Japanese Handsaws: The Twins

Communism is the opiate of intellectuals [with] no cure except as a guillotine might be called a cure for dandruff.

Clare Boothe Luce

his article is a show-and-tell about a matched set of custom-forged handsaws which have been your most humble and obedient servant’s trustworthy companions in the noble profession of making sawdust for many years.

The Twins

The archaeological record suggests that, at least in areas of the world where rusty remains have been excavated, the standard metal handsaw in ancient times had rip teeth only. As evidenced by the superior mental powers Gentle Reader exhibits, Woodworkers have historically been extremely intelligent people, so no doubt many sawyers, carpenters and joiners back in the mists of time independently discovered that filing (or stoning) their sawteeth to an acute bevel angle and alternating the direction of the bevel made the saw cut much faster and with less effort across the grain (i.e. crosscutting).

With this discovery, the crosscut saw was born, and thenceforth has been a worthy servant to its masters and a good companion to its elder sister the rip saw.

In modern times with the proliferation of inexpensive (and dangerous) circular saws, rip handsaws have become as rare as selfless tax collectors, but the combination of a rip saw for making cuts parallel with the direction of wood, and a crosscut saw for making cuts perpendicular to the grain of the wood has been common-sense among those who value accuracy and efficiency at least since the proliferation of carbon steel saws.

Some decades ago while working as a carpenter, your humble servant realized he needed a set of larger rip and crosscut saws for fabricating joints in timbers. The search resulted in the purchase of several saws, but the set described in this article are the two I have come to rely upon for such tasks most.

Both saws were hand-forged 70~80 years ago in Sanjo, Japan by a saw blacksmith named Azuma with the brand-name of Nakaya Choujiro (中屋長次郎), a venerable name in Eastern Japan. The grandson of this blacksmith is still producing saws in Sanjo today, including the Seijiro brand ryouba saws we carry. Nowadays nearly all of his production has shifted to short saws used by luthiers.

I found these saws in a tool store in Tokyo which is now defunct due to the owner’s inconvenient relocation to the big lumberyard in the sky. At the time of purchase, the store owner informed me they were originally commissioned by and custom forged for a Miyadaiku (temple carpenter) in Arakawa Ward of Tokyo, but sadly he had moved on to sorting boards in heaven without picking up these sawblades, leaving them sad and lonely in a cabinet hidden behind buckets of paint and roofing materials.

I get misty remembering their joy at being rescued after languishing so many years in darkness…

The Bukkiri Gagari Rip Saw

The saw in the photograph above and at the top of this article is a large kataba (single-blade) rip saw with aggressive, progressive-configured teeth called a “bukkiri gagari.”

“Bukkiri gagari” is a name used for large rip saws with this style of handle. The word “gagari“ refers to a large rip saw. The word “ bukkiri” probably means “chopped” or “cut down,” referring to the shortened tang.

The pointed tang, typical of handsaws intended to be fitted with a straight in-line handle, was bobbed at the time the saw was forged, evidence that it is not a conversion, but was intended to be a bukkiri gagari when just a twinkle in Grandfather Choujiro’s eye.

The large brownish-orange discoloration seen on the blade is neither corrosion nor a shadow due to poor lighting, but a remnant of the heat-treating process common to saws forged in Eastern Japan, more evidence of quality handwork.

The blade’s length measured from tip to the beginning of the tang is 425mm (16-5/8″). The cutting edge (teeth) measures 330mm (13″), making it a 1-shaku 1-sun blade a slightly unusual length. The blade’s overall length measured from the tip of the exposed tang to the tip of the blade is 625mm (24-5/8″). It measures 130mm (5-1/8″) at the widest point at the tip of the blade. The back of the blade has a slight curvature away from the cutting edge as is standard for larger rip saws forged in Eastern Japan.

A closeup of the tang of the bukkiri gagari member of the team. Sorry for the poor focus, but the hand-carved signature of Nakaya Choujirou (中屋長次郎) is plain to see. Some people prefer to jamb the handle on permanently, while I prefer the options a wedged handle provides. The wedge can be inserted from front or back, top or bottom, changing the angle of the handle and its distance from the cutting edge. The forge-welded connection between iron tang and steel handle is more visible in this photo. This detail is coveted by aficionados of Japanese saws as witness of quality handwork.

I made the handle from Japanese White Oak stained mahogany. It measures L270mm x w38mm x t30 (10-5/8″ x 1-1/2″ x 1-3/16″).

No doubt Gentle Reader is familiar with the more common Japanese handsaws with straight, softwood handles. This style of handle attached to the tang at an angle is called a “shumoku tsuka” 撞木柄 (shoe/moh/ku/tsu/kah). A shumoku is a wooden mallet used to strike bells in the Buddhist religion. I don’t know why this word is used for a saw handle; No one I have asked has been able to provide useful insight.

The shumoku handle can be attached to most any Japanese sawblade with a straight tang. It has several advantages. First, compared to the standard long handle attached in-line with the tang, it makes the saw much shorter in length and therefore handier for working in tight spots. This is especially useful when making vertical cuts from below for joints in the ends of large timbers resting on sawhorses or during erection where a long handle would get in the way.

The second advantage of the shumoku handle is the fact that, when combined with the stiffer blades of large rip saws, the user is better able to bring the stronger muscles of legs, back and both shoulders into play for more powerful cuts, an ergonomic principle similar to the thumbhole handle once common in Western handsaws.

The stance this handle makes possible also provides more leverage (greater moment couple) when cutting in tight situations and at unusual angles than a longer, straight handle can. This last factor makes the bukkiri gagari saw most valuable IMHO.

The Crosscut Saw

Notice the curvature to the back which is the approximate inverse of the curvature of its twin the bukkiri gagari saw shown above. Subtly beautiful.

The crosscut member of this dynamic duo is also a kataba 片刃(single-edge) saw with a custom-made but more ordinary straight handle.

It’s overall length is 845mm (33-1/4″), with 420mm (16-9/16″) of that being the blade extending past the handle. The blade is 125mm (4-15/16″) wide at the tip.

The cutting edge portion of the blade matches its companion at 330mm (13″), so it too is a “Juissun” saw, meaning 11 sun.

It too has a beautiful curvature to its back which in this case is directed towards the cutting edge instead, giving it a diligent posture. As is the case with all matched sets forged by the same blacksmith, the curvature of the back of each saw is the inverse of its partner so that they nest neatly against each other lovey dovey. Although it has little if any practical purpose, Japanese shokunin are unreasonably fond of this cosmetic detail, as am I.

Of course, the handle is approximately the same length as the the blade (not including the tang), and oval in cross section measuring 30 x 35mm x 425mm (1-3/16″ X 1-3/16″ X 16-3/4″). We will discuss how to make this type of handle in a future article.

I made this handle long ago from a piece of scrap Akita Sugi cedar (cryptomeria) , wrapped it tightly with copper wire at the mouth end to reinforce against splitting, applied a dab of solder to lock the wire in-place, and finished it by rubbing the wood with a tool called an “uzukuri” made from skinny plant roots to partially remove the softer summer wood leaving an excellent, textured surface that won’t slip no mater how wet with sweat it becomes. I love Akita Sugi

Gentler Reader (may the hair on your toes ever grow long!) may be wondering why one would use a short, sideways handle for a rip saw but a long straight handle for a crosscut saw. An excellent question indeed and further evidence of your superior intelligence!

Some crosscuts in timber work benefit from a longer reach. But more importantly, while the longer handle provides less power than the shumoku handle, it provides more control, essential for precise crosscuts. The way it was explained to me is that the large bukkiri gagari rip saw is used up close to the face and “guided by the nose,” while the large crosscut saw is guided from further away by the eye. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.

Although I haven’t used these saws professionaly for far too long, I had the teeth sharpened and plate tuned a few years ago by a famous blacksmith and saw sharpener named Nakaya Takijiro located in Kawagoe.

In one or two of the photos you may detect the little marks his tapping tapping tapping hammer left on the blade when he trued and corrected it. No, he didn’t straighten it, but he induced internal stresses to relieve some oil canning that had existed from Choujiro’s forge. He also made other subtle stress adjustments with his little hammer that made the saw track straighter and smoother with less friction as it heats up. What a difference it made! He is literally a genius with a sawblade.

The blacksmith’s hand-cut signature on the crosscut saw: “Nakaya Choujiro.” The blade was shaped and tapered in thickness by hand using a “sen” scraper, as evidenced by the visible marks. Close observation reveals that the soft tang is not electronically welded to the blade as has become SOP post-WWII, but is forged welded, a technique lovers of hand-forged saw greatly appreciate. Sadly, most of the surface corrosion occurred before your humble servant rescued these excellent saws.

I don’t use these saws much anymore, but I enjoy taking them out of their protective wrappings once or twice a year to clean and oil them, catch up on news, and sing a song of sawdust together. They love to sing.

I hope you found this little show-and-tell amusing. I have other unusual saws I will introduce in future.

Until then, I have the honor to remain,

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone by using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the teeth on my saws all snap off.

5 thoughts on “Japanese Handsaws: The Twins

  1. A nice tribute to some nice saws ! Here in Ohio , if you carry a ryoba
    onto the jobsite, the trades will make fun of you, until they need a cut they can‘t make on a tablesaw.
    Monday is Labor Day, so l am flattening my stones and hammer faces and setting boots by the door, so l am ready for work next week.

    Like

    1. Tom: I have fond memories of Ohio, especially the day the drug-testing wagon showed up at my jobsite in Cincinnati and 30+ masons fled like chickens from the fox. (ツ) A ryouba saw is indeed a rare sight in the Buckeye State.
      Best wishes for a fun, healthy, and pixie-free holiday. Enjoy some barbecue ribs for me! Ummmm…. ribs.

      Like

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