One of the greatest moments in marketing history was the mass adoption of power tools following World War II. Before then, the standard thinking was that just about anyone could pick up a saw and cut a piece of wood. Within 20 years that notion became an eccentricity. If you want to sell anything to a woodworker, the first thing to do is sell him on the idea that he can’t possibly perform a given task without your tool, gadget, jig or gizmo. So many people bought into the notion that an average person couldn’t use a handsaw to cut to a line, that tools that actually could work nearly disappeared.
That situation has been changing, but a great number of otherwise rational people are convinced that one simple skill, sawing to a line, is beyond them. And there is also a large group that is willing to consider it possible to saw, but are paralyzed by two things; how to practice, and what saw to start with. There are a lot of premium saws on the market, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. But without some experience, you won’t be able to intelligently choose between them. The saw pictured above is half the price, works very well, and is the one I would buy if I were just starting. Get the 14tpi to start with, and don’t give in to the temptation to buy the set. You should also make a bench hook, similar to the one in the picture.
Keep your grip relaxed; pretend your shaking hands with your great-grandmother. And stick your index finger out and rest it on top of the back. You don’t need to muscle your way through sawing, this calls for a gentle touch and some finesse. The saw is heavier on top, with the center of gravity in line with your extended finger. Lean it from side to side and you will develop a feel for when it is vertical.
The right body position is important. My right leg is back, and my foot is pointing in the direction of the camera. Most of my weight is on the other leg, and my knee is bent so I’m not leaning uncomfortably. My right arm is in the same plane as the saw, so I can move my arm back and forth from the shoulder. I don’t want to be flopping my wrist or swinging my elbow. Move with the shoulder, guided by the index finger.
To get a cut started, put the thumb of the left hand up and against the side of the blade. This is to give you a reference for vertical as you start the cut. You can also check the reflection of the board in the saw blade. The reflection and the real board should form a straight line. To take the picture above, I had to look through the viewfinder of the camera, click the timed shutter and get my hands back in position. I’m getting old, so my eyes aren’t so good and I’m not as fast as I once was. I’m lined up a little off square; to make the cut I want, I should swing the handle of the saw to the left a little, so that the reflection makes a nice horizontal line.
If I’ve been away from the shop for awhile, or using a saw I haven’t used lately, or feeling less than 100% confident, I will make some practice cuts in the waste area. For those of you playing along at home, I’m cutting the notch in the end of the Gottshall Block. Actually I’m about to cut it, this is just warm up. Try this on a piece of scrap; cut 8 or 10 lines without marking anything. Try to cut across squarely and vertically. When you’re done, check with your square to see how close you came. 10 minutes or less of doing this will get you much farther than trying to cut exactly to a line to get started.
My grandfather, father, uncle, older brother and several skilled cabinetmakers all told me to “let the saw do the work”. It only took me about twenty years to realize that what they meant was “let the saw do the work”. The tool has evolved and been optimized to cut wood cleanly and easily. I just need to give it a gentle push to get it started. It’s hard to describe how gentle, but it’s almost as if I’m trying to hold the teeth above the board. If I can get the teeth to move across the wood along my line, they will start to cut. From there on in, the saw will follow along in the kerf if I let it. Knife or gauge lines make this easier.
This simple skill is one of the most empowering in woodworking. If you can successfully saw to a line, you can make just about anything if you know where to put the line. Frank Klausz once said, “if you’re learning to cut dovetails, and you can’t stay on the line you shouldn’t be practicing dovetails. You should be practicing sawing to a line.” Frank knows his stuff.