Chris Schwarz's Blog

Planes are Stupid; Saws are Smart

I am married to a very smart woman. This has its advantages – life is never boring. It also has its disadvantages – she does not suffer fools (such as myself) lightly.

What the heck does this have to do with woodworking? Plenty.

In the world of woodworking tools there are two overarching varieties: the planes and the saws. They are quite different – not just in how they cut wood, but in how they are handled by you, the woodworker. Let’s start with the planes – the nincompoops of the hand tool world.

Yes, I know you love your planes. I like my planes, too. But they aren’t very intelligent tools. If you push them across a board and don’t try to manipulate them every second of the way they will ruin your work. Don’t believe me? Try it. Apply consistent pressure to your block plane/bench plane/joinery plane/moulding plane as you dress a board and you will fail to create a flat surface. You will create a banana.

Planes are like Play Doh. They need to be coaxed along to create the flat surface we desire. That means placing all the downward pressure on the toe of the tool at the beginning of your stroke. Placing equal pressure on the toe and heel in the middle of the stroke. And placing all the downward pressure on the rear tote at the end of the stroke.

This, in essence, tricks the plane into producing flat work.

Saws are different.

With saws, you are the problem. Saws want to make a straight cut, but all the little things that you do force the saw away from its goal. By gripping the saw too tightly you force the saw off line. By using too much downward pressure you force the saw off line. By holding the saw with all four fingers you tend to force the saw off line. And on and on.

The best way to saw is to minimize the sawyer. In other words, the best sawyer is the one who isn’t there.

When I teach people to saw (like I am teaching them this week in Germany) I am mostly trying to eliminate their influence over the tool. To allow the tool to do its job. To make them patient observers.

This week, my job has been easy. The group at the Dictum workshop in Germany is a bunch of open-minded Europeans and American ex-pats. We moved more quickly through the lesson plan than any class I have ever taught.

Is it Europe? Or is the hand-tool woodworker finally ready for this lesson?

— Christopher Schwarz

• Sawing is an important hand skill that few people can teach. If you want to become a good sawyer and cannot take a class, we recommend our DVD “Build a Sawbench with Christopher Schwarz,” which is a video of a class on sawing we shot last year.

13 thoughts on “Planes are Stupid; Saws are Smart

  1. abt

    I’ve used Chris’s tips for sawing, and found that with proper stance and grip, all you have to do is relax and move your arm back and forth. The saw does the rest. I get straight cuts every time. I also found that because I’m relaxed, I can cut a lot longer with less effort than I could before learning to saw correctly.

  2. JWatriss

    Yes and no.

    I find that the really critical moment is starting the saw. The sawyer must be VERY present for that one.

    Tooth skips off line? It’s a mess, and you can either run with the new kerf, or accept the gouge and go back to your intended track.

    Start the saw at an angle? Maybe this is my minimal-or-no set Japanese saw experience speaking, but if the saw isn’t headed in the right direction at the start of the cut, it won’t be headed in the right direction for the rest of the cut.

    I feel like it’s more about steady aim, and concentration when you pull the trigger.

    Steve… Band saws are really the best machine analogue we have to a hand saw. Assuming the blade is sharp and in tune… it is all about aim. The blade, in its optimal condition, does want to cut in a straight line… but that line may not be in line with the fence. And that’s when you’ll get a cut that drifts away from the fence, or a piece of wood that drifts away from the fence, depending on how the blade is pointed. That’s why I don’t like T-fences for band saws… there really isn’t a viable way to adjust the fence for drift. Over time, the stresses on the blade that are induced by our attempts to strangle the cut into an alternate direction may over-heat the teeth on one side of the cut or the other. That will accelerate wear on that side, and diminish the ability to cut anything straight, fence or no fence.

    In light of the T-fence paradigm we all get stuck with, I have abandoned the traditional notion that the blade should be centered on the tire. If that were actually required, there wouldn’t be much need for crowned tires on the wheels. If you abandon the center of the wheel dogma, the crowned surface really helps to aim the blade. You’ll find that if you track the blade forward on the top wheel, the blade will cut away from the fence. If you track the blade back, it will cut towards the fence.

    Sometimes weird things happen, and you do have to make drift adjustments, but again, that is why I don’t really like traditional T-fences on band saws. (I still have one… but I’m trying to think up something better)

    1. Steve_OH

      I understand all that, but it’s not what’s going on with my saw. I have not been able to figure out what the source of the problem is, but the symptoms are that the “effective tracking direction,” so to speak, varies substantially, over time, and from one material to another. I’ll attempt to rip an 8/4 piece of cherry, and it will want to dive into the fence. Immediately afterwards, I’ll try to rip a 3/4 piece of poplar, and it will drift in the other direction.

      There’s clearly something bizarre going on with the overall frame alignment or something like that, but I haven’t been able to figure out what it is.

      -Steve

      1. alegr

        Steve,

        Check that the blade is not twisted because of misaligned guides or because of difference in tracking on upper and lower wheels. Also, if the thrust bearing is not set properly, the force of sawing 8/4 will push the blade on the wheel, changing the tracking. Insufficient tension or heat expansion because of overheating may also cause that.

    2. hharr40

      Try using a pointed “nose” in place of a fence, set to the width of your desired cut. Similar to the guide pin on a router table, this will enable you to swing the workpiece to keep the cut on your line.

  3. tsstahl

    Grafting saw?

    The Internet only has info in a horticultural sense.

    I saw one like that pictured yesterday at an antique store. I figured it was a regular panel saw cut down to correct some defect/damage.

    1. tsstahl

      I found a couple references to what I assume is the above plate. I also found a UK museum site that defines this saw as used for grafting (duh).

      So, my admittedly ignorant conclusion is one of: that this saw is filed crosscut for joining end grain to end grain like in a scarf or crude finger joint, or that this saw is filed rip to make smallish panels from smallish stock.

      I guess I should not overlook the most obvious explanation that this type of saw may be the period version of the big box store “tool shaped object”.

  4. J. Pierce

    Argh! As much as I know this, can’t we pretend it’s not true for the next couple of days? I’ve been fouled up three blanks trying to use my nice dovetail saw to cut the slot in a handle so my carcase saws can be nice too… I stepped away, I think I was just having a bad day (and being a bit of a perfectionist – and I probably could re-level the blank to be parallel to the slot, I may have left enough extra…)

    1. BillT

      If your bandsaw won’t cut straight, it just needs a little fettling. Make sure the tires are good, and properly crowned. Tension and blade guide clearance are important as well, but too often, people focus on those without taking a good look at the tires. Get a good crown on good tires and the change is dramatic.

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