Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Japanese Saws

According to Jim Blauvelt and Harrelson Stanley, Japanese saws just make sense. Since they are used on the pull stroke, they tend to stay straight in the cut, as opposed to Western saws, which are used on the push stroke and can sometimes bind in the cut. Because of this, Western saw blades are thicker than Japanese blades in order to accomodate the resistance.

No vise is used when cutting with a Japanese saw. Huh?? What's a workbench without a vise? Less expensive, for one thing. Instead of employing a vise, you cut down toward the benchtop at a 60ยบ angle. I was intrigued with the planing stop: a sliding dovetail (second to last photo).

Jim and Harrelson recommend using the most aggressive saw possible for a given task. Larger Japanese saws, typically used for carpentry, are as accurate as but cut faster than smaller ones, which are typically used for joinery.

There is huge variety in the quality of saws on the market, the best having been made within the last 10-15 years (I don't think they were including saws that were and are handmade by masters, but rather machine-manufactured saws in the 20th & 21st centuries). Saws in the $40-$50 range with disposable blades are a good choice.

Avoid impulse-hardened teeth, where only the surface of the teeth are hardened. These teeth appear bluish in color. Jim & Harrelson said "you can feel the steel stretching as you use [these saws]."

Here are other points (no pun intended. well, maybe):

1) Shorter teeth with steeper bevels work best for hardwood.

2) Ryoba (meaning "both") is a 2-sided saw. One side is crosscut and the other is rip.

3) Keep your saw oiled every day.

4) Dozuki is a backsaw and is available in both rip and crosscut.

5) Azehiki (5th photo) is a short- bladed saw used for starting a cut in the middle of a board and for sawing the sides of a groove.

The last photo is Jim's marking gauge. I couldn't resist.

I bought a dozuki about 14 years ago and loved it until I put a kink in the blade (about 2 months after I bought it). It worked very well, but you have to be gentle and sensitive with Japanese saws. Maybe play a Barry Manilow album while you're using them.


The Great Ethan Allen said...

Wonderful info. I have wanted to purchase one for a shile but just cant find the need for one at the moment. ( I don't do jointery...yet) thanks for the tips on selecting one when I'm ready.

Kari Hultman said...

TGEA, the best advice I received at this conference regarding handsaws is try them out first until you find "the one". Conferences like this are ideal for taking handtool test drives.

Woodbloke said...

Kari - I had a brief dabble with Jap saws a few years ago but couldn't get on with them. The work they're generaly designed to do is in on site carpentry work in softwood...hence the reason for no bench. I'd make a small wager that the timber that they were demonstrated on was a softwood? When you try them out in a hard cabinet making timber (say oak or maple) the performence is much less impressive. I know all the logic says that they ought to be better, but it in practice for the sort of work I do, they're not. A good western style tenon saw, such as produced by MW or TLN is far more preferable, but as in everything else, it's a matter of personal choice - Rob

Woodbloke said...

Forgot...please, please, no Manilow, ever, under any cicumstances - Rob

Metalworker Mike said...

I find myself in the 'no thank-you' camp when it comes to pull-saws. My indoctrination was by way of a $100 rip-tooth dozuki. A very fine saw, no doubt, but I don't like the stick handles - I greatly prefer a pistol grip, open or closed, for registration. I also don't like how the saw tends to pull fibres that blur the line you're cutting to. It seemed I spent more time blowing sawdust off of my line than actually sawing. So now the dozuki hangs on the saw-till and I use my Medallion hand-saws instead, and I am much happier. I'm sticking with the push-stroke instead of the pull-stroke, though some may prefer the latter. As they say... different strokes for different folks. :)


Geemoney said...

Discussions about tool preferences are always a bit tough.

I like Japanese saws a great deal, but I also have to say that, in my relatively short history with woodworking, I have used them together with Western saws and so have worked to improve with both.

The thinner kerf is, for me a big plus, and the quality of the cut on my Japanese saws is (and this is likely my own fault) better than what I see with my other saws. The thinner kerf has disadvantages, of course. As a friend of mine pointed out, the nature of the blade and the cut that it makes also makes it impossible to reset a cut in the middle, should one find that they have gotten off the line, or are veering dangerously close. I am sure that wouldn't happen to anyone here, of course. My friend was talking about frame saws, incidentally, but I imagine that it also applies to taper-ground blades.

Interestingly (for me), it wasn't until just yesterday that I really got to love my Ryoba. I had used it mostly with pine, but had some work to do yesterday with beech. All I could think yesterday while I was working was, "Butter, meet the hot knife." The other thing I learned yesterday is just how poorly set up western benches are for cutting with Japanese blades.

All that said, I have never used a LN (or similar) dovetail saw, but the reviews are uniformly good. I am open to be persuaded, I guess.

Was there anything at the conference about frame saws? I have recently become interested in them, but rarely read much commentary about them.

Thanks for sharing about your time at the conference.

Anonymous said...

First comes the disclaimer: I sell Japanese saws, among all kinds of Japanese Tools.

But then, I do sell them not only because of my situation makes me able to get any Japanese tool very easily (I live in Kyoto, Japan) but, mainly, because I love the way they cut. Many years ago I fell in love with them and they've never deceived me.

The main problem people has with pull-style saws is that nobody has ever taught them how to saw with one. People tend to think that a saw is a saw is a saw but they don't realize that you don't just "do the same but pulling". A Western saw demands to be pushed rather strongly and firmly; in contrast, a Japanese one asks for the most delicate pull and NEVER, ever, forcing its way through the wood. People that break teeth do it because they try to go against the natural speed of the saw. As many things in the Japanese culture, the blade just has to flow naturally, effortlessly.

Regarding the pistol grip vs. trad. grip there's reason behind such apparent madness. The aforementioned flow can only be accomplished with proper body positioning, including arms and legs. Your forearm must follow the natural line dictated by the longitudinal long handle and proper positioning of the hand and the index finger guiding and stabilizing the movement is key to achieve this.

All saw styles have their place in the market and I am a firmly believer that everybody must use the ones that suit their needs the best. Me? I will stick to my Japanese. I still have to find anything close to the variety of specialized blades they offer among the Western ones.

In a non-sequitur, I love your blog. When will we see you on Twitter?

Japanese Woodworking Tools

PS: Once you join two kanji together, oftentimes the second gets some change in its pronunciation, specially when it starts with an "h", so the proper ortograph is "azebiki" instead of "azehiki" :o)

Anonymous said...

Kari!! Barry Manilow???

Anonymous said...

Kari!! Barry Manilow???

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that Manilow wrote the immortal McDonald's Theme Song.

johnjoiner said...

I also have steered away from Japanese saws because I didn't like the ergonomics of the handle. After reading Jojo's comment I see that it was incorrect for me to hold the saw with the handle nearly parallel to my forearm.

Geemoney mentioned frame saws. And I'm also interested in them. Seems with those you get the best of East and West: a thin blade under tension that cuts on the push-stroke.

Kari, I love your blog.

Kari Hultman said...

Do to the overwhelmingly positive responses, my next ww video will feature Barry Manilow as the recording artist.

The only frame saw I noticed at the conference was being used by Adam Cherubini at his booth, but I don't think any of the seminars discussed them. I'll see what I can find out and let you know. They are very cool. I love turning saws, as well.

Jojo, I checked out your site and the little saw I was referring to looks like the one that's listed as Gyokucho, so I must have written the wrong name down entirely.

I'm sure glad you guys like reading this blog because I sure like producing it. :o)

Shazza said...

Which Barry Manilow song are you going to use? Trying to Get the Feelin' Again?

Kari Hultman said...

Gosh, Shazza, I don't know...there are so many good ones. "Mandy"?

Anonymous said...

I could suggest, "Looks Like We Made It", but that would be too obvious. Given that we are talking Barry Manilow, though, I'll stick with "Halfway Over the Hill", and believe me, I'm being halfway kind here ; )


Unknown said...

I attended this session as well. I'll say I have good back saws and Japanese. I prefer the Japanese pull saws. Harrelson did confirm that if you start out crooked, the cut will be crooked. There's no correcting the cut in the middle. That problem should be corrected with practice. Since you're pulling the work down to the bench, I must agree the saw makes sense. With through cuts, Jim cut about a 45 degree angle, using the marking lines on two faces to stay on line. I believe the key is picking the saw that is aggressive enough. Too thin and you're bogged down. Only problem with the session is the actual cutting techniques got started too late.

Not much in the way of frame saws mentioned, despite Klausz' praise. Frank used the LN dovetail, I'm told he uses the frame saw generally on 1" or thicker material.

Anonymous said...

Well, for me the only Manilow would be "On a Slow Boat to China" with Bette Middler. Now top that... :o)

Although now that I think, it's slow enough to get you some smooth and productive cuts!

Geemoney said...


I haven't looked up the picture you're talking about, but Gyokucho is the brand name of a Japanese saw maker. At least, those are the folks that made my Ryoba.

And as long as I am here, and we are talking about saws, my interest in the frame saw has everything to do with using one to resaw stock by hand. Do you have any experience with that? I am bandsaw challenged, but need to get two usable pieces of wood from some thick boards I have.

Anonymous said...

I find the Western saw ergonomics to be a bit too awkward for me to handle and find Japanese saws more enjoyable to use. Jojo makes several excellent points. You can also use both hands to hold a Japanese saw but never use brute force. You let the saw do the cutting (barely putting pressure on it) and it will track perfectly with a smooth cut. A waltz rather than disco...:-)

Kari Hultman said...

Thanks for clearing that up about the saw maker, Geemoney.

I emailed Adam Cherubini about his frame saw and he said "Mine is a copy of the one in Roubo. Wmsburg has one and they can saw veneer with theirs. It has 6tpi. My saw has 2! I'm having trouble with it. I think it needs more set. It cuts fast but is impossible to correct (gotta be set)."

I have never used a frame saw, but Dan at has. In fact, I think he made his. You might write him and ask his opinion.

Seems like the handle plays a large part in some peoples' preferences regarding Japanese and Western saws.

Anonymous said...

Last anonymous commenter clearly understand Japanese saws.

Kari, your last video is amazing! I can't imagine anything sexier than a woman all dressed up sawing a board, with a glass of wine waiting besides on the workbench. I'll pass on the kitsch musical touch though... ;o)

Geemoney, I'm afraid what you really need is something that is impossible to get anymore, a "maebiki ooga". They were handmade and is what the local lumberjocks used to use to rip lumber and make beams. I tried to get a used one for a customer to no avail. After a few months querying my providers I was unable to succeed. Very seldom one of those make it to the market. They are huge and their extra-wide blade gives them an amazing straight tracking capabilities.

I do have a "maebiki", the "small" version. It is an old family saw—my wife's family actually, I'm not the Japanese one—that was used about a hundred years ago by her grandfather to build the house we live in. At 28" long by about 9" wide I hesitate to call it small but the big "maebiki ooga" were often used by two men so you can imagine their size. Mine is a 3 tpi and in dire need of a restoration but it will saw again, I promise.

In case you are interested, here it is.

Anonymous said...

Kari, I forgot to answer you, I'm sorry.

Don't trust the site, I don't know what went wrong last time I updated it but it's all screwed up. I'll try to fix it this weekend. What it is listed under the brand name "Gyokucho" is actually an "azebiki", so you got the name perfectly right. It is a panel saw that I love. It allows you to do things such as cutting drawer frames out of an apron without the need to rip it in three boards beforehand. The amazingly thin kerf and the ability to start the cut in the middle of the panel without a pilot hole is what makes it so unique. That gives you continuous grain and no glue lines. It doesn't get any better than this in my book.

Geemoney said...


Thanks for taking the time to look into that. I will contact Dan; I had seen some of the pictures with his students on his site and it looks like he knows how to do what I need. Hopefully that will tranfer over the intertubes.


That is one amazing saw, and you weren't kidding about it being the small version. Phew. How thick is the blade on that bad boy? At that size does it, by necessity, need to approach the thickness of Western saws?

I hope I didn't hijack this thread; if so, I apologize, but I think this is cool stuff.

Kari Hultman said...

Jojo, the maebiki saw is very cool. And cooler yet that you're going to restore it so it can be used again. Thanks for posting the photo and thanks for adding to the explanation of the azebiki saw. : )

Geemoney, it's all about sharing info and learning from one another so you can post any comment you like. ; )

Anonymous said...

Geemoney the "maebiki's" kerf is only 1/32" but the blade alone weights 2.2 lbs. It needs to be cleaned of all the rust, re-polished and the handle needs some TLC too, but most of the teeth as still surprisingly sharp.

VC, I'll be glad to help in anything I can. Not that this might be much but I'll do my best.

Anonymous said...

Hello - I just get a rusted maebiki and I would like to know how to restore it (just getting the rust away and oil it) - I should use camellia oil after, but what to take the rust away without damaging the saw ? (sorry for the english, I am french speaking) - thank you for your advice

Kari Hultman said...

Anon, have you tried steel wool to remove the rust?