Chris Schwarz's Blog

Woodworking in America: The Saws You Need

During the Woodworking in America conference, I moderated a discussion on saws between toolmakers Mike Wenzloff, from Wenzloff & Sons, and Joel Moskowitz, from Tools for Working Wood.

Both men are knowledgeable and have firm opinions about the topic of saws. The discussion was spirited and at some points contentious, though no blood was drawn. It took a long time for the three of us to navigate the technical details of the shape of sawteeth, and so we didn’t get to spend much time discussing what saws you need to build furniture. Several attendees approached me after the session for guidance, and so I decided to share it with everyone here on the blog.

Earlier this year I wrote an entry that explains my personal set of saws (check it out here) and their configurations. This is a good place to start.

Number of Teeth
In general, when I choose a saw I try to match the number of teeth on the saw (called the pitch) to the thickness of my work. With backless saws, such as handsaws and rip saws, I aim to keep six or seven teeth buried in the wood at all times. With backsaws (such as dovetail and carcase saws) I aim to keep 10 teeth buried in the wood at all times.

Here’s an example of how this works. If I have a 3/4″-thick carcase to dovetail, I’m going to pick a 15-points-per-inch (ppi) saw. But if I am dovetailing a 1/2″-thick drawer side, I’m going to reach for something finer, such as an 18-point or 20-point saw.

Either saw will work for carcasses or drawers, it’s more a matter of what will work better. You don’t have to own two dovetail saws. Just pick the one that suits the style of work you do. (Note that these rules don’t apply to Japanese saws because they have deeper gullets that don’t fill with sawdust.)

And note that there are practical limits. Few tenon saws come coarser than 10 ppi, but sometimes you have to saw a 2″-wide tenon cheek. A 5-point tenon saw would be a bear to start. So be flexible.

Kinds of Saws and What Order to Buy Them In
If you build typical furniture , cabinets, chairs, tables and chests , the following list of saws is meaningful. If you build smaller stuff (jewelry boxes) or bigger stuff (huge armoires), you are going to have to adjust. But I think this is a good list.

Carcase Saw
Typical blade length: 10″ to 14″
Points: 12 to 14 ppi
Type of filing: Crosscut
I think this is a great saw to purchase first. It is easy to start and control, and it is useful for all sorts of crosscuts with a bench hook. Practicing with this saw will prepare you for the more challenging backsaws. What length should you choose? As with all saws, I think longer saws make straighter cuts, but they can be harder for beginners to control. My favorite is 14″ long. I’m not worked up about the ppi. I see little difference between 12 ppi and 14 ppi.

Dovetail Saw
Length: 6″ to 10″
Points: 14 ppi to 21 ppi
Type of filing: Rip
No matter what I write you’ll buy a dovetail saw as soon as possible. We all want to cut dovetails. So go ahead. The smaller dovetail saws generally have finer teeth so the length isn’t as issue as much as the ppi. Choose a ppi that matches what you like to do. Do you build lots of drawers? Get a finer saw (18 to 20 ppi). Like blanket chests? Get something in the 15 ppi neighborhood. What about the “progressive-pitch” saws, where the teeth are finer at the toe and coarser at the heel? I like them, but it took me a bit of time to acquire a taste for them. If you can try one before you buy it, that’s ideal.

Tenon Saw
Length: 16″ to 20″
Points: 10 ppi to 11 ppi
Type of filing: Rip
I’m using the specifications for an old-style tenon saw. Usually they don’t come this big anymore, except for one made by Wenzloff & Sons. I like a big tenon saw (19″), but I seem to like bigger saws in general. When I teach sawing, my students are split: Half like the bigger saw for cutting tenon cheeks; the other half like a smaller sash saw instead.

Sash Saw (aka a Modern Tenon Saw)
Length: 14″ to 16″
Points: 10 ppi is typical
Type of filing: Rip or Crosscut is available
The name “sash saw” has disappeared from most catalogs, but the form lives on as a “tenon saw” or a “crosscut tenon saw.” I like a rip-filed tenon/sash saw because cutting the cheeks is a rip operation. Some people choose a crosscut sash saw in place of a crosscut carcase saw because they like big saws or have larger-scale work to do. As you can see, this is where it gets complex. You don’t need both a rip tenon saw and a rip sash saw (though you are free to get both). Choose one that suits you. I like a 14″ sash saw no matter what the filing. Go figure.

Handsaw
Length: 22″ to 26″
Points: 5 ppi to 12 ppi
Type of filing: Crosscut
These backless saws are used to break down rough stock before you process it and to cut larger components to size before you shoot them to their final lengths. I like a 7 ppi saw (they’re as common as dirt). Choose a shorter saw if it matches your stature or if you work on top of a workbench. Choose a longer saw if you are taller (I like 26″) or if you work on a sawbench (an 18″-high platform designed for sawing). I think these saws are great because they give you lots of sawing practice, which pays off big when you cut dovetails. Usually the saws shorter than 26″ are called panel saws.

Ripsaw
Length: 22″ to 26″
Points: 3-1/2″ ppi to 5 ppi
Type of filing: Rip
I don’t use a ripsaw all that much (see the dust on the sawplate?). Honestly, I prefer a powered band saw. Long rip cuts are a lot like work. I’d get a ripsaw only if you are deep into the purity of hand work or you have kids sleeping upstairs.

I hope this has helped some of you at the conference. If you didn’t like the session, I apologize. We’ll do better next time.

– Christopher Schwarz

8 thoughts on “Woodworking in America: The Saws You Need

  1. martin

    Hi Chris

    Do you think the shorter half-back saw from Wenzloff (the 16" blade version at LV) could be used as a panel saw.

    I yet have to buy a panel saw and I am afraid that the shorter blade will prevent me to have full arm stroke.

    If not any suggestion

    thanks

    Martin

  2. Anthony

    Chris,

    Great series of articles recently on saws; one question that came up recently when watching the video over on PWW with Frank Klausz and dovetails, was could you do a comparison of Western style saws vs frame saws for use in a hand-tool dominant shop. Specifically, for things like ripping, resawing and dovetails. I want a few of the Wenzloff & Sons’ saws, but also want to hand resaw stock for panels, so a comparison and article on how to do so might be something nice to see in an upcoming edition of Woodworking Magazine.

    Just a though, as many articles (here and other places) have focused mostly on Western backsaws vs Japanese ones.

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Steve,

    It’s by far the most common size (at least in my neck of the woods). So choices abound for the user.

    Chris

  4. Steve Hamlin

    Hi Chris
    Surprised you only suggest up to a 26" rip – is this because you see it as an occasional use tool in our plugged in age, or because longer saws are relatively scarce?
    Cheers
    Steve

  5. AAAndrew

    I’ll fourth (?) the comments about the session, and throw in a hearty recommendation for the whole conference. It was an amazing opportunity for us to learn new things, have old ideas reinforced or challenged: all good.

    One thing I learned in the marketplace, is that I’m really starting to agree with you about bigger saws. My new-style tenon saw that I already had is a little big for dovetails, but after trying all of the carcass and dovetail saws at the conference (and it was quite a selection to choose from) I came to the conclusion that I actually cut better dovetails with a carcass saw then with a traditional dovetail saw.

    And while I readily admit it’s very much like work, I still love using my 7-ppi Simmonds rip saw with my sawing bench. It cuts maple like butter. (ok, maybe not quite "butter" but relative to other saws it becomes more butter-like)

    Andrew

  6. Mack in Center Point, Texas

    Sometimes it felt a little as though you were trying to herd polite cats, but I thought we all benefited from the strong opinions. Like many things with woodworking, saws are very personal and what works for one may not necessarily work for another, and things that work may be subject to alternative interpretations. It’s all good!
    BTW, I particularly enjoyed the irony in your tenon saw write-up: "When I teach sawing, my students are split." I’ll RENT the video ar ar…
    Thanks for a top-shelf experience!

  7. Mattias in Durham, NC

    Chris, What do you mean "if you didn’t like the session?" You’re kidding, right? Who could possibly not have enjoyed that? We all got to enjoy watching the War of the Titans (from a safe distance). I have used this particular session as my first example when explaining to people how much fun the conference was. I can appreciate how hard it must have been to moderate, though. Thanks for the followup blog post – I did feel the session was cut a bit short (no pun intended).

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