Saws and Sawing

Saws and Sawing


Sawing is really pretty simple, push and pull with a jagged piece of steel.  But I have to admit there is a bit of a dance involved when cutting things up as a lot is going on between you, the saw, the horses and your stock.  It takes awhile to find a balance to make it all work, but in the doing you will find what does and does not work for you.

I can’t say enough about the importance of having sharp saws.  Most people have never even used a sharp handsaw, and maybe this accounts for the surprised looks I get when I tell people I cut up everything by hand.  A sharp handsaw is a joy to use and a dull one is a nightmare.  For me the best saws are old Disstons, at least when it comes to crosscut and rip saws, even some old English woodworking books say this and it is still relevant today.  Somehow Disston figured out the perfect balance between hardness and ease of sharpening.  I got my old Disston’s from my grandfather’s garage.  They were wrapped up in 20-year-old newspapers, all sharp and ready to go.  Like someone had just gone to the sharpening shop, picked them up and promptly forgot about them.  I have also had good luck with saws made by E. C. Simmons under the Keen Kutter brand name.

Rough cutting the parts for a cabinet does not require a lot of tools, a crosscut and rip saw, marking tools and some sturdy saw horses.  After doing a lot of this I am ready for a nap.  This is also why I cut things up when nothing crucial has to be done later.


Before You Cut Things Up

Most importantly, take your time deciding on how and where you are going to cut things up.  Do what ever it takes to make sure you are cutting wood up just where you want.  Pencil marks or chalk can be very helpful.  Mistakes at this point are extremely frustrating.  While you may get away with gluing a ripped board back together, once you crosscut a piece there is no going back.  Board stretchers haven’t been invented yet.

Be ruthless when it comes to saving offcuts.  Hang on to pieces of a reasonable size but use restraint, as it is very easy to accumulate a large pile of almost useless scrap.  Dusty boxes of offcuts are better suited to the fireplace.

Another thing to keep in mind is to not cut up any more wood than you need at the moment.  You don’t need to cut out drawer stock before you have even made the carcase.  Pace yourself, cut pieces out as you need them.


Saw Horses

After sharp saws, the only other things you really need are a couple of stout saw horses.  You might get by with less than the best quality when it comes to saws, but sawing up stock on wobbly horses is frustrating at best and could lead to your kids learning some new words.

The best way to look at sawhorses is to think of them as a workbench for your saws.  They don’t need to be fancy as you will hit them with saw teeth now and again, but they have to be sturdily built to prevent any motion.  I nailed together a pair thirteen years ago and they are still with me.

A quick and easy way to get the height is to stand up, bend one leg and the distance from your knee to the floor is a good working height.  This allows you to hold down your stock with a knee and get your saw started or move your stock around with your free hand.  This height is also handy for working on a partially completed cabinet.  Keep some carpet scraps around to act as padding when using your horses this way.


Cross Cutting

First remove a short section on the end of your stock to eliminate checks, then use a pencil or chalk to mark your lengths.  Always start the cut by pulling the saw backward while using your thumb as a guide and keep your cut as close to your sawhorses as practical.  Your saw is more efficient when there is support right next to the blade.

Make sure to plan for the inevitable splintering that will occur on the backside of your stock.  Depending on what you are cutting and how important that backside is you may want to flip your stock and cut from the back side.  Or you might even want to go to the trouble of scribing a knife line to prevent the splintering from affecting the piece you want to keep.

Don’t forget to support the offcut as you get to the end of a cut or it will tear out a chunk as it falls, and that chunk will more than likely be on the piece you want to keep.  I just reach across the saw to hold the offcut.  For stock too heavy or awkward to hold I have a stool that serves as a third saw horse.

Never force your saw to work.  If any thing other than light pressure is needed to make your saws work, it is time to head to the sharpening bench.

Find a comfortable pace and let your saw do the work.  Never hurry, as this is when you are most likely to put a kink in the blade and they are difficult to remove at best.  This brings up another point; never loan your saws to anyone.  It is just too easy for someone to damage your saws beyond repair.



Ripping involves some careful planning and coordination to avoid cutting your sawhorses in half.  This doesn’t mean you can’t tag the edge of the horse once in awhile but you want to avoid it if possible.

At least one straight edge on your stock is needed to mark out for ripping to width.  I rough out a square and straight edge with a scrub plane and finish it up with my jointer plane.  You need this edge as a reference for a panel gauge.

A panel gauge is just a marking gauge with a long beam and an oversize fence.  Mine has the capacity to mark out a panel up to 26″ wide.  You will probably have to make your panel gauge just as I had to make mine.  When setting your panel gauge, don’t use a tape measure.  The loose end could create minor errors.  I use a 24″ bi-fold sparmakers rule that I found in a junk store.

Once marked for final width with my panel gauge, I cut the board.  There is an old adage that applies to both ripping and crosscutting (or any hand tool process for that matter) “cut on the waste side and leave the line”.  Leaving the line allows for some clean up as rip and crosscut saws don’t exactly leave a finished surface.

Start the cut just like crosscutting, by pulling your saw backward and using your thumb as a guide.  You may need to do this more than once to get a kerf established.  Once there is enough of a kerf to guide the saw you can move your thumb.

Make sure to have some shims nearby in case the kerf starts to close up and bind your saw.  Slip the shim into the kerf a bit away from the saw and this will keep the kerf from closing on the saw.  The shim should be a bit thicker than the kerf left by your saw and you may have to keep moving the shim along your kerf.  A bar of paraffin rubbed on the sides of your saw can help with a binding blade as well.

Try to keep the saw cutting as close to the horse as you can as this prevents the stock from springing and robbing efficiency from your stroke.  As you begin the cut, the saw is outside the sawhorse, when you have enough kerf move the saw between the horses.  Don’t hesitate to use the entire blade.  You paid for a whole saw so utilize it.

When you get to the end of the cut slow down so you don’t cut into your sawhorse.  Finish the cut with the waste side hanging off the edge of the horse or push the end of your workpiece off to the side with just the corner on the horse and this should give you enough clearance to nick off the waste.


Cutting Curves

Curves take a little more care to cut than a straight line and they also require a different type of saw.  A Bow saw makes quick work of the curves I use on my work.  It has a narrow blade (only 3/8″ wide) that is tensioned by a wooden frame.

Bow saws take a lot of practice to learn to use.  Mostly this has to do with the narrow blade of the saw.  Unlike crosscut and rip saws, the blade of a bow saw likes to wander from your line.

When cutting curves it is very important to cut a clean line.  Your rough-cut curve needs to be as close to your finished curve as possible.  The reason for this is that a curve is far harder to “move” than a straight line and it is also more difficult to finish up the edge when it has a curve cut on it.

The main thing that is different from cross cutting and ripping is just where I make the cut in relation to my marked line.  I find it much easier to follow a curve by cutting directly on my line.  The “leave the line” adage doesn’t apply to curves.  The narrow blade is harder to control than the wide blades of crosscut and rip saws; so slicing right down my line has been very effective.  I make sure that my marked line is just a bit wide of where I want the final curve to end up.   And I find the best way to mark my desired curve is to make a pattern.

To get better control of my bow saw I almost always place my workpiece in my face vise using the saw in a horizontal position.  This way I can concentrate on following my line and not on holding the board down.



I enjoy working with hand tools, but I am not a glutton for punishment.  So, needless to say resawing is kept to a minimum in my shop.  It is bordering on crazy to take a piece of 8/4 stock and slice it into thinner pieces by hand when 4/4 stock is so readily available.  If you are after book matched panels that’s another story.  I am not saying that you can’t do it, I have.  If you have to do a lot of it though, it will wear you out beyond belief.

To make resawing a pleasant experience there are a few things you can do to help.  Don’t resaw more of the stock than you need, shorter pieces are much easier to deal with.  A sharp rip saw is an absolute must.  Stay with softer woods if possible and keep the stock you are cutting up fairly narrow, 5″ to 6″.  Very hard or dense woods should be even narrower.  If your stock is very wide, you may want to consider ripping it in two prior to resawing.  Then glue it back together after you are finished sawing.

Set a marking gauge a bit fat of the thickness you want to end up with.  This bit of extra accounts for the kerf removed by the saw and allows for clean up.  There will be quite a few saw marks to remove and some of them will be rather deep.

Run the marking gauge around the edges of the board.  Make sure to use the same face to mark all four edges.  I don’t worry about the edges being too smooth unless I need to make the scribe line more visible.  And even then, I only knock off the fuzz or waney edge with a scrub plane.  Generally, a scribe line is visible even on rough sawn wood.

I use my face vise to hold the workpiece.  I tip it away from me and start the kerf by cutting right on my line.  Be sure to cut from both sides.  If you try and cut it from only one side you can’t see if your saw is wandering from the scribe line.  And by cutting right on the line there is no guessing which side of the line you are supposed to be cutting on as you turn the board around.

As you get deeper into the board you may need to slip some shims into the kerf.  And when you reach the last part to be sawn this is a must.  Clamping the board in your vise, right on the shim will hold things open so you can finish the cut.

When all is said and done, my hat is off to the pit sawyers of yesteryear…