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 In Featured Article, Shop Blog, Techniques, Tools

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One of the greatest moments in marketing history was the mass adoption of power tools following World War II. Before then, the standard thinking was that just about anyone could pick up a saw and cut a piece of wood. Within 20 years that notion became an eccentricity. If you want to sell anything to a woodworker, the first thing to do is sell him on the idea that he can’t possibly perform a given task without your tool, gadget, jig or gizmo. So many people bought into the notion that an average person couldn’t use a handsaw to cut to a line, that tools that actually could work nearly disappeared.

That situation has been changing, but a great number of otherwise rational people are convinced that one simple skill, sawing to a line, is beyond them. And there is also a large group that is willing to consider it possible to saw, but are paralyzed by two things; how to practice, and what saw to start with. There are a lot of premium saws on the market, and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. But without some experience, you won’t be able to intelligently choose between them. The saw pictured above is half the price, works very well, and is the one I would buy if I were just starting. Get the 14tpi to start with, and don’t give in to the temptation to buy the set.  You should also make a bench hook, similar to the one in the picture.

Keep your grip relaxed; pretend your shaking hands with your great-grandmother. And stick your index finger out and rest it on top of the back. You don’t need to muscle your way through sawing, this calls for a gentle touch and some finesse. The saw is heavier on top, with the center of gravity in line with your extended finger. Lean it from side to side and you will develop a feel for when it is vertical.

The right body position is important. My right leg is back, and my foot is pointing in the direction of the camera. Most of my weight is on the other leg, and my knee is bent so I’m not leaning uncomfortably. My right arm is in the same plane as the saw, so I can move my arm back and forth from the shoulder. I don’t want to be flopping my wrist or swinging my elbow. Move with the shoulder, guided by the index finger.

To get a cut started, put the thumb of the left hand up and against the side of the blade. This is to give you a reference for vertical as you start the cut. You can also check the reflection of the board in the saw blade. The reflection and the real board should form a straight line. To take the picture above, I had to look through the viewfinder of the camera, click the timed shutter and get my hands back in position. I’m getting old, so my eyes aren’t so good and I’m not as fast as I once was. I’m lined up a little off square; to make the cut I want, I should swing the handle of the saw to the left a little, so that the reflection makes a nice horizontal line.

If I’ve been away from the shop for awhile, or using a saw I haven’t used lately, or feeling less than 100% confident, I will make some practice cuts in the waste area. For those of you playing along at home, I’m cutting the notch in the end of the Gottshall Block. Actually I’m about to cut it, this is just warm up. Try this on a piece of scrap; cut 8 or 10 lines without marking anything. Try to cut across squarely and vertically. When you’re done, check with your square to see how close you came. 10 minutes or less of doing this will get you much farther than trying to cut exactly to a line to get started.

My grandfather, father, uncle, older brother and several skilled cabinetmakers all told me to “let the saw do the work”. It only took me about twenty years to realize that what they meant was “let the saw do the work”. The tool has evolved and been optimized to cut wood cleanly and easily. I just need to give it a gentle push to get it started. It’s hard to describe how gentle, but it’s almost as if I’m trying to hold the teeth above the board. If I can get the teeth to move across the wood along my line, they will start to cut. From there on in, the saw will follow along in the kerf if I let it. Knife or gauge lines make this easier.

This simple skill is one of the most empowering in woodworking. If you can successfully saw to a line, you can make just about anything if you know where to put the line. Frank Klausz once said, “if you’re learning to cut dovetails, and you can’t stay on the line you shouldn’t be practicing dovetails. You should be practicing sawing to a line.” Frank knows his stuff.

–Robert W. Lang

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Showing 5 comments
  • rwbaker

    Dear Mr. Lang,

    Your assumption that the uptake in power tools following WWII was due to marketing is far from the truth of the matter. Power tools were available in quantity from apx 1925 forward; they were just too expensive for the average consumer. If you research Popular Mechanics (available on Google) from 1900 on, they explain how to create the perfect shop in every issue, with power and hand tools for metal and wood working. During the war years the populace was exposed to power tools and the prices came down as war demand increased. The men in uniform were also exposed to power tools. After WWII the factories of war were closing at an unprecedented rate and manufacturers had to convert or become a historical footnote. The returning soldiers coupled with a chronic need for housing fueled the power tool industry (now with advanced manufacturing and lower cost) as the only way to make the needed housing and furniture in the quantities needed. Soldiers purchased the least sq. footage available for the least cost and then added rooms in the period after 1947 to the early 60’s. While marketing was involved, it was not until the mid-60’s that power tools were marketed in such a way as to truly increase sales. The power tool knowledge gained by the masses, coupled with the need for affordable housing and the pent-up need for the accessories of life created a market that power tool manufacturers were all to eager to fill. I use hand tools as needed having inherited my great grandfathers (a shipwright) collection and make many of my own with my metal working skills. I also taught marketing to several generations of industrial sales people, using this very example; this is one of the very few examples where the elements of history come together to create a need – real or imagined. I am thankful that you are teaching generations about the utilization of hand tools as the last 50 years have taught me that mechanical knowledge in general is at the lowest point since Neanderthal man.

    With best regards,
    R. Baker

  • Brock

    I’m just getting into woodworking, and these Gottshall block articles are excellent.

    I’ve kinda been middling around trying to work out where to start, and this is the perfect project.

    I’ll be starting one shortly.

  • S Starkie

    Great project Bob. Achievable, satisfying and worthwhile learning. Thanks for this.

  • Bob Lang

    The differentiation between rabbet and fillister is English I believe, and I don’t think it was commonly considered in the US when Gottshall wrote the book. I used the labels Gottshall used. The grain runs the length of the block.

  • Dan Sheehan


    I’ll learn a lot with this project. I have a question on terminology, yours or Gottshall’s. I seem to have read somewhere that a Rabbet goes with the grain and a Fillister goes cross grain. Is that right? Or just a technicality?

    I’m having trouble with downloading sketchup so I really can’t see the whole model. I’m going by the photo. Is the grain oriented correctly? Not trying to be a smartass, just trying to learn. I’d love to see a lexicon somewhere.

    Thanks for this presentation.


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