available on Ebay, so keep checking back if you don’t see them in the search results.

***Note: the saws that are labeled as “desirable” refers to the demand for the saw, not necessarily the quality.

Sound overwhelming? Then just start off focusing on buying antique Disston saws. The Disston saws were manufactured by the millions and are the easiest to find, and most are of exceptional quality, especially the common models (see below). Remember to buy pre 1940’s era vintage hand saws. Here are some Ebay searches for wood saws. To ensure that you don’t over-pay, when you’re on Ebay click “sold” to see what they’ve been selling for, and to see which saw models are most desirable. It’s fun research:

Henry Disston D-8 steel hand saw plate etching with keystone logo

The Disstonian Institute is a fantastic free resource (compiled by Erik von Sneidern) for identifying Disston saw types, or 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.

Refurbish and Sharpen Your Hand Saws

Henry Disston hand saw brass medallion restoration before and after

I use a lot of new hand saws, but I get really excited about antique hand saws. Finding and restoring antique hand saws can be extremely satisfying, affordable, and fairly simple when compared to other woodworking hand tools (like hand planes). I love the satisfaction I get from restoring neglected antique saws. Knowing that I am preserving and caring for some craftsman’s special tool makes me happy.

Here are two helpful articles & videos on my website to help you with rehabbing and sharpening hand saws:

Make Your Own Hand Saws

Another pastime that is growing in popularity is making your own hand saw. Hand saw parts and templates are readily available for anyone who wants to learn this historical skill, and create the best custom fitting hand saws. If you’d like to make your own hand saws, Tom Calisto, a hand saw making expert out of North Carolina, is one of the best teachers. He was featured here on The Woodwright’s Shop TV show:

Closeup of tom calisto hand saw and back saw maker woodwright's shop video

Tom currently teaches classes on building different types of wood saws at my woodworking school. He teaches one class on making an 18th century panel saw and another on making backsaws, where students can make a dovetail saw and a tenon saw of their own (see his classes here).

Tom Calisto Traditional Hand Saw Maker in Wood And Shop Workshop

Tom and I also released a DVD & Digital Video on building an 18th Century Panel Saw, based on one found in the well-known antique Benjamin Seaton Tool Chest.

The hand saw building DVD was filmed to help even beginners build this lovely hand saw with very detailed step-by-step instructions and tutorials on how to use all the woodworking hand tools required for hand saw making. You can buy the panel saw video here.

18th Century Panel Hand Saw and tools on woodworking workbench

1. Buying Panel Saws

Antique Disston hand saw with price tag

As I mentioned earlier, I primarily use panel saws for rough cutting a board to an approximate dimension. And it’s technically possible to use just one panel saw for both rip cuts and crosscuts, but I recommend finding a dedicated rip panel saw and a dedicated crosscut panel saw so you can work efficiently and get cleaner cuts. If you look carefully you can buy two quality panel saws for a very low price. See some of the quality brands listed earlier in this article.

Row of antique panel saws made by Disston

I own a couple dozen vintage panel saws, most of which I purchased for under $15 each (or was given for free). The price difference between a quality vintage panel saw and a quality new panel saw can be upwards of several hundred dollars. For this reason I only own vintage panel saws and panel saws that I’ve made myself. So I haven’t spent much time trying out new panel saws, nor have I recommended any yet. So this section will focus on vintage panel saws, until I try out more quality modern brands. If rehabbing & sharpening handsaws isn’t your thing, then looking at some new quality panel saws may be the way to go for you. I’ll test some of those saws in the future and will update this article. Alright, let’s jump into what you should look for when buying your two panel saws.

Buy a Rip-toothed Panel Saw

Henry Disston & Sons No. D-8 Hand Saw with thumb hole handle and brass medallions

Rip panel saws make rip cuts along the length of the grain (“ripping”). Look for a rip panel saw between 4-7 ppi (“points per inch”). The ppi will usually be marked on the saw plate (can you see the number 5 on the above saw plate?). If not, you can use a ruler to see how many points you get in a one inch span. A 4 ppi rip hand saw will remove more wood, but may be more difficult to cut with.

Shorter hand saws (around 20-inches long) are officially called “panel saws” because they can fit in the panel of a large tool chest. But as I mentioned earlier I call all of these types of hand saws “panel saws” to avoid confusion among my students. You can call them “hand saws” or “panel saws”. The smaller panel saws usually have finer teeth and are more suited for finer cuts. Most normal panel saws run from 24-inches to 30-inches long. Try out different sizes to see which length you’re comfortable cutting with.

Henry Disston & Sons No. D-8 Hand Saw with thumb hole handle

If you can initially afford to buy only one panel saw, then get a rip saw first. As I mentioned earlier, a rip panel saw can indeed make cross cuts, though it will be a bit messy. But it’s much more difficult to rip a long board with a cross-cut saw. It’ll take a very long time. Rip saws are also easier to learn to sharpen than crosscut saws, because you only have to file straight across the teeth, rather than at an angle. I own a good number of rip panel saws from different saw makers, but mostly Disston saws. They were the largest handsaw manufacturer. I’ve sharpened these rip saws in different ways for different jobs. But that’s a more complex topic that you can read about in my article on sharpening (read it here).

Some of the most desirable models of Disston saws are the Disston #16 hand sawDisston #D-8 hand saw (with thumb holes is popular and useful), Disston #12 hand saw, among others. These pre-WWII models have excellent steel and nicely shaped handles.

Blue Hand Saw Till and Hand Planer Tool Cabinet with hand planes hanging from the bottom