in japan, as in most of asia, most woodworking is done a little differently from western approaches. it is cultural. in a society based on harmony and integration, sacrificing your own safety and pulling the sharp tool became the norm over centuries of development while in the west, where individualism and (perhaps just as importantly) space was abundant, pushing the tool away has become the de facto standard. while these cultural differences remain, there is a huge amount of crossover today and many japanese, chinese and korean companies make tools that work on the pull-stroke (bahco makes some of the most popular saws sold in the west today and most are standard western handsaws) while western companies like veritas and lie nielsen make pull-saws. this is no longer a division between east and west but one between pull and push. of course, it is easier to think of these traditional saws as japanese because it is the classical japanese forms of the saws that are most common and it is in traditional japanese woodworking, as practiced all over the world, that they have mostly found their homes. it is important to remember, though, that you don’t need a low-bench (i hate working on one) or a full japanese woodworking practice to make use of a few of these tools and they are often extremely useful in a predominantly-western woodworking environment.
before continuing, i want to make one thing very clear. there is nothing inherently better or worse about a pull-saw (or any other pull-stroke tool). they don’t do better work or have a higher moral status. learn how to use a tool and you can get near-perfect results regardless of the tool. some are easier to learn, some easier on the body. but if you prefer western-style push-stroke tools, it doesn’t worry me. i’ve used many western saws and my daily-use planes are mostly western simply because they are far easier to maintain than japanese alternatives. a mixed shop of tools from east and west is the prerogative of the modern woodworker and i think it’s wonderful.
that aside, however, you didn’t come here for permission to use a saw. you came here to discover whether there is something sharp in japan you want to integrate in your woodworking life. i think there is. actually, i think there might be three somethings you want to try right now and, if you haven’t tried them yet, you may have been missing out on a game-changing experience, especially if you’re a relatively novice woodworker having trouble sawing straight lines. that’s not because pull-saws are inherently straighter than western saws. it’s just that they’re easier to saw straight with because of the geometry.
i’m going to treat this as a series of questions and answers. being a teacher, that’s how most of my daily life goes and i think it makes it easier to understand.
what’s the difference between japanese and western saws?
there are three and each of these differences has an effect (actually, each has a positive and negative effect and you need to choose which side of the balance you want to be on). they are thickness, direction and density.
japanese saws are generally much thinner than their western counterparts. let’s take a basic example. cutting dovetails is generally done in the west with a dovetail saw. a common dovetail saw like that made by lie nielsen has pretty typical specs so we’ll use it as a proxy for all western dovetail saws. (it is, by the way, a fantastic saw if you want a western one, though very expensive for what it is — if money is no object, though, it’s a great saw.) its plate is .51mm thick. a very popular japanese equivalent saw is the suizan dozuki (in fact, if you didn’t know better, you might look at these two saws and just think they had alternative handles but no other difference) with a plate thickness of .30mm, about half the thickness. the effect of this thinness is that the cut width (the kerf if you want a technical term for it) is much smaller. you get a cleaner line and the saw tracks in the cut more easily. the downside to this, though it doesn’t really apply to saws with backing plates like dozukis and dovetail saws, is that the plate is more flexible so it’s easier to damage and it can bend more in the cut. if you move to a saw without a back and make a comparison between a western panel saw and a japanese kataba, mostly used for the same purpose, the thinness of the japanese saw will allow more flexing. the way it’s used mitigates this but it’s an important difference to remember.
direction is a more obvious differentiating factor. western saws are almost all push-saws while japanese saws are (at least traditional ones) pull-saws. you won’t find a pull-stroke dovetail saw or a push-stroke dozuki. the direction is inherent in the type of saw. what does this actually mean? it means the force in a japanese saw is actually pulling the saw-plate straight and ensuring there is no warping tension. it allows the full force of the woodworker’s weight to be used to drive the saw through the cut, not just the force from their shoulder to their hand. it makes the procedure more holistic and easier to master. does that make it better? no. does it make it a simpler place to start for most people with little experience of tools? absolutely. here’s the other thing about pull tools. they are physically less demanding on the body but they have a wider impact. if you are worried about sore arms and shoulders, a pull-saw may be just the ticket. if your back causes you trouble, you may be in for more tension using a pull-saw. there are ergonomic things to learn about working in either direction to minimize the change of injury but it’s important to remember you’re using your whole body to move a japanese saw and it’s designed with that in mind from the handle to the shape to how you hold the work. when you use a western saw, it’s meant to be an extension of your arm the way a robot in a factory is often nothing more than a motorized arm doing the work. if you want to use another part of your body and get less strain on your dominant arm with a western saw, you can switch arms. with a japanese saw, you’re probably holding it in both hands already unless it’s a very short cut.
density is one that often goes unnoticed as a difference. let’s take that same example pair of saws. the dovetail saw has a pitch of about 1.7mm while the dozuki’s is 1.0mm, again almost half. if you’re not familiar with pitch (and most woodworkers don’t think of it this way so don’t worry if you’re not), it’s the space between the points or teeth of the saw. the larger the number, the farther between teeth. this usually translates to the size of the teeth, too. if you have more space between them, they can be larger. that’s not always the case but it’s a pretty good assumption. a saw with a pitch of 5mm is realistically going to have far larger teeth than one with a pitch of 1mm. a typical large western handsaw is going to have a pitch about 3.5-5mm (also called 5-7 teeth per inch for those who haven’t yet embraced metric) while a typical large japanese saw will be more in the neighborhood of 1-2.5mm (10-25tpi), usually closer to 1. the narrower pitch means a much cleaner cut. i can hear what you’re thinking — if it’s a cleaner cut, why don’t western saws have smaller pitches, too? smaller teeth closer together has a downside. they are more delicate and the cut is significantly slower. so you are more likely to damage the saw during use and the cut will take longer to make. the upside is that it will require less cleanup with a chisel or plane. there are always tradeoffs and one is not inherently better but these are the three primary differences.
of course, there are other things that are different. japanese saws generally have long, rounded handles while most western saws have vertical handles with holes for the fingers. these aren’t universal but it’s a good basic guide. western saws also tend to be much taller while japanese saws are usually quite short (not the length of the blade but the distance from the teeth to the top of the saw).
why are japanese saws so cheap?
perhaps the better question is why western saws are so expensive but it’s an excellent question regardless of which way it’s asked.
there are a few pieces to this. japanese saws are simpler than western saws. the handles are usually rounded blocks of wood — sometimes cylinders but usually closer to ovals in cross-section. the connection to the blade is rudimentary and the blade is a strip of spring-steel with pulse-hardened teeth. yes, there are resharpenable, non-hardened japanese saw plates but they’re mostly not worth the effort and i don’t recommend them even for professional use. this is part of the reason they are less expensive. the plate is meant to be removable and replaceable. when it gets dull, you throw it away (realistically you recycle it) and put on a new one at very low cost. the handle can last a lifetime. if it breaks, though, it’s cheap to replace. these are not collectible tools. they are users and they’re priced that way.
a western handsaw, though, is often treated like a luxury item. not a construction saw but one for fine woodworking is often treated like a lifelong investment, more like an heirloom. it takes many hours to shape and perfect and the plate isn’t usually a simple shape, either, often having sweeping curves and complex geometry. all this extra work translates to vastly higher cost of construction, passed on to the buyer. not to mention they have much thicker materials in both handle and plate and that, if nothing else was different, would make the cost higher. i think the best western saw for most people is the veritas carcass saw. it is priced at a little less than a hundred dollars in america (it varies elsewhere). comparing this to a multipurpose japanese saw like the suizan ryoba, that’s about three times the price. it’s hard to justify such a purchase if you’re not looking for a huge investment, especially as the veritas will require a lot more maintenance like sharpening while the ryoba has a cheaply-replaceable blade that can be swapped in only a minute. this isn’t a criticism of the veritas saw, which i strongly recommend to everyone looking for a western saw as the one saw they need to own. it’s just that there are two different approaches to building and using saws and these approaches have financial results.
people talk so much about handmade vintage chisels from japan so should i buy a vintage japanese saw?
no. simply don’t. as with most things in a technical sense, steel production has become far better as centuries and decades have progressed. buying a modern saw means you will get a more uniform, better-formed steel. this isn’t just the case for saws, by the way. a new japanese chisel is going to be a generally better steel than one made a hundred years ago for many reasons. this isn’t universal but it’s a good guideline. and the same goes for western saws. a brand new plane from veritas, lie nielsen or wood river is simply a better tool than a prewar stanley or union.
but there’s a big difference between buying an old chisel and an old saw, both in the east and west. but this difference in the west makes an old saw an excellent buy if you have spare time and turns an old japanese saw into a crazy purchase nobody should be making. if you buy an old western saw, a disston, for example, something many collectors and woodworkers look for across america and europe, you will likely have to clean it up and resharpen it. but for the cost of a few files, a few hours and a minimal investment, you will have the equivalent of a hundred-dollar new saw for a fraction of the cost. if you buy an old ryoba or dozuki, you will need to clean it up and resharpen it, a process that will take multiple times as long because of the tiny teeth, be far more difficult to learn to do (small teeth are delicate and require far more precision, smaller, more expensive tools, etc) and be far less likely to be done well. and the initial investment will likely be higher as vintage japanese saws are almost exclusively collectors’ items because nobody is interested in restoring them for actual use — for the reasons i’ve just mentioned. couple that to the fact that you can buy a new japanese saw for about thirty or thirty-five dollars — not a cheap one, an actual professional-grade saw that you will be happy with for the rest of your woodworking career, equivalent in every way to a hundred-dollar or multiple-hundred-dollar western saw — and the potential gain to restoring a vintage saw is absolutely zero.
so if you want a good deal on a western saw and you don’t mind some hard work and time investment, get a vintage saw. if you want a quality western saw without the effort, call your local veritas dealer. but if you want a good deal on a japanese saw, buy a new one and skip the frustration and poor buying decisions.
but japanese saws have such long handles and i have to put my tools away!
actually this is a problem that has been solved for centuries and the solution is just as popular today as it was when it was first introduced. there are many japanese saws that come in folding configurations where the blade folds against the handle, making the saw about half the length for storage and transportation. this was first made popular for those who were doing their woodworking on-site and needed to carry their saws in toolboxes or, as was quite common in past times, on their belts. folding the saw gives two advantages — the obvious one is portability but the other is that the blade is protected from damage in transit without requiring any extra protection. suizan and z-saw, for example, offer folding models of their saws and even bushcraft saw manufacturers like silky have embraced this idea. it’s uncommon in western saws but if you want a folding japanese saw you won’t have to look very hard to find one. my everyday saws are actually folding models. my three most commonly-used saws are a suizan dozuki, a suizan ryoba and a silky gomboy, all folding. it makes storage easy and they are protected even if i happen to drop them when they’re not being used, which admittedly happens from time to time. i can also toss the gomboy in my backpack when i go for a hike and it means i can bring back a few blocks of wood to carve if i happen to want — or even build a shelter if i ever really did get lost in the woods.
what’s the difference between the common types of japanese saws?
there are three main types of japanese saws but, like western saws, there are vast numbers of specialty ones. i’ll just talk about the basic three, though — dozuki, ryoba and kataba.
a dozuki is a fine saw designed for small, accurate joinery. it has tiny teeth that leave a very clean finish on the wood and allow a precise cut with almost no cleanup required. it is perfect for delicate joints like dovetails or miters and its small teeth are surprisingly fast to use because you won’t be cutting large pieces with them anyway. they eat through a few centimeters faster than you might expect and the lack of cleanup means the joint comes together very quickly. they have thin plates and a strengthening back to ensure they don’t wander in the cut. i probably use my dozuki more than any other saw because my primary reason for using hand tools is to cut precise joinery. it is the saw i reach for day in and day out.
a ryoba is probably what you think of when you picture a japanese saw. it’s got a blade on each side and the plate is shaped like a tapered rectangle, narrow at the handle, wide at the end. some people talk about the two sides as being for hard and soft wood but that’s not really the case at all, though i suppose it’s not that bad a way to think about it. one side is simply a finer tooth profile than the other. on the fine side, you get a more precise cut that requires less cleanup. on the coarse side, you get a faster cut. the plate is thin, though not as thin as the dozuki as it has no spine/back to keep it straight. this is a multipurpose saw that can be used for any operation. it is, however, fairly small so you’re not going to want to resaw a huge slab with it. there are other saws suited for that purpose and this is certainly not it. for cutting joinery, though, or crosscutting a board for standard furniture construction this is probably the saw most people turn to most quickly. you can think of this as the equivalent of something like a tenon saw in the western world but it can do the duty of a small panel saw, too.
a kataba is the universal saw — actually, some manufacturers really do just sell it as a “universal japanese saw”, notably z-saw, whose katabas are wonderful and relatively inexpensive. this is probably the equivalent of the carcass saw in the west but it has all the functionality of a large panel saw like the “hand saw” of legend (a 70cm+ panel saw with huge teeth by most definitions). it is used for dimensioning operations and even resawing, though not for large panels. the plate tends to be somewhere between about 15 and 30cm long with a typical handle (about that same length for most japanese saws). anything you can do with a miter saw, panel saw or carcass saw, you can do with a kataba. while this sounds like the most useful of saws in the workshop, it’s probably the one i actually use the least because i’m not a handtool-focused woodworker and i’m much more likely to use a machine tool for the rough work a kataba is best at. it’s got a wider tooth spacing than the other saws we’ve talked about and that makes it fast but messier. it’s probably about the same level of cut quality as a western carcass saw for most applications. yes, you can get it sharpened either for rip or crosscut but just get the crosscut version. the rip ones will be rougher cuts and the speed difference is barely noticeable.
by the way, there are plenty of other types of japanese saws from the tiny azebiki to the massive whaleback maebiki with hundreds of subtypes and variations and sizes. this is only an introduction, though, so it’s probably best not to get confusing. if you get hooked on pull-saws, there is a whole galaxy of them to explore. but start with the one of those three that fits your needs best, likely a dozuki if you cut a lot of joinery or a kataba if you do everything by hand and need to dimension a lot of stock as quickly and efficiently as possible.
do japanese saws really cut straighter?
yes and no. you can cut a straight line with any saw. ok, let’s qualify that. if your saw is well-made and well-sharpened and you have good technique, you can cut a straight line with it. that, however, is not always the case, especially the last part. if you have bad technique, a western saw will give you a bent line. every time. i’m sure you’re curious why. even if you have excellent technique and have left the wonky cuts in the past, you may still not know what precisely changed.
think of the saw as a handle attached to a shoelace with a nail on the end. this isn’t a perfect visual but it will demonstrate the issue. take your board and mount it vertically in a vise. this isn’t the only way to hold a piece of wood but it’s great for demonstrating the difference. if you have a push-saw, you stick the nail in the wood on your side just at the top. now try to push the handle so you can cut the wood. the shoelace will bend because you’re putting pressure on it. yes, absolutely, you’re right — the saw plate is less flexible than a shoelace but if it was obvious you wouldn’t need the visual aid that takes the situation to the extreme. the point is where the force is going. the more pressure you put on it, the more likely it is to bend. that bending can happen inside the cut and you will end up with a curved, imprecise line and, just as often, a saw that binds in the cut and either doesn’t move or tears the fibers, leaving a ragged edge on the opposite side of the board. this is something good technique and practice can fix or at least mitigate but it’s the source of the primary problem.
now imagine that same exercise with the shoelace and nail with a pull-saw. you stretch the shoelace over the top of the board and attach it on the top of the opposite side. now the force is pulling against it and the shoelace is straight. no curve at all. yes, you can bend it if you try but it’s not going to just happen because of the pressure, only if you change the whole angle of the saw impacting the wood. this doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a perfect cut. but it does mean it’s vastly easier to predict getting a straight line. if you don’t line it up properly before you start cutting or you shift your body position while making the cut, all bets are off. but if you start straight and keep aligned with the board, you’ll get a straight cut pretty much every time. some people call this the magic of the pull-saw. it’s really just basic physics, though. if you pull something, it will be straight. if you push something, it will curve against any resistance. and if there’s no resistance, you’re not cutting anything.
is there anything special about caring for japanese saws?
honestly no. treat it like you would a western saw. make sure you use some lubricant like paste wax to make sure it doesn’t get stuck in the cut from time to time and keep it clean and dry to prevent rusting. they are relatively low-maintenance and especially the folding ones are so easy to store and transport they make other tools look simply cumbersome. even if you have a damp shop, you can probably skip the preparation and annoyance and just fold up your few japanese saws and toss them in a drawer in your house and they’ll just sit there ready for next time. they’re made with standard spring-steel and the blades are meant to be replaced when they get damaged, worn-out or dull. if you’re using a saw with a non-replaceable blade, my recommendation is simple — replace the saw and get one that takes new blades. if you have one where the blades swap out, you can just treat it the way you do your hammer. ignore it and unless you start beating on it it will treat you well for years.
what japanese saws do you recommend?
i may come back and add links to specific listings in the future but with an audience spread across many countries it seems rather pointless because you’ll want to find a local supplier and those vary wildly. in america and western europe, amazon will carry some of them but usually isn’t the best place to buy. in other places… well, these are recommendations and you’ve used the internet enough to find this article so i’m sure i don’t need to tell you how to search for a product. most of these will cost dramatically less than a hundred american dollars but you can browse local listings and see where you can get the best deal. there’s no aftercare required and manufacturers’ warranties don’t depend on reseller networks the way some products do so get them wherever you like and it will all have the same result. my only caution about suppliers is not to buy used. remember these have replaceable blades so you’re likely going to get a saw that’s not that much cheaper but whose blade will soon have to be swapped so you’ll probably have to spend more even short-term that way.
once you pick a brand and find something you like, you’ll probably do well to stick with that brand and supplier. quality is pretty standardized and i’ve never had a bad product from any of the brands i recommend. if you get something that doesn’t work, get in touch with them and i am certain they’ll fix it. i’ve had a couple of things arrive damaged and silky was happy to deal with it very quickly — mail delivery can do more damage to tools than rust, i’ve often discovered. except for the large outdoor saw, these are all very affordable. they also hold their value well — take a look at the used prices on ebay and they look very similar to new ones, especially given shipping times for some of the new saws. so it’s a small investment with minimal risk.
my first recommendation is a general-purpose outdoor saw. if you like doing green or rough woodworking, there’s a saw for you. actually, there are two by the same manufacturer. for everyday work, i suggest the silky gomboy. it comes in 210, 240 and 270mm versions with medium or large teeth. the medium teeth are slower and not particularly more precise. i find the 210mm version a little small but it’s a folding rough-cut saw for all lumber, wet or dry, that you can take with you in your backpack or even clip to your belt. i highly recommend the 240mm straight version with large teeth. if you regularly do larger stuff, the 270mm is also great.
the counterpart to that is its larger sibling, the katanaboy. it’s another folding multipurpose saw for rough woodworking. you can think of it as a counterpart to a bush axe and it’s definitely not for every woodworker. i’m putting these two up-front because they’re a totally different type of saw from the ones we’ve looked at already today. it comes in a 500mm version (which i love) and a 1000mm version (which i think is a little overkill but totally awesome in the way only a meter-long saw-plate can be). if you work out in the forest and take your woodworking from tree to finished product, this is your dream come true. if you spend your days in a shop and get your wood at the hardwood dealer or lumber store, this saw is beyond overkill. it’s silly. up to you.
if you’re cutting joinery, this is your saw. you’ll reach for it constantly and it will feel like a comfortable blanket in your hand because you’ll get more accurate results than you thought possible your first time using a new tool. my recommendations are very brand-specific and these may have different names in different locations but these are the american (as most people reading this are in america) names. the suizan and z-saw dozukis are fantastic. suizan makes a folding one that i keep by my workbench all the time and the z-saw is solid. that’s really the deciding factor for most people. they come in various lengths and my simple recommendation is to get whichever is the longest you can. you can cut anything with the longer saw and it will give you more speed without sacrificing accuracy. actually, your accuracy will be better with a longer saw because of the distance to the pivot-point in the wood but you don’t need to worry too much about that. either of these, the suizan or the z-saw, will serve your joinery well.
for general cutting tasks, this saw is extremely useful, especially large joinery where the spine on the dozuki gets in the way. it’s slightly less precise but it’s got far tighter, smaller teeth than most western saws so the comparison in cut quality is usually favorable. much as with the dozukis, the same two brands are my recommendation and the difference is the same. the z-saw is fixed-handle and the suizan has the folding option, which i generally prefer. i have found both excellent quality but it’s the suizan (because it’s foldable) that lives by my bench. by the way, the folding saws in this style usually come with a blade-guard on the side that isn’t protected by the handle during transportation but i’ve seen some people think it’s just packaging material and throw it away. don’t do that. if you try carrying it folded without the blade guard, you’ll probably cut your hand open or dull the blade against something — quite possibly both.
there are many excellent katabas out there but my recommendation is predictably simple. again i suggest the suizan or z-saw. the difference here is that the suizan doesn’t come in a folding version. this is something i’m disappointed by but hopefully they’ll release that in the future because it does make things a little more convenient for those of us who work in multiple shops — or hobbyist woodworkers with limited storage space. either saw will serve you well, though.
there you have it. japanese-style pull-saws might revolutionize your woodworking, especially your joinery. they might not. you could be totally happy spending the rest of your shop-time using western saws and never miss a thing. but if you want to explore i hope you’ve found some of this useful. if you have any questions, though, please reach out and ask. i’m passionate about woodworking and furniture design, especially the use of japanese traditional tools, though i don’t restrict myself to them. i’m always happy to get questions from anyone who shares my interest in the craft. happy woodworking!