the disunited saws of america

[estimated reading time 24 minutes]

i have often discussed the difference between western saws and their eastern counterparts for people interested in potentially adding them to their collections — or for those starting and likely to discover the eastern ones are often easier to learn, more efficient and vastly more economical. this, however, has left a bit of a gap in what i have said and i am often asked about these western saws, not just the ones i use for comparison but where someone would start and where to go from there in terms of western saws. for example, a student just beginning who decides they want to build their knowledge and skills on the push-saw side of the urals — you know, the mountains that divide europe from asia. and that’s where the dividing line tends to be. traditional saws in china, japan, korea, vietnam and thailand are all pull-saws. traditional saws in europe, africa and the americas (yes, even before the conquests) tend to be push-saws, though in these places there is a little more variation than the complete absence of popular push-saws in the east.

there’s one small exception to this that may not be relevant in a modern context but i think it’s useful to point out. both eastern and western traditions have had for millennia saws that cut in both directions — you pull and it cuts then you push and it cuts. these saws tend to be more useful either for very simple, rough tasks or large ones — it’s not at all unusual to find a two-person saw sharpened to cut in both directions because that way both people are doing equal cutting work. if it’s a pit-saw, it will probably only cut one way. but if it’s a logging saw it’s quite likely to cut on both strokes. if you’re curious, pit-saws almost always cut on the pull-stroke regardless of location and this is normally oriented to be the pit side rather than above the workpiece — the person below the piece (in the pit) pulls the saw down and makes a cut then the sawyer standing on the wood pulls the saw back up to align it for the next stroke.

i need my space

that aside, though, we’re talking about two very different traditions. in eastern cultures, there is a history of personal sacrifice in crafts while in western ones it is mostly about personal expression. these are fundamentally different and it can’t be overstated how much of a difference this makes not just to the philosophy but the application — if i am more interested in keeping those around me safe, i will learn to cut, plane and chisel so if anything goes wrong the blade is facing me and won’t hurt anyone else in the shop. if i am an individualist and live in a place with lots of space, i may turn that around and make sure if anything goes wrong i’m safe and anyone else is at risk if they happen to be nearby. of course, modern woodworkers tend not to have to think about such things because our tools are accurate and tend not to fall apart or out of our hands during normal use. but millennia ago this was a serious consideration and the culture had a lot to do with it.

strong like ox, smart like fridge?

the other deciding issue is cultural ideas of strength. being physically strong has been a huge component of western society from the days of moses and homer. being peaceful and flowing with nature has been the fundamental basis of chinese (and its derivative societies’) life and culture since long before master kong and master lao (if this doesn’t ring a bell, i recommend a book on chinese philosophy but the first founded what we now know as confucianism, the second taoism). from a physical perspective, that has generally meant westerners were physically larger and stronger and were encouraged to do things that looked “manly” or physically demanding. after hundreds of generation of breeding pressure, this has become a huge racial difference clearly visible between an average member of western or eastern races. that’s not to say all people in america are either bigger or stronger than all koreans, for example. but looking at average weight, height, strength, muscle-size, etc, this difference is not trivial. why does that matter for woodworking? well, it can be a craft of using mechanical advantage wherever possible or one of sheer brute strength. if you want direct pressure strength to be the dominant factor in your workflow, it’s probably easier just to push the tools (in particular the saws and planes). if you want to use the torsional and levering advantage of physics and apply far less physical force, do these tasks on the pull-stroke and they will be less demanding.

knees ain’t just for praying

here’s another difference. we of the japanese-woodworking persuasion have a history of doing much of our work kneeling or sitting. it’s less exhausting that way. but if you try to use a push-saw or push-plane that way you’re simply not going to be able to put enough mass or energy into it to make it work in most serious boards. do it on the pull-stroke and that mechanical advantage compensates for the lack of body momentum.

i know this sounds like a glowing recommendation for japanese (and other asian) tools over western ones. it’s not. it’s not that one is better than the other. it’s that they are different tools meant to work in different ways to accomplish the same task (approximately) but with vastly-different results.

purposes and aims

japanese saws tend to make cleaner, straighter cuts. this isn’t because japanese craftspeople are better. it’s because the tools are designed with that as the focus. western saws tend to make rougher, faster cuts. again, it’s not because western woodworkers are better or prepared to commit more to the task at hand — the saws are physically designed to sacrifice precision for speed. compared to a ryoba, a 26” handsaw is probably closer to a chainsaw — the cut is rough, rarely perfectly-straight but takes almost no measurable time while the ryoba’s is straight and clean but dramatically slower. this reflects a different workplace methodology.

japanese planes are mainly meant for final smoothing. yes, there are exceptions and traditional woodworkers will whine about that statement because it’s not completely true. but it is generally correct. most western planes are meant for stock removal. if you take that to its logical conclusion, you’ll see why the saws are setup in this way. if you have a woodworking tradition where boards are expected to be rough and corrected with planes, an inaccurate, fast cut is exactly what you’re looking for — you’ve probably got a whole toolchest of planes ready to quickly knock that component into shape. if, however, you want to be able to apply a few smoothing strokes of a plane or chisel and have the thing ready as a furniture component, taking the time to get a much cleaner, more accurate line on the cut makes far more sense. saws don’t exist in vacuums in woodworking. they have to coexist with chisels (and these differ quite a bit in usage — ask me if you’re interested and i’ll stick it on the list to talk about) and planes (which i just explained but there’s a lot more detail there, too, if you’re curious). the important part, though, is that if you want to work in a western-style woodworking tradition, a western-style saw is probably the best approach. if you are in a pare-and-smooth-only eastern traditional environment, there’s no place for a large, rough push-saw.

decisions, decisions!

once you’ve made your choice which path you want to go down (or potentially both, which is increasingly common), you can start picking your saws. but which ones, you’re asking, i know. if you’re not hugely familiar with western saws, there’s a bewildering array. some can be acquired used while others are wisest to get new — actually, you can get new version of all of these and that’s always the best option if you have the money but there are some you can source used and be happy with while others are probably best to avoid the used market on because you’ll spend just as much for an inferior tool.

what’s old is … still fucking old

let’s talk about the used market for a second before we get into saw types, actually. there are three reasons to by used tools — economic, sentimental, investment. the economic side is simple. you can save money. but be careful. you might be throwing good money after bad in a massive way. but you could get a good deal. i’m not sure who said it first (tage frid, perhaps?) but woodworking is a balance of money, time and annoyance. you can spend more or less of any of them but the less you spend of one, the more of the other two you spend. buy a brand-new veritas tenon saw and you’ll spend no time or annoyance. buy a beat-up old disston and you’ll probably save significant money but it will take time to get working again (possibly money, too, if you don’t want to sharpen it yourself, which i highly recommend you don’t) and annoyance if you buy it and find the plate is actually damaged in a way that’s not easily-repaired — for example, serious kinking that doesn’t want to come out with alternate-direction bending and instead needs actual heat and pressure, something not easy to do in a home shop, especially not a woodworking-oriented one. that’s not to say the disston might not be worth it. some of those floating around for ten or twenty bucks at auctions and estate-sales and flea-markets are absolutely fantastic if you don’t mind the time investment and potential annoyance. but it’s good to be aware of it.

sentiment is the next potential reason to buy used. are you a traditionalist? do you want to use tools used by woodworkers in past generations? or perhaps you’re a collector, not a user — if you’re a collector, this is probably not the blog you want to be reading but you’re certainly welcome — or an antique dealer. maybe this is a secondary passion for you and you’d like to tick both boxes on your leisure-time form and that’s definitely possible. there are great examples of history out there to be purchased. but if you’re concerned with looks and pedigree and style, this tends to run counter to usability and it’s important to be aware of that. restoring that pristine handle is doable. but if you use it every day in your shop it’s not going to stay that way for long and you’ll spend far more on an old tool that looks good because that’s what all the other collectors want, too. or maybe it’s the other kind of sentimental. your grandparents’ workshop passed down to your parents, now to you. and you want to use those tools because it feels connected to your past. there’s nothing wrong with that. and it’s usually pretty cheap. sort-of. you’re not paying in money. but you might be paying in effort, time and annoyance. new tools really are better. not individually but on average — machining is better and steel production is dramatically better, not just better than a hundred years ago but even better than twenty or thirty. i’m not a metallurgist but i can give you the basics of what’s improved in steel production — consistency. if you want the details, though, talk to your friendly-neighborhood metals researcher and they’ll probably be very happy to talk about new alloys and standardized heat-treatment procedures all day.

the third reason is investment. if you’re investing in tools because you’ll be able to sell them for more, you don’t want to use them. this is a valid reason to purchase old tools but that’s not even close to my target audience. i assume you want to use them. if you use them, they’ll be less valuable. you might break them. you’ll definitely wear them, possibly wear them out. i buy tools to use until they die or i do first. i’m not going to sell them unless i don’t use them. if i don’t use them, i regret buying them in the first place and the sale is just to get back some of the money and space. the only reason i really mention it (other than completeness) is that it’s important to remember when you’re buying old tools you’re competing with these people — those who want to invest. and they might have a good sense of the market and deep pockets to outpace you when it comes to what you’re prepared to (or should be prepared to) invest.

the eighth rule and the quarter exception

i think there’s a pretty good formula for buying used tools for use (this doesn’t apply to antique collecting and reselling but i think it’s good as a general practice for woodworking things). i will seriously consider anything up to about 1/8 the price of the new tool as a good idea to purchase. let’s take a carcass saw, for example, as this is my favorite western-style saw. the veritas carcass saw costs $89 at woodcraft and lee valley right now. it’s a great saw. actually, i think it’s the best carcass saw on the market today — better than those multiple times its price — but we’ll get to that later. that means if i go to a flea market and see one for $10, that’s something i’m going to think very hard about taking home with me. if i see one for $50, it’s a hard-no and i’m starting to wonder what the guy behind the table was smoking. i don’t care what it is. i don’t care where it came from. that’s getting close to the territory of the new one and it’s never worth it to get something that’s going to take time and effort to produce a result that’s not even nearly as good to spend almost as much money in the process. i will often bend my equation from 1/8 to 1/4 when the thing i’m looking for is particularly rare but saws are plentiful in much of the world and there’s rarely a need. still, any more than $10-$20 (or equivalent in your local currency) for an old saw that needs some work (or even an old saw that needs relatively no work) is just asking for regret. put it down and move on. you’ll find another one that’s a better deal. or you’ll buy new and be happy you did.

this rule applies to chisels and planes, too, by the way, along with all other handtools. i might spend 50-60% of the new price on a relatively-new, functional powertool like a tablesaw or drillpress. but we’re not talking about a hundred-year-old tool that’s going to require serious repairs. if i can’t take it home, plug it in, align the parts and get to work, there’s no saving worth it. i’m not a machinist. i’m not disassembling the drillpress and spending a week getting it back up and running. either it works or it doesn’t. if it doesn’t, it could be free and i’m not wasting my time carrying it home. i’ll just end up giving it away or having to pay to have it scrapped a few months later and it’ll make me feel incompetent — i might be able to figure it out but i’m certainly not going to. i hate fixing mechanical objects. you might love it. if you do, go for it. and if you live near me you may be on the receiving end of occasional ones i get as gifts and can’t turn down. but i don’t do it. i might be prepared to fix broken chairs and tables but even that’s only something i’ll do for family and close friends. and i avoid it like the plague and usually break out the domino and epoxy to avoid spending more time than absolutely necessary on such projects.


with all that preamble out of the way, though, let’s talk about the three main types of western saws — backsaws, panelsaws and framesaws. some people write these as multiple words, others with hyphens, others like me. i suggest thinking of them as single words because they’re single items. i’m a linguist. it makes more sense that way. you can do what you like.

a backsaw is a saw with a thin plate and a rigid back to keep the plate straight in the cut. these include tenon, carcass and dovetail saws. the back means the plate can be thin because it doesn’t have to resist warping on its own — the back holds it straight. it also means the saw can be much stronger without having large teeth. those teeth on a panelsaw are going to bind and flex far more because the plate is under more pressure from the force of the cut but a backsaw shifts the pressure to the back and that piece of steel, brass, plastic or whatever will take the brunt of the torsional forces that could otherwise deform or even sheer off teeth.

a panel saw is the simplest of saws — a piece of steel attached to a handle. the shape varies but it tends to be loosely trapezoidal, like a triangle with the far corner chopped off — long and pointing away from you as you use it. the reason for this is partly balance, partly aesthetics. it looks pretty that way and it is easier to balance with the weight generally closer to the handle. panelsaws include things like handsaws (i’ll get to the definition in a minute but it’s not what you think it is) and bench saws (a general term but usually just a smaller panelsaw). the major high-quality manufacturers like veritas, lie nielsen and company tend not to make these saws and you’ll need to find other sources. you can get them at your local hardware store but don’t. the quality there is somewhere in the neighborhood of what you’d be served at the beach by a two-year-old whose culinary talents include serving sandwiches in the shape of sand with a side of seashells. there are half-back saws that combine the rigidity of a backsaw with the flexibility of a panelsaw by having the back go part (not always half but sometimes, giving them the often-inaccurate name) way along the plate. they’re an interesting idea. but if you want a panelsaw because it means you can cut deeper, the back will probably get in the way. if it won’t get in the way, you could probably have had the advantage of using a full backsaw and skip the hybrid.

a framesaw is another traditional idea (turning-saws, coping-saws, fretsaws, etc also fit in this loose category) where the idea is much like a backsaw, keeping the blade tensioned. instead of being against (or around) the blade, however, these lift the tensioning method far from a very small blade, allowing the saw to cut far deeper in the wood (often without depth limitation by turning the blade perpendicular to the cutting action in cases where it’s necessary) without requiring it to be thick or rigid. it’s probably the most fundamental advance in western saw development in the past five-thousand years and it’s certainly worth paying attention to. this change also meant a saw could be made mostly of wood with little metal and that means you can build one yourself from inexpensive parts (often parts you can make yourself) and have a serious quality tool that will outperform hundreds of dollars of panelsaw but you’ll probably spend a day or two making one (or at least a few hours if you’re a hybrid woodworker and can speed up the process with the application of electrons and rotational force).

too sharp to handle?

before i talk about the specifics of each of those, though, let’s take a look at the other fundamental differences between western and eastern saws that might be clearer now you have an understanding of the general types. most eastern saws are meant to be held in one or two hands with almost no pressure. a rounded (or ovular) handle makes sense because it’s not taking pressure. on a western saw, this tends to be a pistol-grip because you need to have a much more controlled connection to the saw itself. that doesn’t mean grip it hard. don’t. if you’re holding it tightly, you’re doing it wrong. without exception. it should be loose in your hand — imagine the saw handle is actually an egg and apply exactly as much force as you think an egg could withstand. or your infant child’s hand. don’t crush their fingers (you brute!) — your cuts will thank you in their precision. but you need torsional control for a western saw in a way eastern saws simply don’t need. if you get a western saw with a rounded handle (other than a framesaw, which generally has a reason for it and this reason is similar to the eastern saws’ reason), it’s called a “gent’s saw” — as in, gentleman. as in, someone who’s just playing around with woodworking because they’re an aristocrat and they don’t do anything but mess around in life. seriously. that’s why it’s called that. don’t be a gent. put down the gent’s saw. it might be pretty. you might be, too. but all that mascara and blush isn’t going to help you cut straight. get a pistol-grip backsaw or panelsaw and leave the cosmetics for the next time you hit a club (are there even clubs anymore? or do we call those vaccination centers now?).

game, set, pitch? or is that fleam?

the other thing that someone is going to ask (and i’ll explain it in detail if you really want but i don’t think it’s important for beginners to really dive this deeply) is about set, rake, fleam and pitch (the last is vital but very simple). when a saw cuts wood, the wood presses against the plate of the saw that’s not the teeth. wood is organic. it moves and compresses and swells. once the cut is made, there’s nothing to force it open except the plate of the saw (unless you shove some wedges in, which you might have to do if it’s a deep cut, even with lots of set). it will bind — it will often bind so badly the saw can’t move. i’ve broken saws this way and cracked teeth. the solution to this is to add set. bend the teeth slightly wider than the plate of the saw so you’re cutting a larger kerf in the board. now when the cut closes, it doesn’t grip the plate as tightly. you end up with a rougher, wider cut. but you don’t bind on the saw. it’s a balancing act. the more set you add, the sloppier the cut will be and the less precise the result. the less set, the more chance the cut will be difficult or even impossible to make. western saws usually have a lot more set (the bigger the saw, the more the set) than eastern saws even at the same size.

rake and fleam are the sharpening angles. if you look at the tooth up-close, rake is the angle of attack — how tilted forward or back in the direction of the cut the tooth is. fleam is the twist or bevel angle. in some saws, this means the teeth are shaped like chisels with a bevel cut in alternate (or rarely other patterns) teeth. on others, though this is far less common, the teeth are actually rotated off-center. this is generally done by hand and i’ve never seen a machine-made saw done this way. it has no advantage and it’s mechanically less effective than just sharpening bevels on the saw. but innovation is the result of many failures and this is one you may still see floating around. a rip saw (for cutting in the direction of the grain — i covered this in detail recently in another article) will generally have little rake and fleam if any while a crosscut saw (across the grain, get it?) will have quite a bit — if you try to cut along the grain with a knife, it will usually work fairly well but you need a chisel to go across the grain and the saw pattern is analogous. if you have a saw sharpened by a professional and you tell them what you’re using it for, these are interesting things to know but they’ll take care of it. if you sharpen yourself (poor you — seriously it’s more like listening to three experimental pieces of music at maximum volume at the same time through noise-cancelling headphones), you’ll need to know. but the easiest thing to remember is don’t bother with them on saws for ripping and for crosscutting add maybe 15-20 degrees of both (probably less rake than fleam but you’ll want to play with it to find your perfect numbers). there are many hundreds of thousands of pages of theory about saw sharpening. if you’re interested, you may dive down that rabbithole ([this is a relatively-modern one] but there are thousands of books and they make my head spin). for those of us who prefer to use our tools and keep maintenance to a bare minimum, i shall move on to the one that really matters.

pitch is the space between the teeth. this is important beacuse it’s the main determiner of saw speed, cut quality, controllability and delicacy. small teeth = slow cut, high precision, good finish. big teeth = fast cut, low precision, rough finish. these are general guides but they’re good as comparisons. this is generally measured in millimeters but you’ll see traditional saws from premetric times measured in points or teeth per inch (ppi/tpi). if you divide 25.4 by the tpi value (tpi=ppi-1), you’ll be able to make this conversion very quickly. here are some good approximates, though, to get you started with common pitches — they really are approximate but given how imprecise saws tend to be in their sharpenings i suspect it won’t make any difference and it’s a good way to convert if you’re used to seeing tpi/ppi — especially if you’re looking at auction listings where the traditional saws will definitely be sold that way.

  • .8mm = 31.8tpi
  • .9mm = 28.2tpi
  • 1mm = 25.4tpi
  • 1.1mm = 23.1tpi
  • 1.25mm = 20.3tpi
  • 1.5mm = 17.0tpi
  • 1.75mm = 14.5tpi
  • 2mm = 12.7tpi
  • 2.5mm = 10.2tpi
  • 3mm = 8.5tpi
  • 4mm = 6.4tpi
  • 5mm = 5.1tpi
  • 6mm = 4.2tpi
  • 7.5mm = 3.4tpi
  • 9mm = 2.8tpi
  • 12mm = 2.1tpi
  • 15mm = 1.7tpi
  • 20mm = 1.3tpi

if you’re going above 20mm or below .8mm, you’re not talking about a typical saw (even at those extremes you’re outside the norm).


if you want to get into cutting joinery with a western-style saw, you want a backsaw. the first thing you’ll probably think of is a dovetail saw because you want to start cutting dovetails. but hold on a minute. that’s probably not the first one you want to buy. actually, you may never want to actually buy one except just to finish your collection if you’re a hoarder. but there’s rarely a need for it.

carcass saw

sometimes you’ll see this spelled differently. i’m going to say this once so everyone gets it the first time — this is how you spell it. if you spell it a different way, that’s not modern english spelling. if you’re ok with that, go for it. if you want to speak modern english, this is how we spell the word whether it’s a saw, a cabinet or a dead animal. remember that part about being a linguist? yes. i was serious. that really is what i did my doctoral research on — language development and acquisition. does that mean i judge you by your language? you bet all your asses. it’s a safe bet. even when you’re sitting down.

that linguistic tangent aside, though, this is the first western saw you should buy. it’s a general-purpose, accurate backsaw. it’s usually about 60mm high with a 1.8mm-ish pitch. that means it cuts quickly and precisely — it’s a good mixture of speed and accuracy — and 60mm is deep enough for dovetails and most tenons. it’s a crosscut saw, which means it can go across the grain well but it’s easy enough to cut with the grain, too. it’s a little slower than a dedicated rip-saw but the rip-saw will likely cause more issues in terms of accuracy and roughness cutting across the grain than this will in the other direction. so if you’re going to have one joinery saw this is it.

who makes a good one? there are quite a few. i think the best one on the market is by veritas — and this isn’t just because i’m a canadian citizen. but my general take on veritas is that if they make a tool, they make the best one currently available. i haven’t found an exception to this yet. there are many tools they don’t make. but if you buy the veritas you won’t regret it. here are a few options, though, to take a look at for a carcass saw (starting with my personal top recommendation). i’m not going to give these links for every type of saw — these same manufacturers are my suggestion for whichever saw you buy so just browse through their sites. yes, you can buy a cheap panel saw and if you’re going to do that, get a [bahco]. they’re solid and generally accurate but they’re not premium saws and you get what you pay for. buy what’s at your local box-store and you won’t get what you pay for. you’ll get worthless crap and kick yourself all the way to the returns desk. you can pick up a bahco from all kinds of places (like amazon) for twenty bucks or less. if, however, you want to devote a little more money (<$100 for veritas, $100+ for lie nielsen, $200+ for florip and bad axe), these are my recommendations. i would avoid other brands unless they’re individual makers — there are many brands that sell saws with names like pax and lynx. just don’t bother. they’re not worth it. if you want to save money, get one of the bahco (not necessarily the one i’ve linked — that’s just one of many they make and you can pick what’s available near you as it varies wildly by location) saws. don’t go cheap on semi-premium. either dive in all the way (in the case of a backsaw, probably a veritas, for a panelsaw, get a florip or bad axe or other custom maker) or just put up with the cheap one cause the middle-of-the-road shit really won’t feel or cut any better. that’s the end of that rant and here’s your list (links are to carcass saws, of course, as that’s the first saw you should buy and perhaps the only one you’ll ever need).

  • [veritas]
  • [lie nielsen]
  • [bad axe]
  • [florip toolworks]

tenon saw

a tenon saw is the rip alternative to the carcass saw. it is meant for cutting tenons as the name suggests but it’s realistically just a bigger, rougher version of the carcass saw. think of it as being able to cut about 100mm deep with a pitch of about 2.8mm. if you’re going to get a second handsaw to cut faster, larger joinery, this is the one.

dovetail saw

the one you’ve all been waiting for — but this is a bit of a letdown — is a one-trick pony. with tight teeth (1.2-1.8mm) and a very shallow cut (40mm depth), it’ll cut very precise lines but … well, so will your carcass saw and it won’t be limited in the same way a very short saw will. if you cut dovetails night and day, this might be the saw for you. if you do them occasionally and do a bunch of other joinery, hold off on this saw and get a carcass saw then close your wallet.


panelsaws, as we have already seen, are simple plates of spring-steel attached to handles. the shape varies a little but they’re not very complex. they are, however, vital if you are a handtool woodworker — if you’re a hybrid woodworker, you’ll really only need these for carpentry work and you might as well get a bahco and forget this whole section because you can do everything you need in terms of joinery and even rough dimensioning with a carcass saw, especially if you get a tenon saw to supplement your collection. if you want to go electron-free, though, read on.


a handsaw is a big panelsaw. specifically one more than 650mm long — yes, this is a big saw. it’s meant for cutting big stuff — go figure. some of these will be as rough as 8-9mm in pitch while others will be closer to 4mm but these are serious teeth and they’ll have a lot more set than their backsaw contemporaries. they’re meant to go through a lot of wood very quickly — for example, resawing a large board to get two new ones. the result won’t be pretty but that’s what you’ve got planes for.


the smaller version of a handsaw doesn’t really have an official name but i tend to call it a benchsaw, as do some others. these tend to be in the 450-550mm range and are a little easier to handle. with a pitch more like 2.5-2.8mm, they’re cut a lot more finely, too. you can think of a small benchsaw as the middle ground between a tenon saw and a handsaw. the finish on the cut won’t be pretty but it will be fast and, again, what’s the point of having all those planes if you don’t need to use them, right?

framesaws (also called bowsaws and i know there’s a technical difference but it really doesn’t matter unless you’re really anal)

a framesaw is any saw with a frame. these are interesting and useful and come in various types. these aren’t just different sizes of the same thing, though, as the other categories tend to be. they’re really different saws and are used for quite different purposes. they also come in vastly different sizes.


you know what this is. it’s a basic framesaw and it’s usually meant to cut metal. you can use it in your shop. if you have no money, go for it. if you have money, you’re just asking for a lot of annoyance for nothing. the teeth are small and the blade is brittle. you’ll kick yourself. but it’s a good way to picture a basic metal framesaw.


a bowsaw has a very different shape from a hacksaw. the tensioning mechanism is separate from both the blade and the support beam. you can think of it as being a fully-enclosed capital e where the bottom line is the blade, the top line is the tensioner and the middle line is the spacer and support beam. i may have to write an article on how to build a simple one of these and they come in various different types. for the moment, take a look at some pictures. there are some great instructions on how to build them if you like video workshops — [james wright did one live fairly recently] and [rex krueger has a step-by step]. these are both excellent. the technical differences between types of bowsaws — turning saw, coping saw, fretsaw, jewelers’ saw, etc — are insignificant at this point. what you want is one with teeth large or small enough for the kind of cutting you’re going to do. make one, use it and see if you like it and what its limitations are in your particular workflow. this should be a shopmade tool. don’t buy one.

there’s one exception to this. if you like cutting away the waste in interlocking joints like dovetails, get a fretsaw. you can get a cheap one and it will probably break and you’ll end up with a collection of them. if you want a good one, [knew concepts makes this one] and it’s awesome. but it’s a hundred bucks. so maybe try the $5 one and see if you actually use it. but don’t buy five $5 after you break it. if you use it that much, get the nice one. there are others on the market in that price range. none are nearly as nice. they make a nearly-three-hundred-dollar titanium version, too. if you drive a new porsche, this may be the fretsaw for you. if you don’t, the aluminum will last you a lifetime.

by the way, there are framesaws in the east, too. this is an article about western saws, though, so there’s no reason to go into that and they’re relatively uncommon east of the urals.

to sharpen or not to sharpen

if you get a used version of any of these, you’ll need to either sharpen it or get it sharpened. you can probably get a professional to sharpen it for twenty or thirty bucks. i highly recommend this. it’s painful to do yourself and you’re probably going to spend most of that money on the equipment you need — and files are disposable so don’t think you’re going to save a lot of money buying cheap files and keeping them for a hundred sharpenings. you won’t. seek and discover who’s good in your area or even just send them to someone by mail. you won’t regret having them sharpened by a professional — factor that into the cost of a used saw.

finishing thoughts and recommendations

there you have it — a brief and incomplete discussion of western saws for beginners. and i really do mean for beginners. if you’re a technical expert in saws, i’ve glossed over many things you probably think are vitally important. and they probably are if you’re seriously into saws and know a bit more. but this is plenty to start with.

so what should you buy? and where should you get it?

if you’re into restoring old saws and you can pick up an old disston panelsaw, this might be your best option. don’t buy any other saws used. ever. just don’t. they’re not worth the restoration or effort. you can buy a new veritas carcass saw for under a hundred bucks. by the time you get an old backsaw back in working condition, even if it only costs you $20 to buy, $10 in rust remover, $5 in sandpaper, $30 in sharpening, $5 in new finish — oh, right. that’s in addition to a day or two of work. it’s just not worth it. but a $10 disston (or similar) and $30 in sharpening and a few bucks on sandpaper and finish compared to the two or three hundred a good new panelsaw will cost starts to look very attractive.

if you’re a handtool woodworker, you should start with a carcass saw. get a tenon saw and at least one panelsaw — if you work with larger stock, a handsaw. if you do smaller pieces, a benchsaw. and i suggest just biting the bullet and getting ones from florip or bad axe for the panels plus veritas for the backsaws. you’ll probably also want a fretsaw for cutting out the waste in your dovetails. you might want to skip the panelsaws and make yourself a roubo-style framesaw. they’re more fun to use but a bit more effort to make. again, check out james wright’s channel for a build video because it’s awesome — truly, one of the most fun handtools you’ll ever use and it won’t be nearly the cost of a serious handsaw.

if you’re a hybrid woodworker looking to cut joinery by hand, get a carcass saw (seeing a pattern here?) and a fretsaw (if you’re big on dovetails) and put down the shopping cart. you might want a tenon saw later but see if the carcass saw feels limiting (spoiler — it won’t).

you want more saws. it makes you feel like a more serious woodworker. and you want to get them cheap and vintage. but seriously just get one saw and make it good and new. do serious work. if you like it, save up for another one. you’ll kick yourself in years to come if you fill your shop with crappy saws and your furniture will reflect the quality. yes, you can make any saw cut well. no, you probably won’t unless you spend some serious money on sharpening if you’ve got a bunch of them. yes, in ten years you might end up with quite a collection. but this is like anything else — one or two quality pieces make a world of difference.

unlike things like scrub planes and jacks with wide-open mouths, by the way, there’s no use for a shitty saw in the shop. if it’s not accurate, straight and sharp, it’s worse than garbage. it’s taking up useful space both physically and mentally. avoid this.

there you have it. hopefully that’s either enjoyable or useful. perhaps, if i’m lucky, it’s both! thanks for reading.

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