For more information on saws, see our beginner site Common Woodworking.
Put two saws side by side with the same size teeth and the same pattern of shaping on the teeth and the two will often perform radically differently. Of course there’s lots of online teaching on saw sharpening to create even more confusion too, so the end results are not always favourable. Even makers can confuse the issues because they always teach a one-shot-fixes-all method of sharpening when in reality we in-the-field woodworkers mostly sharpen saws specifically to task as we mature in our craft and need saws to perform differently depending on wood, thicknesses, type of cut and so on. That said, we have to start somewhere and teaching more advanced techniques can only be done one-on-one with a handful of at-the-bench students.
With so many requests as to which saw to buy to get started I took on the task to work with a wide range of different saws including the now overly ubiquitous Japanese throwaways. There is much between the different types that should be discussed to debunk the self-appointed experts and the misinformation mass-information constantly spews out that ends up being regurgitated across the globe. Perhaps I will get to some of that too, but today I want to answer the question that keeps coming in and that is, “I don’t feel confident in buying a secondhand handsaw on eBay because I don’t know what to do if it needs corrective work like you do. That being so, is there a saw I can buy that perhaps will get me started for now?” Of course there are high-end saws that come with superbly sharp cutting edges ready to go from the box, and then of course the hard-points do cut exceptionally well for crosscut work for almost no money; either way you at least get to work with for few weeks. It doesn’t take too long though before you realise that the resharpenable high-end saw is becoming ever duller and cuts less productively and the throwaway needs replacing too. What you are really looking for though is to be in control and throwaways for real woodworkers is never really an permanent option unless you are cutting OSB all day long. My guess is that a new saw is usable only for somewhere around 30 hours before it needs sharpening depending on the wood, amount of hard knots, snagging, grain direction and so on. Dedicated crosscut saws dull much, much sooner because the pinnacle-point teeth fracture more quickly; perhaps half as much. These are the things people don’t know these days. The reality of the situation is that you MUST learn to sharpen your saws. If you send them off you are without your saw for two weeks. The cost of posting is £15 return with insured handling and you only get very standard sharpening with no customising. The cost stacks up and sharpening will be anywhere between £10-20. My advice? Learn to sharpen.
Of course the problems mentioned in buying secondhand are real. Most secondhand saws are indeed sold because usually they no longer cut well at all. The best saws like the ones I have shown over the years are there in abundance and I continually buy the ones that stand out for friends, students and my own needs in the school when we have a sharpening class, but prices have steadily risen.
The important thing in my view then is not to put off developing your saw sharpening skills for too long even if you are new to woodworking because the skill can and should develop alongside your woodcraft. I learned to sharpen my first saws within two weeks of starting my apprenticeship. Also, saw sharpening soon becomes one of the most essential aspects of your woodworking. It will be best not to start out with problematic saws requiring more expert attention or even a complete tooth recut. This article is about that. The problem then is which saw do you choose—£10 ones or £220 ones? Perhaps somewhere in between?
Because of my research I often compare different saws by different makers—old, new, old to new, old to old and new to new. It’s surprising how different they all feel. Some feel clunky, heavy in the cut and quirky too. Some benefit from weight while others are well suited because of their lightness. This can make saw choice difficult until you know what you are looking for and what you want from your saw. There is no one saw fits all but the first choice of saw can be important. I am always amazed if one saw maker makes a variety of saws under old trade names when the saws themselves are basically the same saws. I mean the steel plate is the same from saw to saw and so too the handle made from walnut rather than beech actually adds no difference to the functionality of the saw and to be honest beech is well proven as a saw handle wood when walnut was a scarce alternative if ever chosen. Of course the best saw handles have always been fruitwood. Primarily because it resists splitting, rubs out to an ultra smooth patina in a few months of use and indeed it takes a crisp pattern if the handle is carved as they were in times past. I recently put two saws side by side.
I decided to take a premium saw but based my decision on price and appearance mostly. One saw, a premium ripsaw with 7 PPI made at the Lie Nielsen factory, cost me £220 plus shipping so £230. For my second saw I selected an online option Spear & Jackson resharpenable crosscut that cost me £22 including shipping via Amazon.co.uk. This saw was a crosscut because S&J shortsightedly don’t make or sell a ripsaw version. Of course the two saws could not be compared initially because of the diversely different tooth patterns so I changed the spear and jackson to a rip pattern for the purpose of my comparison and I sharpened the saw to the same angle as the rake on the LN saw. Reshaping the tooth pattern and sharpening takes me less than 10 minutes. Unfortunately most people including most professional woodworkers (perhaps especially professionals) would not know the difference and try comparing the two types side, which would be an unfair comparison. Using a crosscut saw for ripcutting is about 50% less efficient.
My first thought took me back to picking up the Lie Nielsen ripsaw back somewhere in 2011. It was very lightweight and felt as smooth as silk. I liked the traditional look of the handle and it felt lovely as all Lie Nielsen saws do. I think that this consideration is important and often sadly neglected by makers of tools in the western culture these days. I am not sure if Stanley or Record ever put customer satisfaction high on their list of priorities but Spear & Jackson of the 1800s absolutely did. Two world wars took its toll in that British makers of hand tools produced a line of tools clearly stamped “For war issue” because the demand was too high for production of quality during that period. All brass was used for munition shells and so brass knobs and fastenings were replaced with steel or nickel-plated steel and press-fit studs. The shapes of handles were crudely cut and unfortunately these companies never returned to their former glory. Hence the ugly shapes of handles by makers today who even though there is no war on domestic soil produce utilitarian shapes because that’s what the CNC router does best. I think it is true that all wooden handles for mass produced saws are cut automatically by CNC routers. It’s a funny thing really because even high end saws don’t take much engineering to maker a very fancy saw. Plate steel on rolls, stamped out and refined and then a handle attached with bolts is not a high-engineering skill, so saws take only a few minutes to make, perhaps no more than ten minutes in actual man hours. The handle can be completed by machine and requires almost zero skill. That’s why it is so surprising that people like S&J, who abandoned resharpenable wooden-handled saws for a decade, couldn’t up the anti and come out with a decent looking saw and compete in an open market.
This article prefaces the comparison I will be presenting with a video shortly. It will make the way for new woodworkers to get started without it costing them an arm and a leg. Sorry that this is a long introduction but the next will be more nuts and bolts.