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

Introduction to Buying Hand Saws

By Joshua Farnsworth

Hand saws are used all the time in traditional woodworking. And with the emergence of marketplaces like Ebay and with the rise of a lot of quality hand saw makers, you can find excellent new and antique hand saws with greater ease than ever before.

Woodworking Hand Saw Characteristics

 steel back backsaw with price tag

In this wood hand saw buying guide article I’ll talk about different hand saw types and the five specific hand saws that would be helpful 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 several 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, and I’ve also included (4) Parts of a Hand Saw :

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 summarize each of these three hand saw types:

HAND SAWS

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

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

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 “bow 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 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

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’s grain (“ripping”). Each 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”). Each 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

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?” 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).

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

Aside from quality modern saws (like Lie-Nielsen, Florip ToolworksLee Valley / Veritas & other high-end custom saw makers) 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 are now impulsed hardened, which are not possible to resharpen, thus making them disposable hand saws. Yes, you can cut off an inch of metal and reshape the teeth, but this would take a lot of time & money, and require special machinery.

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 (some of the antique brands are not always available on Ebay, so keep checking back if you don’t see them):

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’re selling for, and to see which saws are 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 our 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 & Video Download 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

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

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

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”).  The ppi will usually be marked on the saw plate (can you see the number 5 on the above saw plate?). 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.

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

If you can only afford one initial hand saw of this style, 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 popular and useful), Disston #12 hand saw, among others.

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

 Buy a Cross Cut Hand Saw

Refurbished Disston 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 cross-cut saws usually have smaller teeth than rip saws. But the shape of the tooth is the best identifier if you can inspect it in person.

 Buy a Rip Dovetail Back Saw

Lie-Nielsen brass back dovetail back saw with progressive pitch rip teeth

“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 (11-20 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 have tried a good number of different models of antique and new dovetail saws, and own quite a few for my traditional woodworking school. While I’m sure that the very expensive dovetail saws (over $150) cut great, they’ve never been within my budget, so I’ll only be sharing recommendations on dovetail saws under that price point.

I own quite a few antique back saws, and they are all pretty great hand saws, like this No. 2 Disston brass back dovetail saw:

Disston number 2 brass back dovetail back saw

In fact, as long as the saw plate isn’t too thick (like the below Disston No. 2 “Manual Training School” dovetail saw that I bought years ago) most antique dovetail saws would be a safe bet, as long as they have a straight saw plate, aren’t missing any saw nuts, have an in-tact handle, and you don’t mind sharpening them. You can find links below to sources for good antique dovetail saws.

Disston #2 Manual Training School steel back saw with brass medallion

However, I have found that many of my students prefer to get cutting wood as soon as possible, and want to know what a super sharp dovetail saw feels like before spending time and money on rehabbing & sharpening antique hand saws. I can totally understand this, so I often share my recommendation on popular dovetail saw brands in the price range of $70 – $130. Here are a few of the popular dovetail saws within that price range:

Lie-Nielsen Dovetail Saw

Lie-Nielsen progressive pitch dovetail brass back saw

I own quite a few Lie-Nielsen back saws, including several modern Lie-Nielsen dovetail saws, and really like them. The saw plate is thin, the teeth are shaped and sharpened fantastically, the saw is handsome with it’s brass back & figured maple handle, and the handle has acceptable comfort. They cost about $125 plus shipping from Maine.

Veritas Dovetail Saw

veritas dovetail saw sitting in board in woodworking workbench vise

The other very popular dovetail saw is made by Lee Valley / Veritas. I get asked all the time for my opinion on the Veritas dovetail saws, since they are significantly less expensive . I have owned several of them, and did some extensive comparison between them and the Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw. You can read my article comparing these dovetail saws here: Which Affordable Dovetail Saw is Best? Lie-Nielsen vs. Veritas. 

While I like the price point (around $70 plus shipping), I find the handle wood to be pretty, and I applaud Lee Valley on coming up with original designs (Lie-Nielsen usually uses historical designs), I’m not a fan of their Veritas dovetail saw. I find the saw plate to be too thick, and the tooth shape and sharpness to be inferior to some other saw brands.

Digital caliper measuring thickness of veritas dovetail saw plate

This makes the sawing a little harder and the kerf and accuracy slightly inferior. And I’m not a huge fan of the look of the molded plastic saw back, which of course is a secondary consideration.

Florip Toolworks Dovetail Saws

Erik Florip Toolworks Woodworking dovetail saw

The last dovetail saw that I tested in my shop, and with many students in my woodworking school, is the dovetail saw made by Florip Toolworks. I discovered Eric Florip after I wrote the article comparing Lie-Nielsen and Veritas dovetail saws, and the Florip dovetail saws have become a fan of his saws, both for the quality and price point. The 9-inch Florip dovetail saws start at $99 plus shipping, have thin saw plates & great sharpening, and the handles are shaped in a similar way to the $200+ dovetail saws. The dovetail saw isn’t as aggressive or fast cutting as the Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw, but tends to cut a bit finer. Eric may have a longer lead time that Lie-Nielsen, which may be a factor for you if you want to get cutting wood ASAP. You can read my review on the Florip Dovetail saws here: Finally, the Best High-End and Affordable Dovetail Saw!

Gent Dovetail Saws

Gents dovetail brass back saw hand saw

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. I don’t prefer how a Gents saw feels in the hand, but you may be willing to overlook it. Also, some come with teeth that I find to be too small (18-20 ppi).

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

This hand saw buying guide continues on the next page….