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Using and Troubleshooting Saws

Using and Troubleshooting Hand Saws

Just like using a properly fettled and sharpened plane, using a properly sharpened and tuned saw can be a joy.  The opposite is also true- improper tuning and technique can cause the user to give up in frustration.  Sawing, just like mortising, shaping, or planing, is a skill - albeit a seemingly simple one - often overlooked that needs to be learned just like any other skill in woodworking.  On this first page, I'll try and go through some of basic applications and techniques for using hand saws.  On the next page, I'll go through troubleshooting the more common problems found with hand saws and tuning them for optimum performance, and give a quick overview of the "black art" of straightening a bent or kinked saw.

Using a Hand Saw

I'll break this down into the main categories of cuts made in a standard woodworker's shop -  crosscutting, ripping,  sawing with a back saw including cutting tenons and dovetails, and coping cuts for trim.  It will be a review of general techniques, but as some techniques are universal throughout, so I'll start with some general concepts.

General Concepts 

From here, most of the techniques I will describe are for right handed people, so left handed people need to switch left for right...  To guide the start of your saw, grasp the board just to the left of where you plan to cut, and use your thumb and forefinger as a guide for the saw, like this:

Sight down the top of saw, and line up the saw to the mark, putting the blade on the waste side of the cut.  Watch that you are holding the saw perpendicular to the stock - if it helps,  use a square piece of stock, or a square to help you.  Over time, and with practice, this will become second-hand to you.  Use your hand holding the saw to keep light pressure on your fingers, guiding the saw for it's first few cuts.  Hold the saw at about 45 degrees off of parallel to the board.  

Once you get the cut started, let the saw do most of the work.  Use full length strokes, utilizing the full length of the saw.  Keep an eye on the line you are cutting to, and adjust your cut accordingly...  Many small adjustments are much easier than one big one - if it gets too big, it can be difficult if not impossible to straighten out.

An important part of any successful sawing session is anchoring the work-piece, whether you anchor it with your weight or in a vise of some sort.  It is nearly impossible to properly saw anything if it's moving all over the place on you.  It also makes it much easier if the stock is not only securely anchored, but anchored near where you are cutting.  If the sawing is being done too far away from an anchor point (i.e. vise, top of the saw horse) that steadies it, the teeth of the saw can cause the stock to vibrate as it cuts.  The harmonic that sets up between stock and saw reduces the saws cutting ability and can be a source of frustration, making the saw want to wander as it cuts.

For most work with a hand saw, a pair of saw horses the proper height are very nice to have.  Proper height on saw horses - ones that you are going to actually use for hand sawing - are about 24" to 26".  Low enough that you can kneel on the stock being cut without discomfort, but tall enough that there is clearance for the saw below.  Most modern saw horses you purchase at the hardware store are too high, so you may need to make yourself a pair.  But hey - making your own stuff is what this is all about anyway, isn't it?

Crosscutting - Sawing Perpendicular to the Grain

Place the board you are going to cut onto your saw horse.  For cross cutting, the waste end should be off of the saw horse, to your right, hanging free, with the cut as close as possible to the support to reduce vibration. Use your left knee to anchor the board to the saw horses with your weight, and make the cut with the saw at about 45 degrees off of parallel to the board.  If it's of any significant length, you will need to support the free end of the stock when the cut is getting made, but the support should be at least an inch or two below the stock.  If it is supporting it while you are cutting, it will bind the saw blade by squeezing together over it.  

Best to let it hang and to let it drop if it is short enough, or if there's room - to hang on to both at the far end of the cut. A word of warning if you don't -  it will break a piece off where you don't want it to if it's too long - guaranteed .  I usually rough cut my work a couple inches longer than required, then make a second finishing cut to length just so this isn't an issue. For the first rough cut, I minimize the breakage by giving it a support an inch or two below the stock so it doesn't fall too far.  Then, once you get near the end of your cut, either let the piece fall away or get your apprentice to hold it for you, lightly pulling the waste piece away from as not to bind the saw.

Ripping - Sawing Parallel to the Grain

Much of the procedure for ripping lumber is the same for ripping... but of course, you aren't cutting the short way across the board.  For a long board, start with much the same posture as for crosscutting (of course, turned 90 degrees) with one end of the stock being cut hanging off of the sawhorses, and cut with the saw at about 60 degrees off of parallel to the stock. Once the cut is started, you can use both arms to push and pull the saw, watching that your cut is square and to the line.  Once I reach the end, I usually switch directions and finish the cut from the other end.

For shorter boards, which is more common in casework, I often mount the stock into the end of my vise, perpendicular to the floor with the proposed saw-cut clear of the bench, allowing me to make the cut from top to bottom.

Once thing that is a pretty common occurrence when ripping is where the freshly cut wood begins to bend slightly in upon itself, binding the saw in it's kerf.  A way to avoid that is to keep a couple of wedges available to stick in the saw kerf behind the saw as you go, to keep the wood from closing in on itself and binding on the blade.  In a pinch, a nail will sometimes do, also.


If keeping the saw straight so your cuts are square and perpendicular is difficult for you, use a guide to aid you in holding your saw correctly.  A guide can be as simple as an old 2" x 2" or 2" x 3" piece of pine cut from construction lumber, or a chunk of plywood - whatever you need to help train yourself to cut straighter, something similar to what you see in the diagram above, so long as it's straight.  I have several shop made "fences" I use around the shop made out of scrap plywood that I use for this purpose, and also as a temporary fence for the drill press or band saw - or what ever comes up that requires the use of one.  Very handy!

As you gain proficiency with your saw, you will need these guides less and less;  but they can be very helpful in teaching yourself proper technique.

Cutting Plywood and Other Engineered Materials

Plywood and Waferboard (aka OSB or Oriented Strand Board).  Because you have plies of wood that are running in two or more separate directions, it makes sense that a crosscut saw is the best choice for cutting manmade or engineered materials such as plywood, OSB, or similar materials.  The main issue with these materials is tear-out, which can be minimized by scoring the top veneer along the line being cut, and using a finer toothed saw, say something between 10 and 12 TPI.  Coarser saws can be used, of course, just with greater risk of tear-out.

Particle Board, MDF, Tempered Hardboard, and Similar Materials.  These sorts of building materials came along after hand saws had lost their popularity, and not much development has been put into making hand saws for them.  They will work in this material, but at a cost - the glues and other chemicals used in these materials will dull a standard hand saw quickly.  I usually switch to power tools for sawing panels such as these anyway, as using them can't really be considered 'traditional' anyway.  There are some hand saws made today that might be more appropriate for using on these kind of materials - so-called 'hard-point' saws that have the teeth specially hardened.  These saws can't be re-sharpened effectively by the average user, though, and usually have a handle that resembles a club more than a tote for a saw.  It is an option for the hard core Neanderthal, though.

Coping Saws

A coping saw's best use is for (surprise!) coping joints.  A coping joint is trim in an inside corner, where the molding being used has any rounded profile.  If you used a miter joint in this situation, the miter is likely to open up over time, showing a gap.  Coping the joint allows the corner to expand and contract without opening a gap in the molding. Another consideration is that rarely will you find a corner that is exactly 90 degrees...  A coped joint will allow you to work around such deviations.

On the left in the photo a mitered joint - two 45 degree angles.  You can see there is a shadow line visible, which happens when the joint opens up (and they almost always do).  A coped joint won't show this shadow line as easily as it will slide along the mating surface of the adjacent molding, and you won't see end grain in the crack.

The following is directions to cope an inside 90 degree corner - one of the most common cope joints.  Cutting a curved molding to fit it's own profile isn't as tough as it sounds.  The first piece of trim is cut square and installed right into the corner.  The second is sawn at a  45 degree angle to it's face, and a good tip is to highlight the profile with a pencil, as can be seen in the photo on the right just below:

The second shows how highlighting the profile with a pencil makes it easier to see when you do cut it.  When it is cut, hold the saw at just over 90 degrees so the face of the cut will contact it's mate in the corner first (undercut it just a little).


Peter Huisman suggested my instructions might be confusing, and I agree - he suggested the following instructions:

"Work from left to right around a room. Approaching an inside mitre, cut the right hand end of the profiled board square. Cut the left end of the next piece at 45 degrees as you would for an inside mitre. This exposes the exact profile to be coped away. Now cope along the exposed profile edge but at a little less than 90 degrees to the face (undercut). Trial fit and finish by filing / sanding to a good fit."

Thanks for that, Peter!


From here, a coping saw is used to remove the waste, shooting for a goal of cutting the pencil line about in half.  You can clean up the edge with a file, preferably a round one for the curved parts.  Here you can see one being worked on, and the resulting coped joint put together:

If the joint does open up, it will be less obvious on a coped joint than it is in a mitered joint.  After cutting as close to the line marked in the step above, use files to fit the coped joint to it's mate.  Test fitting helps to show were more filing is needed.

The coped joint can slide along the adjacent molding, allowing the walls or wood behind to move without opening up - thus aesthetically, it is a superior joint to a simple miter for an inside corner.

When Sawing Tenons and Dovetails

Always cut on the waste side of the cut - always mark the waste being cut with an 'X' so that you are not confused when it comes time to start the cut.  Leave just a little of the waste on the pins or the tenon, and remove that with a file afterwards, if necessary.  Remember, it's easier to remove wood than it is to put it back on.  An important aspect of cutting tenons and dovetails is how the grain is oriented when starting the cut.  A back saw with a rip profile is probably best for dovetails and the cheek cuts made for a tenon - using a finer saw for the dovetails.  To avoid tear-out, start the cut with the grain, rather than against it (note - this applies to starting the cut only):

Sawing with the grain, as shown above on the left, tends to compress the fibers of the wood against itself, where with the figure on the right, the wood has no backing, therefore it is more likely for the wood to tear out.  As the cut progresses, there's less chance for tear-out on the other side, and you can adjust your attack angle as needed.

Tenons and dovetails are best cut with a back saw.  For dovetails, start the cut about at the angle shown and continue cutting, leveling off the cut as the saw reaches the other side, then start cutting with the saw perpendicular to the board being cut.  For a tenon cut, start the cut with the work angled away about 45 degrees away from the saw, then as the cut proceeds through to the other side, change it so it angles toward you, cutting against the grain as it's shown in the above diagram.  Watch for tear-out on the far end of the cut.  As you approach the depth on the far side, level the saw out to cut the remaining middle portion.  

Keep the work clamped in a vise, and keep the work at between elbow and shoulder level if possible - make sure it's at a height that you can use the saw comfortably, and still gaze over the work-piece to make sure you are following the lines you've scribed.  Sight down the saw, keeping an eye on both sides of the saw and that it's perpendicular (or to whatever angle you're working),  Keep the cut of the saw on the waste side of the line.  If you use a marking knife, once you have a bit of practice, it's a fun challenge to see how evenly you can split the line it makes with your saw cut.

Shoulder Cuts and miter cuts made in a miter box have good results using a crosscut back saw if you start the saw at about a 20 degree angle to the stock, and work it towards level as the saw proceeds through the stock.  A miter box is a very handy item to have around to make accurately cut angles, but if you don't have one, you can get it close then use a shooting board and a miter plane to dial it in.  For most cases, a shooting board is the best way, as it is very hard to hand saw a mitered angle perfectly - there's often  some saw-tooth marks or other imperfections that need tuning.

Additional Info:  Following a Line (Making Dovetail and Tenon Cuts)

I should add a little note here for those who might have some difficulty sawing to a line using the method I describe here.  Here's another technique that allows you to follow the line a little easier.

Start with the saw almost (just a couple of degrees off of) parallel with the end of the board, starting the cut on the far side of the board.  Watch the angle - try it on a scrap first... Too high of an angle and the saw will be difficult to start and you might get too much tear out on the far side.  Too little of an angle and the saw will be difficult to keep straight on the line (it will want to jump).

Once you are practiced, starting the saw this way will become second hand.  It also reminds one that there is more than one way to skin a cat...  

I will provide a new photo here as soon as I can get one that helps to describe this.

Cleanup can be done with a paring chisel or a file.  A skew chisel is handy for getting into the corners of dovetails, and a shoulder plane is great for cleaning up the shoulder cuts on a tenon.  The cheeks of the tenon will clean up nicely with a chisel or file, too.



Thank you so much for sharing this very valuable information with us in a very effective multi-media website. 

I'm a long-term woodworking amateur who first learnt how to work with wood at the tender age of 13.

I still gain immense pleasure from working with wood and this information helped me sharpen my two tenon saws, of which I'm very proud.

I remember from school that one should not put downwood pressure on the tenon saw but just allow the brass weight atop the blade to do that for you.

Best wishes and many thanks.