Toolmanship: How to Use a Handsaw

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 3, 2009 · 22 comments

in Manly Skills, Toolmanship


Today we return to our monthly series called Toolmanship. The goal of this series is to pass on the basics of tool use to a generation of men who never got around to learning how to be handy.

In this edition, we take a look at how to properly use a handsaw. We’ll give a rundown on the different types of handsaws out there and tips to get you sawing like a carpenter.

Crosscut Saw or Rip Saw

Before you put saw to wood, you need to determine what sort of saw you’ll need for your job. In the pantheon of saws, two basic designs exist: the crosscut saw and the rip saw. Which one you use depends on whether you plan on cutting with or against the wood grain. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between the two saws and when you would use them.


Crosscut saw. If you’re cutting across the grain of the wood, you’ll want to use a crosscut saw. The teeth on a crosscut saw angle back and have a beveled edge. The teeth are also much smaller than those on a ripsaw. This design allows the saw to act like a knife-edge that cleanly slices through the wood’s grain. The crosscut saw’s design also allows the saw to cut on both the push and pull stroke.


Rip saw. When you’re making a cut parallel to the direction of the grain of the wood, use a ripsaw. Unlike a crosscut saw, the teeth on a ripsaw don’t angle backwards nor are they beveled.  Instead, the teeth bend left and right in an alternating pattern. This design allows each tooth to act like a chisel that chips away small pieces of wood on each push stroke. The chisel design ensures a clean cut as you saw along the grain. Also, unlike the crosscut saw, the rip saw only cuts on the push stroke, not on the pull stroke.

Different Handsaws for Different Jobs

While the crosscut saw and rip saw will cover most cutting jobs, sometimes you need an even more specialized handsaw. Here are a few handsaws you might consider adding to your toolbox arsenal.


Keyhole saw. The keyhole saw is good for cutting holes for pipes, electrical outlets, or fixtures in floors, walls, and ceilings. Its narrow, tapered blade goes where other saws can’t, and its teeth can chew through tough material like drywall.


Coping saw. If you’re wanting to cut curves and other intricate shapes, you need to bust out the coping saw. The coping saw consists of a thin metal blade set between a C-shaped metal frame. Because of its thin blade, you can easily change directions and still maintain a clean cut with a coping saw. If you want to make cuts inside a piece of wood, you can do that with a coping saw, too. Just drill a starter hole, remove the coping saw blade, insert the blade through the hole, and reattach the blade to the handle.


Backsaw. Backsaws have a stiffening metal rib on the edge opposite the cutting edge. This allows for better control and more precise cutting than with other types of saws. Use a backsaw in woodworking when you need precise cuts. Different kinds of backsaws exist for different kinds of jobs. Miter saws are used with miter boxes to cut angles in wood. Dovetail saws cut, well, dovetails for joining pieces of wood together.

8 Things to Check When Shopping for a Handsaw

When you’re at the hardware store looking for a new saw, make sure to run each saw through this 8 point test to ensure you get a quality tool:

1. Sharp teeth. Run your thumb lightly over the teeth. If they’re properly sharp, they’ll catch your skin with little snagging tugs.

2. Straight blade. Sight along the blade to see if it’s true. Even a slight bend or bow will cause binding. Check the handle, too. A crooked one throws your arm off center, making sawing inaccurate and tiring.

3. Evenly set teeth. Squint toward the teeth from the back of the saw. If any teeth project farther than others, they’ll drag and leave a rough cut. If all teeth on one side are set out farther than those on the other side, the blade will twist.

4. Blade taper. Good saws taper so they’re thinner at the top than at the teeth. This provides blade clearance, reduces binding, and makes a cleaner cut because less tooth is needed. Taper may not be apparent, so be sure it’s specified. Watch out for saws that are just chamfered to give the appearance of a taper grind.

5. Proper flexing. Your saw should flex easily when you bend it, but quickly straighten when you let you go.

6. Built-in tension. Bend the saw with a straight edge across the blade and you’ll see a slight bow. The bow will keep trying to spring the blade back straight. This is the result of tension built into the saw by rolling and hammering the center portion. If the saw’s tension is correct, the bow should appear in a uniform curve and not look lopsided.

7. Blade crown. Hold the saw at arm’s length and sight along the teeth. You should see a slight outward curve at the blade’s center. This crown increases the cutting pressure by putting only a few teeth in contact with the wood at a time. The higher the crown, the better.

8. Balance. There are no absolute rules for good balance, but a saw should feel comfortable in your hand– not nose heavy or cumbersome. Make a series of sawing motions in the air to see how the saw feels in your hand.

How to Saw Like a Carpenter

Mark the cutline. Remember the timeless rule of carpentry: measure twice, cut once. Measure where you want a cut (twice of course) and draw a line marking where you want the cut to be. The line will act as a guide to help you get a straight cut.

Make the starting cut.When you make the first cut, use your thumb or the knuckle of your thumb on the hand holding the wood as a guide to ensure you cut along the cutline.

startsawUse your thumb as a guide to start cutting

If you’re using a crosscut saw, start your cut with the teeth nearest the handle. This will give you the best control. Make a few back cuts until you get a nice kerf (opening in the wood).

If you’re using a ripsaw, start your cut with the finer teeth furthest from the handle (near the point of the blade).  Make a few short draw strokes to get a kerf going.

Don’t start the cut right on the line you marked earlier with pencil. Instead, cut right next to the line on the waste side. The waste side is the part of the wood you’re not going to use in the finished product. It’s always better to have a piece of wood that’s a bit long, than a bit short. You can always sand the wood down to the pencil line.


Angle the saw correctly. After you get your kerf going, you need to angle your saw correctly to get the best cut. For crosscut saws, the proper angle is 45 degrees between the saw and wood. With ripsaws, it’s 60 degrees.


Hold your elbows close to your body. To counteract the natural tendency to angle the blade away from perpendicular, hold your elbows close to your body when sawing. This will also help prevent you from twisting and tilting the blade, thus ensuring a nice, clean cut.


Hold the saw firmly, with forefinger extended along the side of the handle.

How to hold the saw. Just grip the handle so that your forefinger extends along the side of the handle. This helps you “point” the saw along the line and ensures more accurate cuts. Hold on to the handle firmly, but not too tightly.


The stroke. After you’ve started the groove, a few short forward strokes will deepen the cut so you can move your left hand away from the blade. Push the saw with an easy, free-running motion.  Use long strokes so that each tooth does a fair share of the work. Short strokes dull the saw faster because only a few of the teeth do the work.

Resist the temptation to bear down on the saw. It won’t do anything except tire you out. Let the saw do the work. If you feel like the saw isn’t cutting properly, something might be wrong with the saw itself.


For straight cuts, use a 2×4 as a guide. For many men, simply using the pencil line as your guide to cutting just doesn’t work. If you want to ensure that you get a true and square cut, place a 2×4 (or 2×2) along your pencil line and clamp it to the board you’re cutting. The board will now act as your guide to keep the saw on the line.


Correcting veering. Even the best carpenters veer from the cut line. If this happens to you avoid the natural tendency to twist and bend the saw blade so it gets back on track. This will only result in an uneven and rough cut. Instead, stop sawing and bring your blade back to the point where you veered off. Start sawing again on the line.


Prevent binding with a nail. One problem you may encounter, especially when you’re cutting along the grain with a rip saw, is binding. Binding occurs when the kerf closes in on the saw. To prevent this, simply place a nail in your kerf. This will keep it open. Move the nail towards you as you saw.

Storing Your Saw Properly

If you want to ensure your saw gives you years of cutting service, you need to take good care of it. By placing a simple sheath on your saw blade before you throw it back in the toolbox you can prevent your saw teeth from becoming dull and rounded, thus maintaining the sharp edge necessary for all your woodworking projects.

Most new saws come with a sheath, but if yours didn’t or you lost the sheath, here’s how you can make a makeshift sheath with just a bit of garden hose.

1. Hold the saw up against a straightened section of an old rubber garden hose. Use a utility knife to cut a section of hose that’s roughly as long as the saw blade.

2. Cut a slit down the length of the section of hose. Make sure that the slit goes all the way through the rubber.

3. Slide the cut edge of the hose over the exposed blade of the saw. The stiffness of the hose should hold it in place over the blade, protecting it from nicks and bending.

Further Reading:
Toolmanship: Wrenches
Toolmanship: Screwdriver
Toolmanship: Hammer

Got any other handsaw tips? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hayley November 3, 2009 at 11:37 pm

Who needs a man when there are websites like this?

OK, maybe I do

2 Scott K November 3, 2009 at 11:55 pm

No mention of Japanese saws? My Ryoba is that best saw I ever bought.

3 non player character November 4, 2009 at 7:32 am

At first glance your article reminded me of something I’ve seen previously, link below.

4 Bruce Williamson November 4, 2009 at 8:11 am

I use my power tools for everything except:
*the occasional times when I would end up with the extra bit of kerf from a circular saw
*cutting plastic


5 Bob November 4, 2009 at 9:54 am

Have to agree with Scott K about the Japanese saws. Lee valley tools in Canada has a terrific selection of specialty saws and the Dozuki and Ryoba saws are a must have for so many applications, they are great for tenons, dovetailing, and making nice flush cuts. The Lee Valley Catalogues are to woodworkers, what the Sears Christmas Wish catalogue is to kids. Check it out at Nice article!

6 Ron November 4, 2009 at 10:07 am

Lie-Nielsen makes some excellent hand saws. For anyone who has ever struggled with hand sawing wood, a Lie-Nielsen saw is simple unbelieveable! Go slow, and concentrate on keeping the blade perpendicular to the wood. A good quality saw will cut the wood for you much faster than trying to force the saw through the wood.

7 Ross Patterson November 4, 2009 at 10:40 am

Handsaws should be oiled from time to time, especially the big boys. Especially if they’re going to be stored in suboptimal environments (i.e., not hanging on the workshop wall). And don’t neglect the non-cutting parts of the blade – you’ll regret letting rust develop, from both tool-life and performance perspectives.

Oh, and in a pinch, every carpenter has a replacement sheath in his toolbox: masking tape does just fine.

8 Isi November 4, 2009 at 11:10 am

Good topic. I have been teaching my boys to saw recently. They love it because they get to play with one of the tools otherwise reserved for dad. I have been trying to teach them the principle (or what I know of them) around hand tools – this keeps them hands on and whether they know it or not, they are learning something that hopefully they will remember.

Interesting though. I never understood the difference between a ripsaw and a crosscut saw – i had always assumed them to be the same thing just referred to differently.

I still love my power tools though !!!

9 Isi November 4, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Good topic. I have been teaching my boys to saw recently. They love it because they get to play with one of the tools otherwise reserved for dad. I have been trying to teach them the principle (or what I know of them) around hand tools – this keeps them hands on and whether they know it or not, they are learning something that hopefully they will remember.

Interesting though. I never understood the difference between a ripsaw and a crosscut saw – i had always assumed them to be the same thing just referred to differently.

I still love my power tools though !!!
Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

10 Scott November 4, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Any pointers on sharpening a saw. This far my approach has been to buy a new one.

11 sean November 4, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Scott K.

I’ve bought a dozuki from Lee Valley (I actually live down the road from one *gloat*) and while the cut is superb, I find the blade to be brittle and needs frequent replacement. Furthermore, Japaness saws are tricky to sharpen, which brings me to Scott’s question…

Sharpening a Western style panel saw (basically a saw with a big blade, like a rip, crosscut, backsaw, dovetail saw, etc) is relatively easy, but meticulous and it takes time. However, since I use mainly handtools, and own a few of my grandfather’s old Disstons, it is a skill that is necessary to keep the saws operating.well. You need a few specialty tools, which at the very least include a good flat file, a small triangular cross section file, a good vice and a saw set. The size of the triangular file is determined by the size of the teeth of your saw, which are measured in TPI (Teeth per inch). Make sure you have the right size file for your saw. If you have multiple saws with varying TPI you will need several sharpening files. You must have good lighting. It would be helpful if you had a saw vice which is a longer jawed vice designed specifically for holding saws while being sharpened. This way you won’t have to keep opening the vise and moving the saw. I built my own for this. They aren’t hard to build. It would be a wonderful luxury if you also had a large table mounted magnifying glass on an adjustable neck that you could move over the saw and keep an eye on the teeth as you sharpen them, I don’t have one. I also use a black magic marker when sharpening.

First is to check the saw for straightness, corect any bends, and get rid of any rust on the saw. The next thing I do is secure the saw in a vice, teeth facing upwards. I then use the marker to darken all the teeth. Next I joint the teeth, which is to simply run the flat file perpendicularly across the tops to the teeth. This will flatten the tops of the teeth, producing a little flat shiny spot on the top of the teeth. The main function of jointing is to make sure all the teeth are the same length. A few strokes is usually suffficient.

Now you get the triangular file and begin the actual sharpening of the teeth. This is the guts of the operation, and how it is done depends on what kind of saw you are sharpening. The main difficulty is holding the file at the correct angle for your saw. If your saw has been sharpened well previously, the teeth themselves are a fair guide, but this isn’t always a given. Many modern saws have been stamped out with the wrong setting for the teeth, and the teeth will be need to be ground in correctly during sharpening.

When sharpening, give each tooth a stroke or two with the triangular file. Your aim is to make about half the shiny spot left from the jointing to disappear. Since you will be stroking the other half as you sharpen the next tooth, you don’t try and remove the entire shiny spot in one pass. You want to be careful and even here. The end result should be that each tooth is sharp and the same length. Having a bunch of sharp teeth of varying lengths will be of no use to you. Take your time, and feel free to go back over the saw again if necessary. For a rip saw you can do every tooth in one pass, although it is not recommended. For a crosscut you will have to do every other tooth in your first pass, then reverse the saw in the vice and sharpen the rest. You should find that the original darkening of the teeth is helpful in keeping track of where you’ve been so far in your sharpening. Also, rotate the triangular file from time to time as its faces wear out from the sharpening.

When the primary sharpening is done you will find that the edges of the teeth will have a little metal burr along the sides. This must be sanded or filed off, otherwise the saw may wander in its cut. Getting rid of the burr can be done by taking the flat file and hlding it flush against the side of the blade and running it back and forth a few times.

The last things to do is set the teeth. In setting the teeth (using the saw set) you are bending teh teeth outwards slightly. This is so the kerf (the part of the wood destroyed by the stroke of the saw) will be slightly wider than the saw blade itself, thus reducing friction and binding.

That’s basically it. You’re ready to cut.

One last caveat: You need to remember that the tools you use to sharpen your other tools need as much care as the cutting tools themselves. Your files will not last forever and will need replacement. I get about two or three sharpenings out of my triangular files. After that I need a new one.

Hope that was helpful.

12 Patterson November 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm

“Any pointers on sharpening a saw.” – no no no!

13 Jed November 4, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Third the vote for Japanese pole saws. If I could only have one saw, that would be it.

14 Neverland Ballroom November 5, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Don’t forget that you can make music with a handsaw:

15 Nik November 5, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Another tool article to overlook the poor bow saw. Maybe not as good for lumber, but they are the best for yard work.

16 Mr Miyagi November 6, 2009 at 11:42 am

What about the chainsaw?

17 John November 8, 2009 at 8:27 pm

As a carpenter who has occasionally had to deal with a power outage or working in the rain, it is one of the more important things to know how to use a handsaw properly.
A good manly test of skill is to build a proper saw horse with only a handsaw. The saw horse should only be at the height where you will lean on the board you are cutting with a knee to stabilize it. You build a saw horse like that for a job interview and a good ole carpenter will hire you instantly.

18 Ben November 12, 2009 at 1:10 am


When you say “build a sawhorse with only a hand saw” Do you mean using the handsaw rather than power tools or do you mean builing the sawhorse with nothing but a handsaw; ie no nails, hammer ect….?

19 Philip January 25, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Passed down from my grandfather, who made roll top desks by hand:
Keep your elbow in line with with the cut, for better control of the tool. If the blade tip flutters on the backstroke, you are out of line.
Lift the saw blade slightly on the backstroke. This helps to clear the teeth and preserve the sharpness, so you will cut faster. Once learned, this technique produces a distinctive-sounding quieter backstroke that separates the men from the boys, without even looking.
Use the same lifted backstroke for files and planes, too.

20 Jason February 16, 2010 at 12:32 am

Check out for more information about hand saws or if you are interested in buying a tool from another era.

I am in no way affiliated with the site, I just learned a lot about saw there.

21 Brown April 12, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Hi, I got a question. I have a handsaw similar in shape to this one, but not rusty.

I’ve recently have had the pleasure of acquiring several trees (young, no more than 15-20 cm thick) due to very stormy weather. I was thrilled! A quick project that I thought about was making coasters for the house (instead of going down to Big-Box-Mart and buying them). However, as I cut through this min-log, the cut is rarely perfect and I have to lop-off parts in order to “straighten” out the next cut. It seems like I could benefit from a “guide” that could keep my blade in place as I work through the wood, but I don’t know 100%.

What would you recommend in this case?

22 Mike Loshe October 22, 2013 at 11:34 am

Thanks for the share. I would also recommend wearing some work gloves to really give you a good grip. Too many times I see guys slip because their hands get two sweaty and they can’t hold on to the saw.

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