Hand Sawing

Handsawing is a lost art, but a valuable one. You can find people who know how to saw to get pointers from. However, unless they can also teach sawing, it can be difficult to learn. Often you don't know anyone who can saw, much less teach it, and you are on your own. I've recorded some of the things I noticed in improving my handsaw skills. Perhaps I'll teach handtool use some day, along with flight instructing and computing and steam plant design! :)


There are two major groupings of handsaws. Those that cut on the push stroke, western or European saws form one group. Saws which cut on the pull stroke, eastern or Japanese design saws are the other.

Each design has advantages and quirks. Both cut wood well. I found the initial ease of use of the Japanese saws rejuvenated my interest in hand-sawing with either kind of saw.

The pull-cut saws are thinner; they are in tension and don't have to resist bending when cutting. The thinner blade allows for a thinner kerf, and less set on the blade.. which can make sawing easier. My Japanese saws often leave surfaces that are smooth to the touch, as if they were cut by a machine. The saws are typically sharp out of the box, ready to use.

I find western style saws are easier to use when you are trying to get a lot of work done. You can put the weight of your body behind them. They don't leave the majority of the sawdust on your cutting line. The western style saw relies less on grip strength, which is a factor as you become tired. With a backsaw I find that the parallel construction, the back of the saw is parallel to the teeth of the saw, allows for easier judgement of level or square cuts.

One of the most important thing about a saw is to get a good quality saw. Your saw should be sharp and well built. It does not have to be expensive. However, cheap quality hand tools can literally cause you to quit trying to use them. The tool appears simple, but is actually a finely engineered device. The blade and the metal used in it, and even the handle shape influence the saw and how you use it.

Due to the prevalence of power tools, few quality manufacturers of handtools remain. All too often knowledge of how to design and make quality handsaws has become rare and even lost. You can buy quality used western saws from the earlier part of the 20th century which are better than any built today. Often all they need is sharpening. You can buy a good Japanese saw brand-new for $20, and one hand-made by a master craftsman for $300.


A good grip is essential to using a handsaw correctly. Most likely when you start you will grip the saw too tightly, causing poor results. Don't worry about it too much, your grip will improve with experience. While getting that experience, here are some hints; you'll probably find your grip improving by accident.

Don't wrap your fist around the grip. Your index finger should be pointed forward along the saw blade. This helps you point the saw naturally. With western saws, your finger is laid on the side of the handle or of the saw. Your thumb presses against the other side of the saw handle, it doesn't make a fist in the saw grip. For the eastern saw, I started with something similar, but I found something better .. more details below.

[XXXX write about it now, add it later when editing]
Overhand grip, index finger pointing along the back of the saw.
Thumb dropped down on one side, fingers cradling the saw on
the other side.
The saw handle runs underneath your arm and parallel to it
This is similar to a sword grip or a fencing grip,
not so much a conventional saw grip.
It is almost as if the saw is part of your arm.

Arm Motion

You want to find a stance that lets the saw
move back and forth in a line.
Not side to side
Your arm should swing from the shoulder, elbow contracting
and releasing as the saw moves back and forth.
If the saw saws back and forth sideways, your cut
will not be straight and true.
Angle of arm
Height of bench
Angle of saw
Pencil Line versus pen line & pencil line at first
Body height
saw bench height
saw horses versus paint horses
saw bench

grip pushes saw straight through, no wobble againjst palm
grip pulls saw, agin no wobble

bench height


vertical drop

sighting and parallax

holding wood
break saw holding /use into east and west, too mixed up otw.
feet closer to work, not stooped over

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Last Modified: Tue Mar 20 21:38:12 CDT 2007
Bolo (Josef Burger) <bolo@cs.wisc.edu>