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Types of Handsaws


Some Basic Types of Hand Saws used in Furniture Making

I'm not about to go into an in-depth study of all of the different types of hand saws - that *would* be a daunting task.  Besides, there are books already written - like Erv Schaffer's classic "Hand- Saw Makers of North America" or another great reference is to find reproductions of old catalogs of saw manufacturers.  I'm going to review some of the basic types of hand saws used in furniture building, staying away from those not commonly find in a cabinet shop.  I am also not addressing the needs of builders who work green wood - it's a different method than I trained with, so I'm not as familiar with the tool needs for that type of work.

First - an Explanation of TPI vs. PPI

That's Teeth Per Inch vs. Points Per Inch.  Just to get this cleared up - there isn't much difference between the two - but the number will always be one more for PPI than for TPI on the same saw.  TPI is basically measured gullet  to gullet, where PPI is measured from the tip of the point to the tip of the point:  

"But what about something like 6-1/2 PPI?  How is a half point measured?" you might ask...  My only answer would be "Yes... what about it?"  Looking into it too hard will just give you a headache.  I will try use PPI mostly here because that's what most hand saw manufacturer's used prior to the 50's (though most today use TPI - go figure).  However some of the tables are shown in TPI as that is what they originally were - in reality, the difference is pretty minor.  The difference between the two is somewhat more pronounced in coarser saws yet is almost imperceptible in finer-toothed saws.


Here's a factory stamp at a pretty standard location that indicates the factory PPI the saw was given at the factory - this one is 10 PPI, obviously. Frequent sharpening will remove this section of the blade...

Sidebar - What importance is teeth per inch?

While this is a seemingly simple subject, it has important ramifications. Recently, I was asked both why you would need more than one rip saw if you have one that is 6-8 PPI or so, and what the reason for having a fine-toothed (10+ PPI) handsaw was. I won't get into blade thicknesses or delve too much into rake angle here, but those are considerations as well.

First off, for a saw to work properly, it has to have a certain amount of teeth within the wood it is cutting. Too many, and the teeth fill up with sawdust and no longer cut effectively. Too few, and the saw gets too hard to push through, leaves too rough of a cut, and can tear out large chunks of wood with it. First - we'll look at having the right amount of teeth in the wood.

Rip Saws

First - what is the 1/2" bench chisel of rip saws - the 'universal' rip saw? After all, most of us have a band saw or a table saw, and uses them for this purpose, and don't *need* more than one hand saw for occasional use.  

I was taught was to choose a saw for ripping that has no less than 4 teeth for the thickness of the wood being cut, and no more than 8. For an example - an appropriate saw for a 1" thick board would be from 4 to 8 PPI. Subsequently, a 3/4" board would require a saw in the 6 to 10 PPI range, and a 1/2" board in the 8 to 12 PPI range. Right in the middle is an 8 point - which is a fair compromise if you were to only have one, and ripping isn't something you do everyday. 

Crosscut Saws

How about the universal crosscut saw? The same basic logic applies, but because cross grain is more prone to tear-out, instead of 4 to 8 teeth in the wood, the numbers should be 6 to 10. Crosscut saws are sharpened to cut differently to address the tear-out problem. Where rip saws act like a series of chisels chopping through the wood, crosscut saws act more like a series of knife cuts - the rake angle is increased to reflect this, so the teeth literally cut the grain as it goes along, where a rip saw's action is more analogous to chopping the wood as it proceeds through the cut. As a result, crosscut sawing is a little slower than rip sawing. 

So there it is - the 'universal' rip saw would be in the 6 to 8 point range, and the 'universal' crosscut saw would have 8 to 10 point per inch. This jives with the saws I've found in the wild - most of the saws I've found are in these ranges.

These numbers might seem a bit coarse to you - but remember, you don't saw the board straight across, you saw it holding the saw at a 45 to 60 degree angle to the plane of the board - making the number of teeth that are actually in the wood one and one-half times as many. So, a 4 PPI saw in 1" of wood actually ends up with between 5 and 7 teeth in the cut at a time.

The Best Saw for the Job

Why isn't having a 'universal' saw enough for most purposes? Well, it can be - but it's the same as having only two chisels, like say a 1/4" mortise and the universal 1/2" bench chisel. Sure, they will do the large majority of the tasks at hand, and you can even modify your project to fit the tools you have on hand - but it does limit you quite severely. What about projects that would work better with a 3/8" mortise?   Obviously, there are times when having a more diverse selection - different sizes, and special purpose chisels (paring, mortise, bench, butt, or slick) - can make the work much easier and give you better results.

How to determine the best saw for the job? Well, now that you've determined the range of PPI to use you might think "OK - I'll just grab the coarsest because it will cut the fastest".  That will be OK most of the time, but what about the finished edge? Are you going to clean the cut up with a block plane, chisel, or leave it raw? It  depends somewhat on the final use of the piece being cut. Cleaning up the saw cuts for rafters would seem a waste of time. The same can be said for tenon cheeks, where fit is the most important factor. But if you are doing trim work, appearance is more important, so there you might saw just short of the line and clean up the cut as described. So, to state the obvious - trim saws are always finer than saws used in framing because of these differences as you are usually working in thinner, drier woods, and prefer an edge that requires less clean up with a saw that's less prone to damaging the wood.

Which brings up the next point - it also matters which kind of wood you are cutting - is still softwood, hardwood, still green... Wet wood requires the coarsest saws, and softwood and construction lumber generally springs back more (which tends to cause finer saws with less set to bind more often), thus require a coarser saw than dry hardwoods, where using too coarse of a saw in dry hardwood might splinter the wood too much for you to be able to use it.

So - if you are using hand saws more often, it pays to have more than one configuration - as was the case "back in the day". Most carpenters/joiners had several saws they brought to work everyday, usually a couple of each - rip and crosscut - one each of finer and coarser for use on finer or rougher work, and then probably a 'universal' saw they had for general purpose work. Great granddad's case of saws contained 6 such handsaws he carried with him to each job site.

Rip vs. Crosscut

There are 2 essential differences between all of the saws I will list - they are all either filed crosscut, or they are filed rip.  They get their name because of their function - a crosscut saw is for cutting wood across (or perpendicular to) the grain, and rip saws are filed to cut more efficiently with (or parallel to) the grain of the wood.  There are different sizes, configurations, and purposes that saws are made for, and a basic understanding of these will help in your quest for learning the right saw for the job, and in how to sharpen and tune it.

In this diagram, you can see the basic difference in how the lumber sees a rip or crosscut saw.  The rip saw is often compared to a series of chisels that each hack away at the wood as it passes over it.  This works well when cutting with the grain, but not so well when cutting across it.  The "chisels" grab the end grain and instead of cutting it, and can lift it out resulting in "tear-out".  The crosscut  profile is filed at an angle to present a more knife-like edge and score the end grain as it cuts, reducing the chance of tear-out.  I'll get more into the technical differences between the two profiles in the sharpening section of this article.

Classic Hand Saws

How long is a saw?  Sounds like a silly question, doesn't it?   It isn't really.  Most standard hand saws have 26" long blades - those with shorter blades that still look like a classic hand saw are known as panel saws.  Why 26"?  That is a good average length for the stroke of an arm.  Longer than that and either the full length of the saw isn't going to get used, or you need more clearance underneath where you are sawing than your typical saw horse provided.  

Classic Rip Saws

This is the classic saw everyone thinks of when they think of hand saws.  A good example of a rip saw is the Disston D-8 thumbhole saw - here is one I recently rehabilitated:

Note the slight curve of the steel on the top of the saw.  This is what is known as a "skewback" saw.  Other saws have a small "nib" about 6" from the end of the saw on the top.  These elements are there purely for aesthetic reasons and while they may affect the value of  a saw to a collector, they have no real purpose to the actual user.

The top photo is one of the "nibs" I referred to, the second is a pretty standard etching found on the left side of most saws.  The etch often does not survive on old saws, so finding antiques saws with a readable etch can make old saws more collectable to some, raising their value.

The thumbhole in this saw gives you a way to grab the saw with your other hand - important because using a rip saw means you are going to get a workout.  Not all rip saws have a thumbhole, nor do you have to use your thumb just because it's called one.  I find that the first two fingers of my left hand are a perfect fit - but I change up after my arms tire out to other positions.

What rip saws you need to have:  Most rip saws I know of are fairly coarse saws with 8 or fewer teeth per inch.  I  have heard of a 3-1/2 PPI (Teeth Per Inch) rip saw, most likely used for timber framing.  For the furniture builder, a single rip saw with between 5 and 8 PPI will get the most use - which is usually short (< 3' or so) boards when talking about standard casework.  If you do a lot of ripping by hand, you might want two different rip saws - a coarser saw with fewer teeth and more set, and a somewhat finer saw with less set for smoother cuts in shorter material or in hardwood.

Classic Crosscut Saws

Other than how they are filed, it can be hard to tell a crosscut saw from a rip saw.  Most often they are the same model of saw (i.e. Disston's D-8) just filed differently.  I use these quite a bit, more so than a rip saw.  They are usually found ranging from 8 to 12 PPI, and I like to have at least a couple on hand for cutting off stock.  The coarser saws leave quite a rough edge, but cut much faster.

Here is a 26" Atkins crosscut saw that sees daily use in my shop:

This one has about 10 PPI.  As a side note, if you want to know what PPI your saw was originally, most makers stamped that number into the blade just below the handle... 

Which Crosscut Saws You Need to Own:  Crosscut saws are by far the most plentiful in the wild, and one of the most useful in my shop.  I'm always short of space so my table saw is stashed away, and my miter saw can't cut wide boards, so it seems I'm always grabbing  a crosscut saw for getting short lengths of lumber.  Because classic old hand saws can be found everywhere and are so cheap, I'd recommend a minimum of 3 - two at 10 PPI or so, one with a fine set for harder woods, and one with a coarser set for softer woods.  Then, one with about 8 PPI with a fairly coarse set just for cutting off lengths of wood quickly when needed.

Panel Saws

Panel saws are quite simply just shorter saws where the blades are from 16" to 24" (some say 14" to 20") in length and are usually crosscut.  There are 2 reasons to keep a couple around -  for one thing, they fit into a tool box better than a lengthy standard saw.   Second - they are awfully handy to grab when you need to cut a board quickly, either right on the bench or in an awkward spot.  

I like to keep a couple of them around for cutting off stock from a rough blank.  One of my favorite panel saws is a 22" "Swift Cutter" crosscut saw I pull out to hack off boards when I'm in a hurry:

Which Panel Saws You Need to Own:  I like having 2 crosscut panel saws around, with fairly fine teeth (10 to 13 PPI) for cutting boards used in casework (rails, stiles, frames, etc).  Keep one with more set for cutting softwoods like pine, the other with less for cutting hardwoods.  They are plentiful enough that if you want to re-file one to rip for the occasional cut, I can't see why not...

Back Saws - Dovetail, Carcass, Sash, Tenon, Miter

Ah, these are the little gems everybody loves.  Basically, they are all the same saws, the only real difference being length.  Like the saws above, they can be found in either rip or crosscut profiles, but it is far more likely you will find the older saws came mostly crosscut.  Dovetail saws are the shortest and thinnest of the lot, because they are used in cutting shallow, detailed cuts.  

The back is usually made from either brass or steel and is there for just one purpose - that is to stiffen the blade and hold it true.  An added benefit is a bit of weight it can lend to the saw that gives it substance, which can help when guiding the saw in it's cut.

Erv Schaffer's book, "Hand-Saw Makers of North America" - generally considered the bible of american hand sawmakers - lists the following criteria as what the different types of back saws are:

Type Length Blade Thickness TPI
Tenon 16"-20" .032" 10
Sash 14"-16" .028" 11
Carcass 10"-14" .025" 12
Dovetail 6"-10" .022" 14-18

Here's two of my versions of a dovetail saw that I made for the recent back saw project:

Walnut Handle,  020" thick blade, 7" long:

Cherry handle, .020" thick blade, 9" long:

Dovetail Saws.  Some people prefer a straight handle to the pistol grip I show above, like a Disston #68.  I've never been fond of those. I don't seem to have as much control over the cut as I'd like and they're harder on my wrist, but, to each his own.  These dovetail saws are filed for ripping with very fine teeth and have thin blades for doing detailed work.  They won't serve as well as a general purpose saw - but they are quite nice for cutting dovetails. 

Carcass Saws.  Slightly longer saws with thicker blades are better for general use at the workbench and for jobs such as cutting small tenons. These are generally known as carcass saws - they're the standard back saw most people think of and see.  They have a few less teeth per inch than a dovetail saw because of the need to occasionally cut deeper stock.  Here's a shot of my carcass saw - an old Jackson 14":

Sash saws.  I've personally never heard this term used in relation to any saw within my sight.  Maybe its an east coast or an English thing I'm not familiar with - but the size looks like it's basically a tenon saw, at least to my eyes.

Tenon Saws.  Tenon saws are usually longer and coarser because they are tasked to make longer and deeper cuts.  The deeper gullets in these coarser teeth carry the sawdust out of the longer cut more efficiently.  The saws are also usually crosscut saws, but a rip saw may be a better fit for the cheek cuts for a tenon. However, rip saws can have a tough time crosscutting - so I would suggest having at least one of each. 

Miter Saws.  A "miter" saw generally refers to a large tenon saw that is mounted into a miter box - contraption meant to hold the saw at a set angle.  They can be deeper and longer - I've seen up to 28" myself, and heard of longer - and are almost always crosscut.  

Summing up Back Saws: While the names suggest a specific use for each, they are by no means absolute... Each saw can be used for purposes beyond what it's name connotates.  For example, in my back saw making project, I made saws the same size using both thick and thin steel, and could make arguments for either configuration.

What Back Saws You Need to Have: The type of joinery you do will dictate whether you need a coarser or finer, longer or shorter saw.  General cabinet work can get by with about 11-12 PPI, rougher work such as workbenches and shop fixtures could use a bit coarser saw.  Finer, smaller casework could use a finer saw.  A good general purpose back saw, which every shop should have, would be a 12" long Disston #4 or it's equivalent - filed crosscut with around 12-13 TPI.  Fine work, like dovetails for heirloom quality dressers, will need a much finer saw, tasked specifically for that purpose.  An 8" or 10" dovetail saw, filed to about 16 TPI, fits the bill nicely.

If you plan on using a miter box, look for one of the Langdon series of miter boxes with an appropriate Disston crosscut saw, and you won't be disappointed.  For a small wooden miter box, the tenon saw I mentioned above will do for most furniture work.  If you can only afford one back saw - make it a 12" to 14" crosscut carcass saw with about 12 to 14 TPI.  It's simply the most universal saw.