Can’t Saw Straight—Practice More Often Before You Begin

Saw won’t cut straight, man can’t cut straight, wood won’t cut straight…

I think most people, young people old people, those in between look at someone sawing and think to themselves, I could do that; it’s just manual labour after all. Not much to it. In the cut they find it’s not quite so easy. The saw wanders, tilts and it won’t cut square. Realisation hits and they usually give up, not necessarily always thinking it’s them but blaming the wood and the saw. But sawing is an art and it’s quite an art at that. If all of the coordinates are set right chances are you will still drift if indeed you are a novice. Sawing takes practice and that practice should be applied to every saw because no too saws are exactly alike. Add to that that no two woods, even in the same species and from the same section, are alike too and you begin to see that the diversity of permutations means you must be prepared to alter your attitude each time you pick up a saw.

Sawing demands self discipline that requires ongoing practice, which means picking up a saw as often as possible and not substituting with power equipment to dumb down your skill development. Taking a week out from woodworking means that you may need to have a few practice sessions in advance of your stroke work with a saw ahead of actually applying the saw to a project. Entering the zone this way reacquaints you with your saw and sends the right signals to your brain for processing. We don’t consciously think about things this way but this act actually begins the flow of released chemistry through the brain. Personally, I use my saws minute by minute every day. Scarcely will ten minutes go by without me plunging the saw into a dovetailed angle or a ripsaw down the length of some board. I say this with my bandsaw standing next to me. Those new to woodworking and then those who use hand tools less frequently because of other work pressures may not realise that their work suffers when they don’t practice the art of actual hand sawing.

In my view it is a question of practice through exercise and it is no different than when singers train their voice, or the violinist strokes the bow on their instrument. Why should it be any different than an athlete training every day for prolonged periods to engage in competitive sports? I have experience the need to ‘get in shape‘ every time I take a week or two out. It’s amazing how the little nuances of sawing that give expected results get lost when we neglect practice by doing. It’s also amazing how people of every walk think that they should automatically be able to perform these simpler manual tasks with certain ease because it is to them a low-demand exercise requiring no thought but just action. A friend of mine is a rowing coach. He’s 60 years old and he himself practices many days in a given week. Why? “I have to feel the water with the oars, If I do not I am ‘out of sync‘.

On a regular basis someone contacts me to say they can’t saw straight. With those new to hand saws of any and all types, from dovetail saws to 4ppi rip- and cross-cut saws, they almost immediately blame themselves. Whereas of course it could be them, it’s not always. Even new saws have issues and that includes some of the high-end ones. Saws are often at their most aggressive when newly sharpened and can function more amiably after the first hundred strokes. Whereas a newbie can exacerbate the sawing issue to worsen the situation, often it is indeed the saw itself too. Too sharp and not sharp can present issues. With new and well sharpened well set saws it’s a question of conditioning yourself to be less aggressive and heavy handed. Until we are indeed used to the saw we tend to press hard instead of allowing just the weight of the hand and the forearm apply the exact pressure and focus our attention on the course the saw needs to take. I thought this might be helpful for the self deprecating. As I said, it is definitely not always you!

Then, on the other hand,how often have seen wanna be carpenters thrusting handsaws into 2x4s mindlessly at the big box stores and watched the saw buckling under every thrust. They throw the saw down with heartless cursing, never seeing themselves as the problem. Used to power equipment not handsaws they draw their conclusions. They began with an attitude before they picked up the saw and concluded that they were right.

It is no doubt confusing and frustrating too when the saw does seem likely to drift and wander back and forth from the line; it demoralises your ambitions. It happens to all of us at one time or another though, I know that. What did we do wrong? Well, some times it is our fault, of course it is, but sometimes it’s not ours at all. How can you tell? This is what practice is all about. Mostly it is to familiarise yourself with the elements engaged with. The saw, the wood and you. Saws respond differently in wood when say sawing a 1 1/2″ thick piece over a 3/4″. The growth rings on woods like pine, that have hard and soft aspects to each growth ring, can ‘lead‘ the saw to a less resistant course. add to that a dozen or so other influences and you begin to understand the dilemma. Practicing to begin each session will help you in all areas of your understanding. Taking this time is the equivalent to say limbering up before athletic sessions begin. Go ahead, kick the ball around a little!

When the saw binds in the cut stop, stare, look at your body position and see how things are aligning. Ease up, lighten the hand, feel for where the saw lies and make those micro-adjustments to the saw. A bulldog attitude rarely works for us. `we have to feel inside the saw kerf to make our bodies respond to what we feel rather than what we can see as we move. A binding saw always highlights that something is wrong. The problem can be one of a few. Wet wood, misalignment, poor set, uneven sharpening, worn teeth, unevenly worn teeth, buckling in the saw plate, a kink. That’s the saw alone. Within each example there can be multiplication,. Take saw set for instance. An overset saw usually does not bind, but it does allow the saw to choose an alternative path of least resistance. Remember the example of pine above for instance.

21 thoughts on “Can’t Saw Straight—Practice More Often Before You Begin”

  1. How true you are with regards to practice and attitude. Coming from the machine side, it took many hours of trial and failure until I could cut even close to straight. Frustrating as it was I kept practicing until I learned how to keep the saw and my body in proper alignment. Once I learned that the rest fell into place. But you are correct in that time off can cause your body to forget what to do. I receintly built a bee hive for my son and too a few weeks to accomplish other things. Yesterday, I decided to start working on the signs for my daughter’s wedding venue and my cuts started wandering. I simply stopped and got some scrap wood and practiced cutting for about 15 minutes and everything fell into place from there.

  2. I have always been amazed how much focus it takes me to saw a semi straight line. I can tell when I start to get tired, my kerf starts to drift.

  3. Ah yes, sweeping is another of those tasks that requires a certain approach and artful method.


  4. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the reminder. Since I lost my central vision, and can no longer see the line to saw to, every saw cut requires some kind of guide. Even with a guide, there are hundreds of ways to screw a cut up. Yesterday I was cutting out a wing for a toy airplane. The wing is hard pine and every mistake you could make was made except cutting inside the line. A sharp plane solved the problem.

    The point I want to make is that it’s been a month since my last attempt with a hand saw. If I had taken the time and made some practice cuts first, I could have done a much better job.
    Thanks again to you and the whole crew for the inspiration.

  5. As an apprentice, sawing on the line was always a trial and sometimes an embarrassment. then you realise you can do it, you can’t remember when it happened or how, just that you now can and you never noticed that transition from failure to success.

  6. Makes sense. I’ll practice sawing straight everyday before I work on any of my projects. I’ll saw a couple of dovetails first (pins and tails). Then, I’ll cut them off, square the end of the wood, and layout a tenon. I’ll saw this as well. It may take an extra 15 minutes or so but I want to be better. Honestly, I’m tired of still seeing minor gaps in my joinery. Time to make a change. Time to work to a higher standard of accuracy. Also, I need to practice sawing better 45 degree angles (miter joints).

  7. Paul, I very much like these kinds of instructional posts. This type of woodworking wisdom and insights are practical gems that we can only gain from a true master of the craft. We hobby-enthusiasts don’t have the benafit of being an apprentice with a long-term instructor by our side. For me, I really appreciate this kind of post. Thank you.

  8. Mr. Paul,
    Thank you for sharing with all of us the knowledge and wisdom you have acquired in your lifetime of working wood.
    For comparison, I see a parallel between my first love, music, and my love,woodworking. I play guitar, banjo and a couple of other stringed, fretted instruments. I find that even though the mechanism of playing each of these different instruments is virtually the same, if I focus on one instrument for an upcoming engagement to neglect of the others, my skills on the other instruments diminish.
    I see the same pattern with my woodworking skills. My lesser used skills diminish. That said, what I am trying to do is use all of my skills a little bit each day, especially in the learning phases. That is how I learned to play guitar 50 years ago and how I keep my skills up today. I am trying that practice these days with my second love, woodworking.

  9. Hate to say it, but some of my challenges came from watching you. Start the saw with your thumb guiding and saw to the line – full and powerful strokes! Simple. NOT. It took me a while to learn I can’t saw like Paul by sawing like Paul. I had to learn to slow down, and even stop and correct when the saw started to drift. Seems really simple, but it’s huge.
    I spent allot of time learning that mimicking the expert on the video doesn’t work for me. Good thing I really enjoy sawing! Thanks, Paul. All this handtool work has become very important to me.

  10. This is fantastic Paul!

    I have been working on my sawing a lot recently. I came to the realisation that I was actually trying too hard and making it worse for myself. After I lightened my hand and focused on body position, sawing straight seemed much easier.

  11. I’m glad to see that I am not the only one that has to practice. The thing I always like about Paul is that he hasn’t been afraid to show some of the “oops!” moments when something doesn’t go as expected. Adding the need to practice to the mix makes him one of the few honest woodworkers on the internet. And it does make a difference. I try to practice every day whether making anything or not I saw at least ten vertical lines, and ten angled lines each day.

  12. Paul,
    For many years I did fairly well working with wood and selling quite a lot of my creations. I also did quite a bit of antique restoration for different shops around. I kept piles of ancient wood to be able to match a broken rung, stile or rail. I considered myself to be reasonably skilled with the hand tools of the the craft.
    A move in location suddenly brought my working with wood to an abrupt halt. Tools went to the chests and boxes to be ignored for many years. So long, in fact, much rust removal and refining had to be done to put them into service again. Quite honestly I was ashamed of the horrible condition I had allowed my once decent tools to fall into.
    Fast forward twenty years and, now retired, felt the urge to make some shavings. I mentioned at the beginning I felt myself to be reasonably skilled at working wood and it was something I could love to do again. Imagine my dismay when, on that first project, I found I could not for the life of me saw a straight line nor properly adjust my Stanley # 5 to produce those paper thin shavings it had once done on a daily basis. My sharpening skills were abysmal as well. To be honest I very nearly gave up thinking aging had made my eyes not as keen or my hands unsteady. Thankfully, I had made a promise concerning the project I was undertaking, and believing in the end I am only as good as my word, I persevered. It took time. A lot of time. Also lost wood due to misscuts and poor calculations. What once had come naturally now demanded careful thought and execution. I am pleased to say those dormant skills were not lost entirely and have returned to an acceptable level, perhaps not what they once were but I am confident with each push of the plane or chop on the chisel they will be fully realized.
    Thank you, Paul, for your Old World wisdom and your desire to share it.

    1. Thanks for your comment to Paul, Dale Griggs, on his blog posting of 4 August, “Can’t Saw Straight—Practice More Often Before You Begin.” It was truly helpful to me because I find myself in almost precisely the same position as you were at the beginning of August, with a couple of exceptions: It sounds like you were forced to abandon woodworking due to a change of location, where mine was returning to school, leaving 17+ years in cabinet shops behind (which decision I’ve come to regret). However, same result. I’ve recently (more or less) been put on US disability allowing me to pursue the only thing I was ever good at and which, like you, I’d considered that “I did fairly well working with wood” mainly because my employers had told me so and kept paying my salary. Nonetheless, I’d always been jealous of the people who actually HAD been through the European apprenticeship system (I live and worked in the USA, where apprenticeship in woodworking does not exist) or any other system that allows a working person to acquire the skills and fortitude necessary for a career in woodworking while still minimally supporting themselves. Since I now have the time, I’ve decided to “apprentice” myself to Paul Sellers (through watching his videos and paying VERY close attention to ‘how I hold my tongue,’ which was the main advice received from the people who taught me in my beginning cabinet shop days). I find that I have the same struggles, today, that I had back then, which was decades ago now, and am needing to relearn what I thought I’d acquired ‘back in the day.’ Oh well. This is just what an apprentice needs to go through to acquire skills, or even require what had once been there.
      I find myself, as you said, needing to “(make) a promise concerning the project I was undertaking, and believing in the end I am only as good as my word, I persevered.” So, I’ll be persevering, starting with relearning how to cut a straight line, and in my project today, a freehand 45 degree miter. I expect this will take the rest of the day, or days, but as long as I know SOMEBODY was able to achieve this feat, I have faith that I will as well. I mean, I did know it once upon a time.

  13. Good post Paul, There is another problem and a solutI would like to share:
    Cross over eye dominance.
    I learned this one when learning to shoot clay pigeons with a shotgun. The idea is to keep both eyes open. If your dominant eye is on the same side as your dominant hand; great. You will see down the gun or down the saw with your eye over the barrel or saw plate.
    However , If you are right handed with a dominant left eye. You will see the side of the saw with your left eye. When lining up the saw , it will look 90 degrees to the wood. Close left dominant eye and you will see the saw is tilted left. Same in reverse for left handlers with dominant right eye.
    Rather than squint down the saw with one eye shut; I simply close left eye, align saw, then open both eyes and keep saw at what appears to be a squint angle.
    Hope this helps.

  14. Yes, practice, practice, practice, but on a lighter side a real dilemma. Our six year old grandson who likes working in the shop was being given saw lessons, using the workmate bench, marking with the square for repeated cross cuts on a length of 1×1 pine. The lesson was for body position and alignment. All went well and he made sawdust and a pile of cutoffs, Tyler is happy. The dilemma is now he would like to glue the pieces back together. 🙂

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