INTRODUCTION TO BUYING HAND SAWS
By Joshua Farnsworth
Finding and restoring antique hand saws can be extremely enjoyable, 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. In this wood hand saw buying guide article I’ll talk about different hand saw types and the five specific hand saws that you’ll need to buy to get started in traditional woodworking: dovetail saw, carcass saw, tenon saw, rip hand saw, and cross-cut hand saw. I’ll also discuss other urgent, semi-urgent, and non-urgent hand saws for you to consider. Before jumping into the hand saw buyer’s guide, there are 3 hand saw characteristics that are important to understand: (1) Hand Saw Type, (2) Saw Tooth Shape, and (3) Saw Tooth Count. I’ll briefly summarize these hand saw characteristics below:
1. HAND SAW TYPES
In my mind I divide most traditional woodworking hand saws into three general categories: “Hand Saws”, “Back Saws”, and “Frame Saws”. Below I summarise each of these three hand saw types:
Sometimes called “Panel Saws”, these hand saws have a handle and thin flexible metal saw plate with no rigid back or frame. Hand 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. The specific name of this saw type also happens to be the general name of all non-power saws: “hand saw”.
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 (or bow 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
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 diagrams:
RIP SAW TEETH
CROSS-CUT SAW TEETH
Hand saws with “Rip” teeth will cut along the length of the board’s grain (“ripping”). The tooth is shaped like a woodworking chisel, and pushes through the wood like a chisel.
Hand saws with “Cross Cut” teeth cut across the grain (“cross cutting”). The tooth is shaped like a knife blade. It cleanly severs the wood grain, just as if you used a knife.
3. HAND SAW TOOTH COUNT
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. However, you can change the tooth count during your sharpening. Here are examples of large (rough) and small (fine) hand saw teeth:
This photo shows a dovetail back saw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 15 ppi.
This photo shows a hand saw with rip teeth filed to a tooth count of about 5 ppi.
What are the Best Hand Saw Brands?
I’m often asked, “what is the best hand saw?” It’s hard to narrow down all the many brands to one best hand saw, but I will recommend some quality new and antique saw brands. The great thing is that you can find great old 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 new and antique hand saw 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 cheap 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? Historically 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 blue links lead to eBay and other searches for those hand saw brands so you can compare different models (some of the antique brands are not always available on eBay, so keep checking back):
- 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 saws. The Disston saws were manufactured by the millions and are the easiest to find, and most are of exceptional quality, especially the below common models. 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’re selling before and to see which saws are desirable. It’s fun research:
- 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 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.
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 by Ron Herman is a great tutorial on the subject.
If you’d like to make your own hand saws, Tom Calisto is one of the best teachers. He was featured here on The Woodwright’s Shop TV show:
Tom currently teaches classes on building different types of wood saws at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s School and will be teaching at my school (here) in the near future. Tom and I just finished filming a DVD 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.
Click here to be notified when I release this DVD and Digital Download Video.
HAND SAW BUYER’S GUIDE
A. Urgent Hand Saws (Buy these First)
This is my list of hand saws that I feel would be the first hand saws that you should buy to get started in using traditional woodworking hand tools. Other woodworkers may have slightly different priorities and terminology, but this is from my perspective.
Buy a Rip-toothed Hand Saw
Hand saws are mostly used for rough cutting a board to an approximate size. Rip hand saws, in particular, rip along the length of the grain (“ripping”). Look for a rip hand saw between 4-7 ppi (“points per inch”, or “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 hand saw will remove more wood, but may be more difficult to cut.
Shorter hand saws (around 20-inches 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 normal hand saws run from 24-inches to 30-inches long. Many people mistakenly call all saws of this type “panel saws”. But don’t be rude and correct them! Try out different sizes to see what length you’re comfortable with.
If you can only afford one initial 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 use a cross cut hand saw (read more below). But it is much more difficult to rip a long board with a cross-cut saw. Rip saws are simple to sharpen and refurbish. I have a good number of rip hand saws from different saw makers, but mostly Disston saws. If you find multiple old hand saws for a good price, you can certainly sharpen and set them in different ways to make certain jobs easier. Some of the desirable models of Disston saws are the Disston #16 hand saw, Disston #D-8 hand saw (with thumb holes is desireable), Disston #12 hand saw, among others.
Buy a Cross Cut Hand Saw
Cross-cut hand saws are used for cutting a board to a specified length, across the grain. As mentioned above, their teeth are shaped like knives so they can cut cleanly across the wood fibers.
Cross-cut saw teeth are more difficult to sharpen than rip saw teeth, but very possible (I enjoy doing it). Look for cross cut hand saws with 7-9 ppi (points per inch). If you can’t see the tooth shape up close the PPI number (points per inch) can sometimes assist in identifying a hand saw as a rip hand saw or cross-cut hand saw because rip saws usually have smaller teeth. But the shape of the tooth is the best identifier if you can inspect it in person.
Buy a Rip Dovetail Back Saw
“Back saws” are specifically designed for fine joinery work (they have a rigid steel or brass back to keep the blade stiff). Dovetail back saws are the smallest back saws (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).
When I was really getting into woodworking hand tools I went through several vintage and new dovetail saws until I finally decided upon Lie-Nielsen’s dovetail saw. I originally purchased a couple antique Disston dovetail back saws, like this No. 2 Disston brass back dovetail saw:
And this Disston No. 2 “Manual Training School” dovetail saw:
They both are both 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 dovetail back saw 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 have loved it for many years (even after buying many more dovetail saws)!
I actually ordered the “progressive pitch” version. The teeth at the front of the back saw are filed slightly smaller than the rest of the saw teeth. The smaller teeth make it easier to “break the arris (edge) of the wood.”
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 that will require sharpening and likely rust removal. I typically advocate buying antique woodworking hand tools, 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 to file one like that for you. But the normal dovetail saw will work great.
If you’re really on a tight budget then you can always buy a vintage dovetail back saw (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.