Understanding Western Backsaws - Page 2 of 2 - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Understanding Western Backsaws

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The Carcase Saw
By far, the most-used saw in my shop is my carcase saw. This saw is so named because it is useful for many operations in building a furniture carcase. A Western carcase saw always has a pistol grip, though ancient versions might have looked more like a chef’s knife with a straight handle and no back.

The blade of a carcase saw is 10″ to 14″ long and 2″ to 3″ wide. It typically has 12 to 14 ppi, and the saw teeth are sharpened to make crosscuts. A crosscut tooth looks different than a rip tooth in that its cutting surface is at a 15° to 24° angle to the sides – 20° is typical. This angle is called “fleam” and it allows the tooth to sever the grain like a knife, reducing the raggedness that would be left behind by a rip tooth.

I haven’t found the number of teeth in a carcase saw to be as critical as it is with the other forms of saws. A 12-point saw and a 14-point saw cut plenty fast enough for most operations, and they both leave an acceptable surface behind.

The difference I think you should pay attention to is the length of the blade. In general, longer saws tend to saw straighter, so I avoid saws that are 10″ long. Getting an 11″ saw makes a difference. A 14″-long saw even more so.

Keep in mind that a saw doesn’t have to be labeled a carcase saw to be a carcase saw. There is some overlap in the saw forms. Pay attention to the specs of a saw in a catalog or in the store. A saw that is 14″ long and filed crosscut with 12-14 ppi is a carcase saw, no matter what the tool seller might label it.

Carcase saws are the jack plane of the backsaw family. They get used for everything, from cutting tenon shoulders to trimming through-tenons to notching out corners to cutting miters. I use them for cutting door rails and stiles to length when working by hand – pretty much any precision crosscut that is on a board that is less than 6″ wide. Plus, almost every time I reach for my carcase saw I’m also reaching for my bench hook.

These two saws are so different in size that it’s hard to believe that they both are called tenon saws. The big saw is a much older (and almost extinct) form.
Tenon Saws
When you start wading into tenon saws, it can get confusing. Knight’s dictionary says a tenon saw should be 16″ to 20″ long (that’s huge) and 3 1/2″ to 4 1/2″ wide (also huge). Tenon saws should have about 10 ppi.

Modern tenon saws are not nearly this big.

These ancient giant tenon saws have nearly disappeared, except in vintage tool collections and from one lone maker, Wenzloff & Sons. I purchased one of these old-school tenon saws and was surprised (strike that, amazed) at how easy it is to use, even when cutting tenons that were dwarfed by the saw’s blade.

The long blade definitely helps the saw track a line straighter and work quickly – a 1 1/4″ tenon cheek can be sawn down one side in six to seven long strokes. And the extra weight of the saw allowed the tool to supply all the downward force necessary when sawing.

The saw’s size does intimidate some woodworkers and they worry that they will tip the tool too much as they begin the cut. However, if you use a second-class sawcut (see “How to Saw” on page 14 in this issue) then starting the saw isn’t much of a challenge.

Some fellow woodworkers have also fronted the theory that this big saw was intended more for cutting the tenons to entryway and passage doors – not for furniture. Perhaps. But I have a couple great old photos that show some real old-timers sawing out huge tenon cheeks. They’re using a big 26″ rip saw. Wow.

I do have one caution if you choose to get a large tenon saw: The sawplate is more fragile than on other Western backsaws. Historically, the sawplate on a tenon saw is quite thin, and because of this vast acreage of thin metal and the fact that the brass back is so far away from the toothline, there is the danger of the saw bending if it is misused. I’m not saying you need to use your tool gingerly. I just don’t know if lending it to your neighbor or teenager is a good idea.

No matter what size tenon saw you choose, the teeth should be filed for a rip cut. Tenon saws are used to cut the cheeks of tenons, which is a rip cut. The carcase saw handles the shoulder cut, which is a crosscut. I also use my tenon saw for other sizable rip cuts, such as when defining the top of a cabiole leg – the square part that attaches to the table’s apron. I also use it for laying a kerf down a tenon to accept wedges (a dovetail saw is slow and makes too small a kerf in most cases).

But if you don’t think the ancient tenon saw is for you, then you should do what most woodworkers do and buy a true sash saw.

Nice saws, but what are they good for? Sash saws are a bit of a mystery to modern woodworkers. Were they undersized tenon saws or oversized carcase saws? Or both?Sash Saws
If you think tenon saws are confusing, you haven’t gotten into a discussion on sash saws. Their name suggests that they were used for cutting the joinery for window sashes, yet they show up in tool catalogs and inventories of people who built fine furniture. And there is no consensus among tool scholars as to whether they were filed rip or crosscut or both.
So what is a sash saw? Knight’s dictionary says that a sash saw has a blade that’s 14″ to 16″ long and 2 1/2″ to 3 1/2″ wide. The sash saw has 11 ppi. Those specifications look a lot like what we moderns would call a tenon saw.

To see if I could learn anything about the sash saw by using it, I bought two sash saws that were made to Knight’s general specifications, one filed crosscut and the other rip. After a couple years of use I found that the crosscut sash saw was effortlessly doing all the jobs of my carcase saw, and the rip-tooth sash saw had somehow become my daily tenon saw.
This makes sense because the sash saw’s specifications overlap with both the carcase and tenon saws, according to Knight’s dictionary. What became clear to me in the end is that you might not need a sash saw if you already have a tenon saw and a carcase saw.

Your Basic Saw Kit
I think that most woodworkers who want to use Western handsaws can do all the common operations with three backsaws: A dovetail saw, a large backsaw that’s filed crosscut (either a sash or a carcase saw), and a large backsaw that’s filed rip (either a sash or a tenon saw). Exactly which saw you need depends on the size of your work and the characteristics of your body. Do you have large hands? Then you should try a tenon saw. Do you build jewelry boxes? Then you should select a fine-tooth dovetail saw.

Once you pick your three saws, I recommend that you stick with that set for a couple years before you get disgruntled and start test-driving other saws. Sawing (like sharpening) is a skill that develops over months and months. And one of the critical parts of learning to saw is getting comfortable with your saws. You need to understand – by instinct – how wide each saw’s kerf is, and how fast each saw cuts.

Many woodworkers find that certain forms of saws speak to them when they use them. I’ve let more than 100 students use my saws and find that to be true. Certain people gravitate to certain forms of saws. A few people end up purchasing all the forms. But one thing is certain: After using a sharp well-made Western saw, almost none of them go back to their Japanese saws. WM

Adria Woodworking Tools
604-710-5748 or adriatools.com

Gramercy Tools
From Tools for Working Wood
800-426-4613 or

Lie-Nielsen Toolworks
800-327-2520 or lie-nielsen.com

Wenzloff & Sons Saw Makers
503-359-4191 or wenzloffandsons.com

Halfback Saws: A Jack of All Trades or a Half-baked Idea?
Recently some woodworkers (myself included) have become interested in halfback saws, a rare form of saw that was made by several sawmakers, including Disston, which made the saw between 1860 until the 1920s, according to Pete Taran.

The halfback was supposed to be a hybrid saw between a full-size handsaw and a backsaw. The small back wouldn’t get in the way of many large crosscutting chores, but it would stiffen up the blade enough for joinery.

The saws are fairly rare, so it’s safe to assume the idea didn’t catch on with consumers. While that would doom the saw in the mind of a pragmatist, I reasoned that the halfback might be a tool whose time had not yet come. Perhaps it’s like the low-angle jack plane – that tool was a commercial flop last century when it was invented but is an extremely popular plane in this one.

So I’ve been using a few versions of halfback saws in my shop for the last three years. And here’s my conclusion: I think the halfback is a good tool for a woodworker who doesn’t want to own both a carcase saw and a full-size handsaw that’s filed for crosscuts. You can use this one tool for both. It’s not perfect for both operations, but it does a yeoman’s job.

When crosscutting stock on a sawbench, the halfback is fairly useful until you start trying to crosscut boards wider than 6″. Then the little brass back tends to strike the work during the downstroke. When used at the workbench, the halfback is indeed stiff enough for most cuts that a carcase saw would be used for, but it’s not as assured a tool as the carcase saw on small bits of work (it is, for example, overkill when crosscutting dowel pins).

So I don’t think every shop needs a halfback saw. But mine does. I enjoy using it a great deal and it keeps me from shuffling as many saws around on my workbench when it’s out. — CS

This custom halfback saw is beautiful, but is it just wall jewelry?

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