The right saw for the job


If you were involved in woodworking before 1970, you probably owned a rip saw, a crosscut saw, a small back saw, and a miter box saw.  As far as “plate” saws, that was it.  Those were the choices.  And they were the tools that working carpenters and joiners used to earn a living.  Small back saws, used for joinery (especially decorative sash work), were always delivered with a low fleam, meaning that they could be used for cross cut or rip work (dovetails).  It may be the case that over the years a small back saw began to look like a “rip filed” saw, but only because it’s a helluva lot easier to file a rip tooth than it is one with fleam.  And, sometimes, the path of least resistance is the one chosen by a man who has worked hard all the day and would like to get out of the shop and be off to slake his thirst.

Now there is a huge selection of handsaws available to the enthusiast.  There are dovetail and tenon saws to suit every taste.  Brass backed, resin spined, exotic wooden handles, it’s simply incredible, the selection that is available to today’s woodworker.  I just don’t know how the “old guys” got along.  Then I am reminded that I have numerous drivers that have promised me another five to ten yards on the golf course…and I hear Ben Hogan speaking from the past, “it’s never the arrow, it’s always the archer.”

In times past, most carpenters and joiners used rip saws for cutting tenon cheeks.  Yes, that’s right!  Panel saws, filed rip!  The illustration above is from Ellis’ 1902 work, Modern Practical Joinery.  The guy’s using a rip saw, a big rip saw to cut furniture tenons.  The typical joiners tool chest would contain three or four “plate” saws, a coping and/or turning saw and, perhaps a compass saw.  (And, if a carpenter was doing flooring work, he’d have a flooring saw.)  That was it.  A man depended on his skill and his imagination, not just his tools, to get the job done.

My sawing position is little different than the guy in the above photo.  I would guess that I’m a foot taller (the result of enriched milk products) and my choice of panel saws is somewhat different.  I’m using an Atkins 70 1/2 “Toolbox” saw, 7pt rip with a 20″ cutting edge.  It’s a lovely little saw and it didn’t cost much, $15.00, at the outside.  It has a little surface pitting, but that simply serves to reduce drag.  It’s probably close to 100 years old and it’s as true as ever.




Atkins produced some very fine saws.  In my opinion, every bit as good (if not better) than the Disston line.  They touted the ergonomics of their handle, maintaining that the hand position of the sawyer was better placed to use the highest possible amount of available energy.  Here we go again with the 5 to 10 yard thing.  But it does “hang” remarkably well.107

So a logical question to ask would be “can’t you cut closer to the line with a finer back saw”?  Eh?  Not so much.  And remember that when you’re cutting tenons by hand you will be doing some fitting.  You’ll be trimming tenons to thickness, usually with a plane, rasp or float.  And, when using a backsaw, the “start” is critical as it establishes the line that the saw will track to.  A panel saw can be “steered” and will allow for minor changes in direction.

Finally, here’s my point.  Choose projects that intimidate you.  Force yourself to master the tools you possess.  Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding more difficult work until you buy that $10,000 sliding panel saw.  Remember that much of the finest furniture ever built was created by men who stored ALL of their tools in one small tool box.  Game On!

And yes, that is a Delta tenoning jig on the back bench.  Not sure how it got there.  But, when you’re in a hurry…

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  1. Jon Brinkerhoff Says:

    Excellent articles, as always. I really do enjoy them. I have been sharing them on my Facebook group, called unplugged woodworkers.

    If you’re on Facebook, I’d love it if you would join the group.

    Thanks, Jon


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