Carpenter's portrait

Why Bother with Handsaws?

The man in the 19th-century daguerreotype holds a handsaw and framing square. Most children today would recognize the handsaw, though many will never use one. Those who ever do any carpentry or woodworking in the future will probably use a circular saw, just as their parents or even grandparents did. So why bother with handsaws?

In order to answer that question, consider why you are doing woodwork. Are you a helper on a construction site cutting dozens of studs to length for a knee wall? Maybe you shouldn't give up the boss's Dewalt electric chop saw.

Are you working in the evening or weekends doing a hobby? If so, what draws you to it? Is it setting up the machinery and making test cuts? Is it the dust or the noise? Maybe watching carefully as your hand comes closer to the spinning blade? Or do you merely tolerate it?

If you are like most woodworkers, you like the feeling of success that comes when you look at a project that comes together the way you imagined it. Forget about the guy who buys a table saw at Sears or the home center, uses it once, and lets it sit unused in his basement. You're not that guy because he wouldn't care enough to read an essay about the use of antique tools on a website dedicated to Disston handsaws. Your project comes out the way it does, not because of your tools, but because of your skill as a woodworker.

Yes, I know what you're saying: you need good tools to do the job right. That's not my point. You could do better work on that other guy's table saw than he ever could. The fence was crooked and the moulding burned when he tried to make a rip cut. Just as the saw was going to stall, the piece kicked back and nearly hit his kid across the room. That's why he doesn't use the saw anymore. It didn't give him pleasure, it only showed his incompetence.

You learned all that and know better. My point is you stayed with woodworking because you like the process. You like making things from pieces of wood and shaping them in a way that pleases you. It was the same for woodworkers 100 years ago. Not for the helper on the construction site; he would have used the boss's chop saw if they had existed. Fine woodworkers of the 19th century were doing the same thing you want to do : create your best work. What separates them from you? You have the power tools; they had the knowledge and experience. That's what I mean when I say your woodworking depends less on your tools than your skills.

How do you cut a six-inch long stick of wood to four? Your hand is getting close to that spinning blade, so be careful. Now rip a quarter inch of width off that same piece of wood. Impossible. Maybe you're framing a house and need to cut the ends off some rafters to get the facia on. Would you rather hold the circular saw standing on a ladder or hanging off the edge of the roof? Try a sharp handsaw while standing a ladder. This safer way of working is the least you can do with a hand saw.

How do you know the blade in your circular saw is sharp? It doesn't burn the wood or twist the saw out of your hand? You don't get much feedback from a powertool until it's too late. Either the work is spoiled or it comes flying back at you. Handtools tell you because you are powering them with your body, not a motor.

If you think a handsaw is tiring and a waste of effort, you've never used a quality saw that's sharp. That shouldn't come as a surprise if you live in the U.S., since there hasn't been a decent handsaw made in this country in nearly 50 years. A few small specialty toolmaking firms have come out with great dovetail saws -- Independence Tools for one -- but there are no decent handsaws available unless you buy an antique. The saws available from the U.K., for example Pax, are not better in quality than those made by Disston when the company was sold off in 1955. Last time I checked, the new English saws were close to $100.

Use of handsaws has become so rare that in my hometown of Syracuse, New York, a metropolitan area of about 600,000 population, not one shop offering saw sharpening is listed in the phone book, not even a bad one. I have learned to sharpen my own saws, and I recommend you try it.

The good news is that there no shortage of old saws in a condition that allows them to be refurbished and sharpened in no time. In fact there are so many available at flea markets, local or online auctions, or from tool dealers that you can be choosy about condition. Don't waste your time with broken or rust-pitted junk, there are too many saws in good condition, often to be had for under $5. Hardly anyone wants to use them, so you won't be competing with too many buyers. Even if you live in a place that doesn't have many tools in yard sales or flea markets, there's a huge selection of perfect saws online for $30-40, sometimes for less. Once you get a good saw cleaned up, sharpened properly, and you maintain it, the saw still will be around after you die of old age.

If you work with wood because you enjoy the process of shaping it into something you care about, then you should consider using tools that put you closer to that process and allow you to experience it with pleasure instead of guards, goggles, and dust masks. I still find uses for some of the power tools I own, but as I have progressed in this hobby, more of my work is done with tools that the man in that daguerreotype would recognize.

     Published Feb. 2003.


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