Using the Handsaw

Note how the blade is steadied by the thumb of the left hand when starting the cut. It is a good plan to hold the saw low when beginning to ensure alignment with the line

The following is excerpted from Vol. I of “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Tools.” As editor of The Woodworker magazine from 1939 to 1967, Hayward oversaw the transformation of the craft from one that was almost entirely hand-tool based to a time where machines were common, inexpensive and had displaced the handplanes, chisels and backsaws of Hayward’s training and youth.

This massive project – five books in total – seeks to reprint a small part of the information Hayward published in The Woodworker during his time as editor in chief. This is information that hasn’t been seen or read in decades. No matter where you are in the craft, from a complete novice to a professional, you will find information here you cannot get anywhere else.

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We have culled, organized, scanned, edited and re-edited these articles to create these two hardbound volumes. This is not simply a quick reprint of old magazines. We have reset all of the type. We have scanned and cleaned every image (there are more than 2,000 drawings and photos). The entire project took hundreds of hours and a dozen people all over the country.

The first volume is on tools, and includes: Sharpening; Setting Out Tools & Chisels; Planes; Saws; Boring Tools; Carving; Turning; Veneering & Inlay.

There are three general classes of saws; hand-saws, back-saws, and those for cutting curves. The first, with the use of which we are concerned here, are for the preliminary cutting up of timber and for the larger joints, and at least one is essential in the kit.

Features of the Handsaw. A saw which will cut fairly rapidly without badly tearing out the grain, and one which can be used for cutting both across and with the grain, is desirable because it can be used for so many purposes. Choose one about 22 in. long (that is the blade length measured along the teeth) and having, say, 10 points to the inch. The latter detail refers to the size of the teeth and means the number of tooth points in an inch including those at both ends. In Fig. 2, for instance, there are 10 points to the inch. Many saws have the number stamped on the blade near the handle. If you propose to do mostly carpentry as distinct from furniture making you can gain a little in cutting speed at the sacrifice of fine cutting by choosing a saw with larger teeth, say 8 points.

Count the points (not the teeth) in an inch including those at both ends

Make sure that it is a cross-cut saw you get, not a rip-saw. There is an important difference between the sharpening of the two which affects the cutting. The cross-cut can be used for any sort of cutting, whereas the rip-saw is confined to sawing with the grain. It is a good plan too to choose a taper-ground-saw. It means that the blade has a natural clearance in the kerf it makes since it is slightly thinner at the back than at the toothed edge. Even with this refinement, however, a saw would jam in its kerf unless the teeth were given what is known as set. This is the slight bending over of the teeth in alternate directions so that, as the saw cuts through the wood, it makes a cut (kerf it is usually called) slightly wider than the thickness of its blade. Of course, this means that the resistance is slightly greater in that the saw has had to remove more wood in sawdust, but this is mostly offset by the reduced friction of the blade in the kerf. It does mean, however, that the taper-ground-saw has a definite advantage in that the set can be less owing to the natural clearance of the blade.

Using the Saw. Sawing is done on trestles, on the bench, or in the vice. In the first the wood is usually steadied by pressure from the knee, whilst for bench sawing the usual plan is to cramp down the wood. This is really important because it is impossible to saw properly if the wood is jumping about. Here then is a first essential. If you cannot hold the wood steady, fix it down with a cramp.

A. Blade is not held upright. Square is used to test
B. Forcing, often leading to a buckled-blade
C. Blade twisted to correct wandering from line

Square Sawing. Perhaps the chief difficulty that besets the beginner is that of square sawing, and this is entirely a matter of knowing when the saw is upright and of keeping it so throughout its stroke. If the cut is not square it means that at best there will be a lot of wood to trim away, and at worst the wood may be too small owing to its have been undercut. For a start place a trysquare on the bench against the blade and endeavour to keep the blade in line with it as at A, Fig. 3. We have known a case of a man, determined to cure a fault of sawing out of square, who stood a large mirror in front of himself and glanced at it occasionally to see whether the saw was upright. This is not usually practicable, but whatever method you use endeavour to get the feel of when the saw is upright. Put the square on the wood and hold the saw against it perfectly upright. Note and try to register your position. Move the saw into various positions in its stroke and again note your attitude. After a time you will no longer need to use the square as a guide, but even so, test the sawn edge afterwards to see whether you have any special bias, and endeavour to correct the fault.

The saw drifts and to correct it the blade is twisted. The saw cuts the other way, and so on till the end of the cut

Straight Sawing. A common experience for a beginner is to find that the saw is either drifting away from or bearing towards the line along which he is sawing. He tries to put things right by twisting the handle (C, Fig. 3), and, after a few strokes finds that the saw is bearing the opposite way, and so it goes on until the end of the cut, the resulting edge being a long and wavy line as in Fig. 4. Clearly the important thing is to start right with the saw blade parallel with the line.

Now in normal sawing the blade is held so that the line of the teeth makes about 45 degrees with the wood, as at A, Fig. 5. This makes it a little difficult to judge whether the blade is in alignment with the line, because when the saw is low the handle does not extend far enough along the line to enable you to judge the matter, and when it is high the handle is so far above the line that it is just as difficult. The best plan is to start the cut with the saw held at a very low angle as at B, Fig. 5. Then, if the toe of the saw is used to start the cut the handle will extend a long way along the line and it will be low. Once a reasonable start has been made the saw can assume the normal 45 degrees. If you start right there is no reason why you should not keep right—assuming that the saw is in order.
Bad sharpening can cause drifting, but the drift will always be in the same direction. It may be due to unequal setting, to the saw having been sharpened from the same side throughout, to one side having been caught on a nail, or to the blade being buckled. Do not try to cure it yourself. Take it to a proper sharpener and explain what happens. He will know what to do. Sharpening and the correction of faults is a skilled operation calling for experience.

Normal angle is shown at A. For starting the cut the low angle B is advisable as it gives a better idea of whether the saw is in alignment with the line

General Sawing. Assume that you are going to saw along a board, the latter held on trestles or boxes. Start the saw at a low angle as already suggested and give a few short strokes, the blade bearing against the thumb of the left hand to steady it as shown in Fig. 1. This enables the saw to make a start in the right place. As the blade cuts more deeply into the wood you can gradually change the position of the handle so that the blade makes about 45 degrees with the wood, and the short starting strokes can be changed to long ones embracing nearly the whole length of the saw. Note from Fig. 1 how the index finger of the right hand points along the blade. This is a great aid to control and applies to almost every saw. Keep the left hand with either the thumb or side of the finger bearing against the blade until the saw has cut a fair way into the wood—say about the width of its blade. Apart from steadying it at the start it helps to prevent an injury in the event of the blade jumping from the kerf. If the left hand is merely held at the edge away from the saw the latter might jump out and jar the hand.

Don’t force the blade. Keep it moving steadily in long, even strokes with light or moderate pressure. It used to be taught to apprentices that a saw should cut merely by its own weight, and the underlying idea that forcing must be avoided is sound; but you need something rather more positive than this. Give just enough pressure to ensure firm control and you will find that the saw will cut freely. If it doesn’t, it needs sharpening.

In practically every case the saw is used to the side of the line rather than on it. The point is that the line represents the finished size, and the saw cut is made on the waste side to allow for final trimming with the plane. Many men tend to saw well away from the line for fear of making the wood too small. This is natural enough, but it exemplifies the lack of confidence of a man not sure of himself. Learn to cut accurately therefore, and you can then cut close to the line, leaving just enough for trimming.

“Vol. I of The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years: Tools”


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