Chris Schwarz's Blog

We Don't Need No Stinkn' Backsaws

There is great debate among the Saw Nerds (I’m a card-carrying member) about when the backsaw came into this world, kicking and screaming and whipping its lamb’s tongue to and fro.

Historic documents have been read. Great thoughts have been thinked. The Internet was clicked many times.

But what gets little attention is actually why the backsaw was ever developed.

In the mind of veteran carpenter and tool collector Carl Bilderback, you don’t need a backsaw.

“You can cut any joint you want with a 16″ panel saw,” he said. “It’s more than stiff enough for the job. So why do we have backsaws?”

Bilderback didn’t have the answer to that rhetorical questions, but he did offer up some other thoughts. The late Cecil Pierce cut his dovetails (beautifully by the way) with a hacksaw. You can read all about that in his short book “The Precision Handcutting of Dovetails” from Astragal Press. And the book “Modern Practical Joinery” by George Ellis shows experienced joiners cutting tenons with handsaws. “Look ma, no back.”

“Why do we even have $200 dovetail saws to do something you can do with a $15 hacksaw from Ace Hardware?” Bilderback asks.

Bilderback has cut lots of joints with a panel saw and recommends that if you want to try it yourself that you use a saw with little or no set.

This afternoon I gave it a try and cut dovetails with a crosscut panel saw. I was laughing the whole time I did it because it was extremely easy to switch from a backsaw to a panel saw. The tool leaves a big kerf in its wake, but that actually made it easy for the coping saw to drop in there to remove the waste.

- Christopher Schwarz

14 thoughts on “We Don't Need No Stinkn' Backsaws

  1. Mitchell

    My old man’s favorite expression was, "It is a poor craftsman who blames his tools". Sadly, my wife has now picked up that comment and made it her own as well, but that is another comment for another type of blog.

    With this article, though, I think Chris is sticking his neck out. We all listen to the tool manufacturers’ choirs singing away that you can’t do this without that, and it is impossible for you to that without this. By punching holes in their messages, Chris isn’t going to endear himself to the choir leaders.

    Whether one saw can do the job of ten is irrelevant as, how many of us can walk away from a beautifully made back saw just because we know we don’t need it. Even Chris, who states in one of his comments that, "I require a few specialized tools and a few generalized tools", still has a room full of unnecessary tools. If you appreciate cars, you buy cars. If you appreciate shoes, you buy shoes. I would bet that most who read these articles appreciate tools, so that is exactly what they are going to spend their disposable incomes on – tools, needed or not.

    Oh ya, my old man’s second favorite expression, "You can’t do the job right without the right tool". Obviously, I come from a long line of tool nuts.

    Peace

  2. George Moore

    Chris,

    I use a high tension hacksaw to cut Dove Tails. Although I have an old DT saw and a new one I still prefer the hack saw as it cuts a thinner kerf and is more accurate.

    I have never tried the panel saw but will give it a look.

    Have a Blessed day.
    George Moore

  3. Greg

    I agree a handsaw can accomplish some accurate joinery. After struggling to make the tennons of my bench legs with a 10pt backsaw, it dawned on me "why not try my ripsaw". Low and behold my rip worked beautiffully. The only drawback that I see is that handsaws are hung to saw up-down rather than in-out;maybe its an ergonomics issue more than anything.

  4. Dave Colafranceschi

    Don’t think the Barnsley shop would take that view. I disagree that a panel saw could saw joinery to the same high standard for high quality cabinet work. There was a reason for back saws. Ability to have a thinner blade that was supported by a heavier back giving the craftsman a more consistent and higher quality cut. I don’t believe we need a $5000 plane nor a $400 backsaw to make high quality pieces. I believe today craftsman are preoccupied with ‘fancy’ tools that really do not give any advantage to the user. I am sure many will argue with me after they have spent thousands on a hand plane-I have made the mistake myself. Are they pretty and well made in their own right? Absolutely! but completely unnecessary. That being said, would we trust a surgeon to make precise cuts during an operation with a steak knife or a slick? No! I don’t think $200 is too much for a good handsaw, good antiques cost more. I will still grab my Cosman or LN dovetail saw whenever I need to make a precise cut but thanks for the giggle.
    Happy Holidays!

  5. Denis Rezendes

    the only reason i can honestly see is its too big and coarse… i haven’t tried it out yet but i would think cutting half blinds in the little pigeonhole drawers for a slant front would be crazy. the saw’s just to big. and probably too coarse for the little 1/4" drawers sides. also if you don’t need all of that extra length why have it. its kinda like a panel saw will do the job but why not have a saw thats specifically tailored to do the job.

  6. Eric

    I use what I have and do the best I can.
    I saw a saw the other day that cost what my first two cars cost combined! (And they were pretty nice cars….)
    I think a lot of it has to do with us achieving the "Schwarz Zen".
    I’m still working on it, and I hope you keep breaking off chunks of your wisdom for us to gobble up!
    Merry Christmas.

  7. Christopher Schwarz

    Sean,

    Specialization vs. generalization is a common conundrum in every trade and craft, including journalism.

    I find that as I have become far more experienced in both trades (woodworking and journalism) that I require a few specialized tools and a few generalized tools to get jobs done quickly and well. It’s not a simple linear relationship.

    So I use very few bench planes, but lots of specialized joinery planes. I use one low-level dictionary, but one very specialized stylebook.

    I’m not explaining this very well.

  8. Sean

    "You can cut any joint you want with a 16" panel saw," he said. "It’s more than stiff enough for the job. So why do we have backsaws?"

    Because possible is not the same as optimal. As you’ve noted, the panel saw leaves a wider kerf (the physics tell us that it therefore takes more work). Typically panel saws have fewer teeth, especially in the rip variety (i.e., are harder to start and cut less cleanly. If you want a thin plate, you want a spine to stiffin it – especially for saws that cut on the push stroke. Thin plate, fine teeth, stiff back. All these make the backsaw an optimized tool for making finer cuts with the greatest precision and least effort.

    Lots of tools can be pressed into service in application for which they are not optimal. In a skilled craftsman’s hands the results may be indistinguishable. That is hardly a reason to question why the optimal tool was developed, right?

    Happy Holidays!

  9. Bob Rozaieski

    Just a theory, but perhaps back saws came about due to the increasing price of tool steel? Sort of the same reason laminated irons came about? Both laminated plane irons and saws with backs would be more labor to make but would save valuable steel. Do we see saws with backs being introduced about the same time period as laminated irons? Having an iron back on the saw would allow the use of a thinner saw plates, thus, using less tool steel to make the saw. Same principle as welding a thin steel cutting edge to a softer iron body in a laminated plane iron.

  10. John Grossbohlin

    I think this falls into the same category as when I started out, in my beginner’s ignorance; I didn’t know a lot of things. For example, that hand cut dovetails were supposed to be difficult, that cutting good dovetails in BORG white pine was supposed to be impossible because it crushes, or that you aren’t supposed to use card scrapers on softwoods… Those impossibilities led me to learn how to really sharpen tools and how to change the presentation of the scraper so it would cut shavings on about any piece of wood… Perhaps the moral of the story is just do it and stop theorizing about it… ;~)

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