Canadian Woodworking

Hand-saw Showdown – East vs West: Japanese Style Hand-Saws

Author: Jason Klager
Photos: Jason Klager; Lead photo by Rob Brown
Published: August September 2011

With a number of differences between Western and Japanese saws, it can be confusing when it comes to making a purchase. Learn why two woodworkers reach for the saw they do.

Japan inspires me. From its high-speed bullet trains to the quiet lantern-lit cobble-stone alleys of Old Kyoto, I have always been drawn to this intriguing country. As a woodworker, my attention is drawn to their well-constructed architecture and iron-plated tansu. The hand-cut joinery of Japan’s accomplished carpenters motivated me to incorporate the use of hand tools into my own woodworking. So when I purchased my first hand-saw, a Japanese saw was the obvious choice. Since that day, over 10 years ago, I have enjoyed using Japanese saws and have come to understand and appreciate their benefits.

Simple Grip
 Most Japanese saws have an oval handle, which is wrapped in rattan. This allows many options when sawing. 

An Extension of the Arm
There are a number of ways to hold a Japanese saw. Klager grips the saw close to the neck and maintains contact of the handle with his wrist and forearm.

Very Thin Kerf
Because the blade is so narrow the resulting kerf is surprisingly thin compared with Western saws. This means each stroke requires less force.

Tiny Teeth
 More teeth mean each cut is easier to start, and the resulting surface is much smoother, when compared to Western saws.

Quick Change
Though a Japanese saw blade tends to last a long time it usually can’t be sharpened. Disposable blades are easily changed and leave you with a super-sharp set of teeth.

The straightforward design of Japanese woodworking tools can give the perception that they are little more than a novelty. However, omitting a tool’s ornate trimmings and keeping it in its simplest form can assist and increase that tool’s effectiveness. The Japanese saw is one of those tools; its lightweight, straight handle and thin blade are what make this tool extremely reliable. The intelligent design of the handle is what I find separates the Japanese saw from others. The handle’s lightweight material, wrapped in rattan and bearing an oval-shaped profile make it comfortable to hold. The straight handle increases the saw’s versatility, allowing me to be flexible with the position of my hand(s) when adjusting for the thickness of the material I’m working with or the type of cut I’m performing. With larger saws, this straight handle allows two hands to work together: one balancing the saw, positioned near the neck, and the other hand at the end providing the pull force. The Japanese saw’s distinct trait is that the handle is positioned in line with the blade. With one-handed saws, like a dozuki, I hold the portion of the handle closest to the neck, resting the remainder of the handle under my wrist and forearm. I can then place my index finger on the back of the blade for additional control. The saw becomes an unmindful extension of my arm directing my attention to the accuracy of the cut. The saw held this way brings the material closer and allows me to feel the cut so I can make timely adjustments to maintain the blade’s course and govern the speed at which it cuts.

I value the handle’s versatility, but just as important to the tool’s overall composition is the performance of its blade. Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke, which allows a thin blade to be used. These thin blades will remove a very small amount of material, producing an exceptionally narrow kerf and powder-like sawdust. For fine work, this splinter-free narrow kerf allows me to see the line I’m following, and when cutting down to a line, the thin blade gives me a clear indicator to know when to stop. I find the thin blade makes starting a cut effortless and reduces the amount of energy needed to continue sawing. The teeth on these blades can be multi-faceted, reaching a tpi (teeth per inch) of 36. Although these teeth are next to impossible to sharpen, they will leave a flawless surface, even when I’m working with softer woods. A finer-tooth pattern also means a slower cut, but this allows me to more accurately follow my intended line and make the necessary corrections.

Handmade forged saws are made by blacksmiths whose methods have been handed down by generations of experienced individuals before them. In the right hands, these saws perform beautifully. These forged saws come with a high price, so I bought a production saw for my first one. Unlike the handmade forged saws that require professional sharpening, production saws have disposable blades, which can be an affordable and convenient alternative. Instead of discarding a dull or damaged blade, I like to modify them into card scrapers.

For lighter work, production saws are affordable, precise and very forgiving, making it the perfect choice for the beginner. For the collector and experienced sawyer, the amount of saws available is endless and pride can be taken when purchasing these hand forged saws. Inspired by the carpenters who use them, Japanese saws have found a permanent home in my hand tool collection. Incorporating the use of these saws into my own woodworking has convinced me that when it comes to the composition of a hand tool, less is more.

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