In Chris Schwarz Blog, Sawing Techniques, Saws

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Some Japanese saws don’t play nice with Western hardwoods.

More than a decade ago, my wife bought me a nice Japanese dozuki that cost about $100, a fortune for us at the time. I took it to the shop and started cutting some dovetails for a Stickley mantle clock I was building. The wood was white oak.

After a stroke or two I heard a pinging sound. Each stroke snapped off several teeth. So I called the catalog company to give them grief. At first, they blamed me and said it was my inexperience with the tool that caused it to commit ritual suicide. I argued that I had been using dozukis for many years. I knew the tool needed a light touch.

Then the guy asked: “What wood were you cutting?” I told him.

“Send it back. And don’t ever use it on white oak or any other ring-porous wood.”

In the years since, I’ve talked to a lot of experts on Japanese saws and they have told me that the handmade Japanese saws have teeth that are more delicate. Many factory-made Japanese saws have teeth that are induction-hardened (which shows up as a dark discoloration at the toothline). These saws haven’t ever given me problems.

I’ve also been told that , in general , Japanese woods are softer than their Western equivalents.

So the lesson for me was: Be careful when using nice Japanese saws.

Today I forgot that rule. I was using a Japanese nail saw to trim some white oak pegs when I lost 18 teeth. This was a saw we had tested in Woodworking Magazine (don’t worry, it wasn’t the winner) and its teeth were not induction hardened.

Ugh. Time to call Lee Valley and buy the winning saw.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 11 comments
  • Travis W

    I bought the LVT "little dozuki" specifically to cut dovetails (which it excells at, BTW) but lately it has become my go-to saw for almost everything. Very clean crosscuts in softwoods and softer hardwoods.

  • ChrisF

    "mdhills", I don’t think the Kugihiki that ChrisS linked to is induction hardened, but I have one and can testify that it cuts white oak (as well as birch and hard maple) just fine.

    One comment on it though…the brass screws in the handle are proud of the wood. I’m thinking about countersinking mine so there’s no chance of them rubbing.

  • James Watriss

    KD fixes the lignin more rigidly than Air Drying… KD is generally not considered to be very good for steam bending as a result. So my guess is that there’s something about the kiln drying that does something similar to what happens when you fire clay, and it compacts and hardens the lignin in a way that doesn’t happen when you simply allow it to dehydrate naturally.

  • Alfred Kraemer

    Why would kiln-dried white oak be tougher on tools than air-dried? Is is harder, or has more ‘internal-tension’?

    Having seen very different qualities/hardness in white oak pieces myself and knowing that white oak can come from a variety of different oaks, I wonder if Chris had used some very hard white oak?
    Nevertheless, I’m surprised about the saw failure and curious about the cause -the saw or the wood.

  • jeff stafford

    Here’s some sites for making japanese planes (dai)
    It might be mentioned that their white oak behaves different than our domestic stuff. also air dried stock is not as abusive as kiln dried.
    When David Calvo was at MASW a couple years ago he talked about "carving" white oak, which has some tradition in europe. It had to be air dried though.


  • Joe Barry

    Japanese plane bodies are made of oak. What do the plane makers use??

  • James Watriss

    There are also Japanese saws available that have teeth that are shaped to handle American hardwoods… like Oak. One that comes to mind is the Ice Bear brand saws.

    But White Oak is known for being a killer anyway. I’ve chipped chisel edges cutting dovetails on QS WO before. I know people who maintain a separate chisel set, ground at a stronger angle, specifically for when they work with oak.

    Given that it can be so brutal to chisels, and requires that the chisels are sharpened to a higher angle, it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise that a saw should be specially set up for Oak. Special tools for special cases, and whatnot. The snapping of saw teeth is still demoralizing though.

    If it didn’t look so nice when it was oiled, I’d be perfectly happy to never work with oak at all…

  • mdhills

    I guess I shouldn’t complain about losing teeth on a screw, then…

    Is the Lee Valley saw you linked to induction-hardened? (i was looking at the website photos for the discoloration you had mentioned)

  • hey chris,

    if you check out my blog this week you’ll see a post of some work i was doing on a dedicated sharpening bench. the bench top is white oak and i needed to make a cut out for a granite insert. low and behold i used my japanese ryoba. it did the job! 1" thick quarter sawn white oak and a relatively inexspensive saw i purchased a few years ago at lee valley- go figure?

  • jeff stafford

    its not a great analogy, but think of the teeth on most japanese saw (softwood style pattern) as being like a paring chisel. You need sharp thin(ner) edge to cut softwood well, otherwise they crush instead of cut. Take same chisel and pound it into oak and it will quickly dull, there is just not enough support there to keep the edge intact. Not every tool is a universal tool.


  • Alfred Kraemer

    While I have usually had a good experience with the cross-cutting Japanese saws, the ripping saws/ or ripping parts of combined crosscut/rip saws – like ryobas – have given me nothing but trouble in hardwoods. The ripping teeth were so aggressive that they caught on the harder woods even after the kerf was already deep enough to guide the saw. Refiling them helped but then you are essentially creating a western-style rip saw.

    I may not have used the right technique, but I honestly wonder if what I experienced with the performance of the ripping teeth can be remedied but better technique.



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