Thursday, June 18, 2015

All about hand saws, part 1 the handles and the fit

Well just about everything you should know about it, anyway :-)

Ever wondered why there are so many variety of  hand saws out there?
That is because unlike a power saw, which uses mechanical power to cut its way thru wood, a hand saw rely on you for all its power.

The saw teeth, the saw plate thickness and its tension, the way the handle is shaped and its position in relation to the saw plate all are going to affect how it cut and feel in your hand.

Now add the variety of material to be cut, hardwood, softwood, man made goods etc. The thickness of the material (which dictate how many teeth you should use) the type of cut to be made in relation with the wood grain line, rip cut or cross cut, and you can start to appreciate the variety required, and why I stashed 22 in my saw till :-)

When you pick up a saw for the first time, pay attention to how it fits in your hand and how balanced it feel. (This is your first encounter with that saw hang angle)

Always use a three finger grip with your index finger extended on the handle side. It does two things. It send a signal to your brain that you want to go straight and it make the saw more rigid sideways in your hand without having to exert barely any pressure.

Slight pressure from your index finger and your thumb is all 
that is required to steer the saw...ever so gently or you will bind!
DO NOT twist your wrist to steer. The saw want to go straight, let it.

Try this:
Hold the saw lightly with the 3 finger grip, index finger extended, and now try to move the saw sideways with your other hand (or better yet someone else). Notice how it easily resist without undue gripping pressure?

Now try a 4 finger grip and repeat the same test. Notice how easy it is to move it sideways no matter how hard you grip?

You may have noticed that modern industrial saw makers (Stanley and al) are making their stupid handle hole too big and you can fit all 4 fingers in it. Never do that, and better yet, go find a real saw!

Next pay attention how the horn of the handle fit the web of your hand. Too tight and you will notice a whitish discoloration of your skin. When that happens, your heart beat rise trying to push blood into that compressed part of your hand. Just like aiming a rifle, your heart beat should be relaxed. That way you can shoot or saw straight with less fatigue and more precision.

Good fit
Way too big for my smaller paws.

On the other hand, if it feel too lose in your hand (too much space between the horns) it would be harder to saw straight without exerting more gripping force on it and you are more likely to develop blisters in use.

So ideally the saw you picked, fit your small or big paws just right and feel well balanced in your hand. How much pressure should you exert on the handle?
Pretend you have a baby bird in your hand and you do not want to crush it...
That is why a well fitted saw handle to your paws is so important.

It is often said that a saw want to cut straight, get out of its way.  You are only to point it the right direction and position.  You are there solely to supply the power behind the cut, don't try to steer it. All you are probably going to accomplish is to bend the saw plate!! But didn't I wrote previously how to steer with gentle pressure of two fingers? Yes, but forget that until you have a few "miles" under your belt with handsaws. Learn to listen to the saw and how it feel in your hands, it is giving you lots of feedback, tonality changes in pitch, roughness or smooth sailing thru the wood, binding or gliding smoothly etc.

If the saw want to naturally go right or left all the time, you have too much set on that side it favored. Slightly reduce the offending side by passing lightly a file or a oilstone (never a waterstone) on it. Go easy and check often your progress.

A saw handle with damaged or broken horns should be fixed, (just like plane's totes) you will find it more comfortable.   Again pay attention to how it fit your hand while shaping it.

Similarly, this is how I repair broken horn on plane's tote.
Cut a square recess in the damaged or missing area.

That way you have good glue surface and can clamp 
more securely your piece of wood.

Carved to match. How long and pointing in what directions? 
Uses your hand as a guide. I made no effort to disguise this repair.

 Conversely, the saw handle being made of wood, you can easily re shaped it to fit your hand.  Disclaimer, if you have a rare example, please don't do that!
And lastly, being woodworkers,  it is not that difficult to make your own replacement handle if need be.  Especially if the saw you like have one of those ugly slippery plastic handle...  Ergonomic handle my ass!

If you uses handsaws a lot and happen to have a "few" you will quickly realized how comfortable the handles used to be on the old ones (late 19th to early 20th century) and how quickly they lost their graceful shape thru the years.

These two pictures are from Disston No 7 and its successor the D7

No 7   1878-88
D7   1960s
Notice how the graceful shape is a distant memory, it is now more blocky. 
The handle is now "let-in" and the hang angle also has changed. 
Feel totally different in the hand.

Or how about a D8 with the over hand thumb hole?

Notice how flatter the handle became, and not rounded over as much.
Not as comfortable...

Once you find one pattern you like, you can use it to make replacement handles, hint, hint :-)   But beware of the hang angle...

Original broken handle, a lost cause?

My first attempt at making a replacement carved apple handle, 
20 years ago, still unfinished :-)
The saw nut pattern is telling me how to "hang" the saw.

Notice how well it fit my hand? Coincidence?

How about getting a custom saw made for you?
As long as the saw maker is willing to take your key measurements, it should fit you like a glove. Here's one example  and here is another .
Here are some more handle patterns .

Next will look at the hang angle and how it affect the "experience"

Bob, the toolman


  1. Thanks Ralph.
    I think you will find the next one even more enlightening :-)
    Bob, the sawyer