Understanding Western Backsaws
Western backsaws come in a dizzying array of sizes and tooth configurations. Add to that some confusing nomenclature (sash saw? carcase saw?) and it’s no wonder people are confused. We help you choose the three backsaws you need for hand-cut joinery.
The backsaws that built nearly every piece of antique English and American furniture almost became extinct, thanks to the universal motor and the Japanese obsession with quality.
A basic kit of at least three backsaws – a dovetail, carcase and tenon saw – were in the toolbox of every English-speaking cabinetmaker and joiner in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. But after World War II, the manufacturing of these venerable saws went into steep decline with the rise of inexpensive portable routers and saws that were powered by the compact and cheap universal motor.
Handsaw giants such as Disston and Atkins faltered. Their enormous factories were shuttered, and the remnants of these companies began churning out low-quality saws with chunky handles and poorly formed teeth.
But it wasn’t portable power tools that delivered the coup de grace to Western handsaws. That occurred at the hands of Japanese sawmakers. As Western saws became worse, the high-quality Japanese saw became more attractive to the woodworker who still needed a backsaw or two for joinery.
Thanks to Japan’s thriving carpentry trade that still requires handwork (a result of their traditional timber-frame construction), outstanding manufacturing acumen and a general respect for traditional ways, Japanese saws were inexpensive and worked extremely well.
This was the opposite of the pricey and snaggle-toothed Western saw, which barely cut wood. And so the Japanese saw – which was once the laughingstock in the West as the tool that cut backward – became the best-selling style of saw in North America in less than a generation. And it is, by far, the dominant form today.
Two Guys Revive a Dead Patient
And if it weren’t for two tool collectors, that might have been the final word: Either buy antique Western saws or new Japanese ones. But thanks to Pete Taran and Patrick Leach, the Western saw is today experiencing a revival. The two men had technical backgrounds in engineering and software, but that didn’t stop them from becoming sawmakers in 1996. They founded Independence Tool and started making a maple-handled dovetail saw based on an early 19th-century example.
The saw, which was made with an incredible amount of handwork, became a cult classic among woodworkers on the Internet, and the saw began appearing in tool catalogs alongside the pages and pages of Japanese saws.
The Independence saw itself was a technical success. I’ve inspected and used pristine examples of these saws and I can personally attest that they were a revelation when compared to the chunky, lifeless and dull Western backsaws I used in my first woodworking class.
But the company was short-lived. Leach left Independence Tool and went on to become a full-time tool dealer (his site is supertool.com), and Taran announced in 1998 that he wasn’t able to do his day job and still make saws at night. It looked like quality Western backsaws were about to disappear off the market again.
But then Taran sold Independence Tool to Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, which was cranking up its production of handplanes but wasn’t yet making saws. (Taran isn’t entirely out of the saw business. He now sells restored antique saws at vintagesaws.com as a side job.) Shortly after the sale, Lie-Nielsen began offering a dovetail saw – branded with both the Independence and Lie-Nielsen names – and then the company began selling other patterns of Western saws.
Recently, others makers have entered the Western saw market, including Adria Tools, Wenzloff & Sons, Gramercy Tools and a host of other small makers. And while these companies are making just a dent in the market share commanded by the Japanese sawmakers, it is now possible to purchase an entire kit of quality Western backsaws that work right out of the box. And that is a milestone.
One of the earliest tool catalogs we have, “Smith’s Key,” shows the four types of backsaws available in 1816 from makers in Sheffield, England. Note how this tool catalog shows the blades as tapered – they are narrower at the toe than at the heel. There’s a likely reason for that.
Why Use Western Handsaws?
If you do the math, mass-produced high-quality Japanese saws are a bargain. You can buy a Japanese dovetail saw for $35 that works just as well as a $125 Western-style dovetail saw. Plus, the consensus among many craftsmen and woodworking magazines is that the Japanese saws are easier to start and cut smoother.
So why would anyone (with the exception of a historical re-enactor or pigheaded purist) buy an expensive Western saw? The differences between the two tools are more extensive than the fact that one cuts on the pull stroke and the other cuts on the push. The sawplate on Japanese saws is thinner. Japanese teeth are more complex and longer. And sharpening Japanese teeth yourself can be difficult or impossible, depending on the saw.
As a result of these differences, Japanese saws are easier to kink and ruin, especially in unskilled hands. The teeth can break off in some hard Western-hemisphere woods – I’ve had particular problems in ring-porous species such as white oak. The expensive Japanese saws need to be sent to a specialist for resharpening (sometimes this specialist is in Japan). The inexpensive saws have impulse-hardened teeth, which makes them last a long time but also makes them impossible to refile. The teeth are as hard as a file, so a saw-sharpening file cannot abrade them. This makes the saws somewhat disposable – though you can cut up the sawplates, discard the super-hard teeth and make some thin scrapers with the steel.
In contrast to Japanese saws, Western saws have robust teeth. When I tally the tooth-decay problems I’ve had with saws, I’ve probably lost 20 teeth in Japanese saws but have yet to chip a tooth on a Western saw. You can resharpen Western teeth yourself, or get the job done domestically. Any Western saw can last for generations.
For some woodworkers, the above reasons are a compelling reason to use Western saws. If you are one of those, read on. If you still prefer Japanese saws and want to learn more about using them for joinery, I recommend you get your hands on the immensely readable “Japanese Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” (Linden) by Toshio Odate.
The saw on the bottom is a typical pistol-grip dovetail saw from sawmaker Mike Wenzloff of Wenzloff & Sons. Also shown (at top) is a straight-handled dovetail saw known as a gent’s saw, so named (we’re told) because it was used by gentlemen hobbyist woodworkers in the 19th century.
Four Western Backsaws
The backsaws shown in this article are particular to the English-speaking world for the most part. Traditional European woodworkers still use frame saws, where a thin sawblade is held in tension in a wooden frame, though other saw forms are available and used on the Continent.
Western backsaws are typically separated into four forms, and their details (blade length, number of teeth etc.) are usually traced back to Edward H. Knight’s 1876 opus “American Mechanical Dictionary.” But some modern woodworkers are confused about which of these four saws they need in their shop, so here is a discussion of each saw, its details and the operations that it excels at.
The Dovetail Saw
The most familiar saw to modern eyes, the dovetail saw is the smallest backsaw and has a blade that is 6″ to 10″ long. The blade’s width is between 1 1/2″ and 2″. It can have a pistol-grip or a straight handle. Most beginners seem to prefer the pistol grip because it whispers to your body when the blade is straight up and down. However, using a straight-handled “gent’s saw” isn’t difficult. It just takes a little more getting used to.
The teeth of a dovetail saw are quite fine, between 14 and 18 points per inch (ppi) is typical. However I’ve seen dovetail saws with as many as 23 ppi.
Most woodworkers prefer the teeth filed for a rip cut – a rip tooth has its cutting face filed so it is 90° (or nearly so) to the sides of the tooth.
Recently, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks has begun making a dovetail saw with what is called “progressive pitch.” At its toe, the saw has 16 ppi. Each tooth gets bigger and bigger until the saw has 9 ppi at the heel. The fine teeth make the tool easy to start and the coarse teeth at the heel make it cut fast. The resulting finish is remarkably smooth and after using this saw for a couple years, I have become quite fond of it.
The number of teeth on your dovetail saw should relate to what kind of job you use that saw for. When you have fewer teeth, the saw will cut faster but coarser. The speed comes from the fact that fewer teeth equals deeper “gullets,” which is the space between each tooth. When gullets fill up with waste, the saw stops cutting until the sawdust is removed as the tooth exits the work.
So a fine-tooth saw works well for small work in thin material, such as 1/2″-thick drawer sides. A coarse dovetail saw works better when sawing carcase dovetails in 3/4″ stock or thicker. You don’t have to have two dovetail saws, however. I’d just pick a saw that reflects the work you do most of the time.
Speaking of pushing your tool into unfamiliar territory, many woodworkers end up using their dovetail saw for other chores, including some crosscutting. You can get away with this many times because the teeth of the saw are so fine. However, your cut will be more ragged than if you used the correct tool: the carcase saw.
A classic vintage carcase saw from Wheeler, Madden & Clemson. This saw is 14″ long and has 12 ppi. The carcase saw is used for almost all joinery crosscuts when building furniture.