The Right Saw for the Job

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12 thoughts on “The Right Saw for the Job

  1. Nicholson’s saws seem awfully coarse. If you were ripping a lot of old-growth hardwood, would you really want to use 3 tpi? Talk about a washboard effect! That would sound like a chain saw. But would it cut as effectively as, 6 or 7 tpi? I could see 3 tpi for soft pine as a secondary wood on a lot of cabinetry.

    I like the idea of a place for everything, and everything in its place. Use the right tool for the job. And I’ve been giving a lot of attention to saws lately. But it seems like every saw I pick up is a 7 tpi crosscut! Found a D-7, a Keen Kutter, a D-23. I can’t escape this configuration it seems. When you think about it, 7 tpi with a fairly aggressive rake (for a crosscut) could probably chop up pretty much anything you threw at it, even if it were too delicate for ripping and too coarse for crosscutting. A sort of Jack of saws.

    • Jay,
      Yes, Nicholson’s saws were coarse by today’s standards, but we need to keep a couple of things in mind.

      First, saws during Nicholson’s time were designed for cutting old, slow growth lumber that had been air dried, and likely had higher moisture content than the kiln dried woods we are used to using today. If I had to rip a lot of 3-4″ thick air dried material, I think I would want a 2-3 TPI saw. It would be much faster than the 5-6 point rip saws we are used to today in that kind of lumber. While old, slow growth pine is harder and denser than fast growth pine, the opposite is true for many hardwoods (oak, a wood commonly used by joiners of the time, being one case where this is true).

      Second, Nicholson is writing about joiners, not cabinetmakers. While joiners would build some furniture, their main job would have been fitting out buildings with doors, windows, making sash, moldings, installing floors, etc. So their saws were designed to be optimized for their work.

      Third, the hand saws that we find today, even the old ones, were mostly designed for carpenters sawing construction lumber, not furniture makers. Plus, they were designed for kiln dried lumber, so having more PPI would be beneficial.

      Still, even with these things in mind, Nicholson is a good reference. You just have to keep in mind the trade he is speaking of while reading it.

      Based on the lumber I’ve used and the uses I’ve had for my hand saws, for most ripping tasks I’d call on my current 5½ point ripper for softwoods and a 7 to 8 point ripper for typical thickness (4/4 & 5/4) hardwoods.

      However, I can definitely see a benefit in having a coarser 3-4 PPI saw for 12/4 lumber. I can also see such a saw being useful for some occasional resawing tasks in wide boards (I don’t have a pit saw, a saw pit or a friend willing to be the pitman :). I’d like to experiment with one and find out, if I can find one. If I can’t find one in the wild, perhaps I can call on someone like Mike W. to cut me a plate when I have a few $$ to experiment with. I don’t think I’d want to cut teeth that big in a saw plate that thick with just a file.

      • You know, when it comes to saws I think you can go round and round. There’s really some mystical ancient black art stuff going on when it comes to hand saws, as opposed to the other types. There are so many variables that the combinations are infinite in number if not utility.

        It seems to me that any saw you might have should be suited to your particular purposes–not only what kind of cut and what kind of wood, but also the length of your arms and legs, how you finish your work, etc. And using saws is intuitive. You try one saw in a cut, then another with a different number of teeth, or a thinner plate, or a different tooth pattern, and you instantly see, hear, and feel the difference. Take that long backsaw you (Bob) made–that really looks very useful for cutting tennons, and I’d like one. A regular backsaw is too short for that work. A mitre saw is too big, heavy, and unwieldy. A hand saw with rip teeth is too coarse and the kerf is too thick. But what you’ve got there seems just right. Seems like a keeper. Now for cutting the cheeks . . . something a little shorter . . . filed crosscut . . . and it goes on and on.

        But like whittling a particular piece of wood, or sharpening up all your plane blades, I think you can get to a point of diminishing returns, and there really are a limited number of types cuts anyone’s ever really going to be doing. I think the trick is in identifying them and acquiring, making, or adapting the saws one already has, in order to do that task. Thing is, I’m always learning something new and don’t know every cut or circumstance or adaptation. The internet is putting me on the fast track to becoming a know-it-all though . . . .

        • Jay,
          You are of course correct. I think the answer is to try out as many different configurations as you can on the types and sizes of wood you cut the most, and then pick 3 or 4 saws that will suit that work. Events like Woodworking in America are great for this. Guys like Ron Herman can set you up with a saw that is the right length for you, sharpened correctly for what you want it for. If you can’t get to one of these events, the next best thing is to learn to sharpen your own and start playing around with the $5 flea market saws until you find the sweet spot. Then sell the ones that weren’t perfect. You can still make money on them as there are plenty of folks out there who want these saws but aren’t willing to learn to sharpen them. Just have fun with it. To me, experimenting with this stuff is half the fun.

  2. Bob,

    Interesting post and discussion!

    If I understand correctly, Nicholson’s Hand and Panel saws are dual purpose rip and crosscut. Apparently the factors that make these saws suitable for crosscutting are the thinner plate, slightly shorter length, greater tpi, and relaxed rake. He does not mention fleam, though I suspect all of these saws had a bit of “unintentional” fleam produced by hand filing.

    This reminds me of the late Tage Frid ripping and crosscutting with his rip-tooth bowsaw.

    Do you think fleam is overrated, at least for coarse work? I’d be interested in opinions from the expert saw makers and sharpeners out there.

    Thanks again for the post.

    • Rob,
      I would agree with your suspicion. There would indeed be some unintentional fleam as a result of hand filing the teeth. There would also likely be some irregularity in the spacing of the teeth since the teeth would have all been filed into the plate by hand. I think both of these things would make for smoother crosscutting.

      I’m not sure I’d say fleam is over rated, but it certainly isn’t necessary. I have crosscut with my rip filed tenon saw enough times that I can see why our ancestors may not have felt a need to experiment. However, I sure appreciate it. I can see not worrying about it for a larger saw used simply for breaking down stock into oversized boards, but for things like tenon shoulders, I prefer a saw filed with fleam.

      Nicholson and Moxon actually describe two different methods of cutting tenon shoulders in order to cope with the rough sawn edge. Nicholson describes scribing the shoulder with a knife and then removing a triangular shaped sliver against the shoulder with the knife to give the saw a place to register. He also notes that this aids in making a cleaner cut. Moxon’s method is simply to knife the shoulder, saw wide of the scribe line and then pare the shoulder to the line with a chisel. Neither says anything about the tenon shoulder being right from the saw. I suspect this was a side effect of using saws with little to no fleam for crosscutting.

    • Neal,
      Thanks for the link! I have read Mike’s article before, but not since it was originally posted. I’ll have to go back and re-read it.

  3. Bob, Please explain what a half rip saw is. I have seen this refered to before but don’t know what it is.

    • Sam,
      Half Rip Saw is just a name that many texts from the period use to describe a rip saw with more PPI than what they call the rip saw. I’m not sure what the rationale for calling it a half rip saw is, but it is a common enough term and always refers to a rip saw with more teeth per inch than the Rip Saw. It is designed for for ripping thinner stock than the rip saw. My guess is that it was just a way for craftsmen to distinguish between their saws without referring to the number of teeth. Think about a conversation between two carpenters or joiners on a job site:

      “Hey, can you hand me the saw?”
      “Which one?”
      “The 5½ point.”
      “OK…one, two, three…”

      Instead he could just say:

      “Hey hand me that half rip saw?” (or hand saw or panel saw, etc.)

      That’s my guess anyway.

  4. I bought two Disston saws last weekend at a church rummage sale – 5$ for both. One is more recent but the one that caught my eye is a panel saw I think. The cutting edge is 16 inches long, with handle the saw is 20 inches. The blade is unbacked, pretty thin, and carries enough of an etching to identify it as being made 1900. It has an apple wood handle with an unusual opening, instead of oval it has a little ‘bay’ at the lower end as if it is meant to be held differently for some purposes. At first I thought it was a rip saw because of the rake of the teeth and it does rip very well, however, the teeth do have a fleam and therefore cross cut very well, too. I haven’t sharpened it yet but it is a very well made saw. I’ll send a picture if you want me to. I haven’t found a exact match at the main Disston websites yet.

    • Alfred,
      Sounds like you got yourself a nice toolbox saw. These saws were shorter and designed to be able to fit in a toolbox.

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