Chris Schwarz's Blog

Using a Sawbench

The traditional English sawbench looks a bit like an alligator with really long legs. This curious appearance has left some readers a bit curious themselves about some of the features of the sawbench and how exactly it should be used.

But before I launch into some of the basic techniques for using the sawbench, I’d like to answer some of the most common questions we’re getting from readers about the sawbench featured in the Autumn 2006 issue.

Question: I’m X-feet tall, should I build my own sawbench taller than 20″ (or shorter than 20″)?

Answer: I’m 6’4″ and have 21″ from the bottom of my kneecap to the floor. I really like a 20″-high sawbench. I recommend you build it at 20″ and then cut it down if you have trouble kneeling on the work as it sits on top of the sawbench , your knees are the clamps and all those peanuts you’ve been eating are the clamping pressure.

Some traditional sources put the sawbench at 18″ high. That works, too. Any lower, however, and you risk hitting the floor of your shop with the toe of your handsaw.

Question: Why are the legs splayed in only one direction? I’ve seen ones with the legs splayed in two directions.

Answer: I splayed the legs as shown to make the project easier to build. Splaying the legs in two directions makes the sawbench a bit more stable, and a bit more complicated to construct. My first prototype and the finished version are both incredibly stable, even without the double splay.

Question: Do I have to use Southern Yellow Pine? I cannot find any in my area.

Answer: Use any construction-grade lumber that’s heavy and clear. This can be fir, poplar or hemlock in some markets. I think white pine or sugar pine would also be quite acceptable. Don’t spend a lot of money.

Question: How do I use the thing?

Answer: OK, here are the basic strokes. Let’s start with crosscutting. You can crosscut short boards (36″ and shorter) with one sawbench. Longer boards require two sawbenches.

Start the saw at a low angle to the face of the board.

Short Crosscuts
With one sawbench, lay the work along the top and crosscut off the end , out of habit I do it by the ripping notch. Your two legs are the clamps. If you are right-handed, then your right leg should be on the floor with your workpiece butted up against your shin. Your left leg should be bent 90�° and resting on top of the work. Make sure your right arm swings free over your cutline. (If you are left-handed, reverse these directions).

The saw at working angle.

Finishing the cut.

Then you make the cut: Start with the saw at a low angle (20Ã?° or so to the face of the board) and work your way up after four or five strokes to 45Ã?° , that’s the working angle. As you finish up the cut, reach around the saw with your left hand and support the unsupported part of the board to avoid the last splinter ruining your finished piece.

Long Crosscuts
Use two sawbenches and lay the work across the tops. You can work with the boards either across the width or the length of the top of the sawbench. In either case, you’ll use the same two legged footwork above to clamp the work for cutting.

The body position for an efficient short rip down the entire length of the board.

Short Rips and Notches
Use one sawbench. Lay the work along the top of the sawbench. I’ll hang the waste side of the rip off the top and work from the side of the sawbench as shown in the photo. Use the same two-legged footwork as above. The only difference is that you won’t be able to use your shin to keep the board in place.

With rip cuts, start the cut low (20�°) but move up to 60�° for the working angle.

For notching the corners out of pieces (such as the bottom of a chest), put the waste side over the ripping notch to support the entire piece around your planned notch , especially in thin material. The notch supports the work during the violent pushing of the handsaw.

This is a lot like working.

Long Rips
Fire up the table saw. You think I’m joking. I’m not.

OK, OK, here’s how to do it if the power is out: Use two sawbenches and lay the work across the skinny part of the tops. Begin the rip on the short end overhanging one sawbench. When you’re about to saw into the sawbench, move the work forward and continue ripping. To keep the board balanced on the sawbenches, then move the board backwards and work between the sawbenches (shown above). I usually finish up the long rip by rotating the sawbench so it’s in line with the board and finish the rip with the waste hanging off the side, like I do with short rips.

Sawbenches are not just for sawing. I use mine all the time for assembly and holding stock as I work on my workbench. Even if you rarely do a lot of handsawing, it’s a useful workshop appliance.

- Christopher Schwarz

11 thoughts on “Using a Sawbench

  1. Joel Taylor

    Ok, call me a slow learner. I noticed that the drawbore pegs are smaller than the pegs at the top of the sawbench. Is this so the tenon is not weakened (by using say, 1/2 dowel rather than a 1/4?) to the point the wedges would bust the tenon to pieces? I’m thinking there’s more to this than mere asthetics?

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    Most woodworkers need a square that size (and some larger ones, too).

    That square is a 9" model from Joseph Marples’s Trial 1 series. (I got it from Toolsforworkingwood.com for $32.) After I removed the finish from the handle it’s become a regular at my bench. It’s an ideal size for my shop because I use an 8" power jointer so most of my stock gets broken down to that width before I start construction in earnest.

    Chris

  3. swanz

    Boy, that’s quite a square sitting on the shelf of
    the sawhorse.Is that for checking the sides of a skyscraper for square? Just kidding,thanks for the tips,bought the latest woodworking mag 2day,another great issue.

  4. dave brown

    For long rips, fire up the table saw??? Awww man, I’m shocked Christopher.

    I’ll admit that if I had a lot of long rips to do, I’d throw on the earmuffs and fire up the table saw. But for the occasional long rip, the hand saw is still easier. Well, not easier in terms of muscular effort but easier in terms of setup and aggravation. I’ll explain.

    My shop is a little one-car-garage affair. Last weekend, I had to rip a five foot section of 2×10 cypress down to 6" wide. That 2×10 really measured 2" x 10" as it was rough sawn, not finished. Now, if I were going to use my table saw to rip that board, I’d have had to roll the table saw out from under my ripping station — the tablesaw is on a wheeled base to give my shop more room. Then I would have positioned the table saw so that I had five feet in front of it and five feet in back — tough to arrange in a small shop. Then, I’d have hooked the table saw up to the dust collector. Ok, set the depth of cut for the table saw at about 2-1/4" and set the fence for a 6" wide cut. Still with me? :-) Working in a small shop with long stock really bites.

    Now, how I really did it was like this: I clamped the stock to my saw bench with a Gramercy holdfast. Then I marked the cut with a thick pencil. I grabbed my 5-1/2ppi Atkins rip saw and made some sawdust. Ripping took me maybe five minutes. I’m sure it seemed longer because it’s not the sort of thing I do everyday. I did have to put a wedge in the kerf because the cut tried to close and bind my saw. Other than that, the cutting went smoothly, I got a small workout and I ended up with a smile on my face.

    regards,
    Dave

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Louis,

    I removed the shirt before I took the photos. Keeps my spouse happy when I do, and it makes me look more like a hippie when I wear just a T-shirt.

    We’ve often pondered doing an entire issue where we’re all dressed like 1950s woodworkers: white shop apron, pressed white shirt, tie tucked into shirt, slicked-back Brylcream hair and pipe.

    Whadda think?

    Chris

  6. Louis Bois

    Nice Demo Chris…but…why aren’t you wearing one of those nicely-pressed-white-cotton-collared-long-sleeved shirts?!? I thought you always worked that way!! :) Nice to see ya sweating it up a bit…and with a super Wenzloff saw to boot!
    It just goes to show that some blokes are better placed than others…sigh.

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