Japanese Handsaws: The Maebiki Ooga 前挽大鋸

A famous blockprint by Hokusai titled “Mount Fuji Seen from the Mountains of Totomi,” showing a crew of sawyers rip-sawing a timber into boards using maebiki ooga saws, one man on top and one underneath. Notice a third man to the left sitting under the timber sharpening another saw, perhaps his own or that of the fellow sitting in the background. A woman, probably the loving wife of the saw sharpener, has a baby wiggling around on her back trying to get a better view. She is no doubt waiting for her husband to pause his file work so she can deliver his lunch contained in the traditional furoshiki cloth depicted in left her hand. Some things never change with time or place, so she probably isn’t standing there silently, but I will leave the subject of the one-sided conversation to Gentle Reader’s imagination.

A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.

Thomas Sowell

The name of this tool can be translated directly into English as “Front Pull Large Saw.” Kinda makes sense in light of the other options.

This tool is a large, relatively thick and heavy rip saw specialized for sawing logs into timbers and boards, but it can make various types of rip cuts in large timbers, sometimes pulled up through the kerf, and sometimes pulled down from below, as shown in the wood block print by Hokusai above.

Various timber and arborist’s crosscut saws have a gradually bent tang, while others have a cranked tang like the saw which is the subject of this article and shown in the photo above. Not seen in the photo is the tapered portion of the tang inside the stubby handle.

Although the scale may not be readily apparent from the photo, these handles are often quite large, perhaps 7~8cm in diameter and 15~20cm long, to provide a large bearing surface for two hands.

The best material for this type of saw handle is said to be soft paulownia wood (桐) because it cushions the workman’s hands without becoming slippery when wet with perspiration, a common state for this hard-working tool.

Here a few links to YouTube videos of these saws in-use: Link 1 Link 2 Link3 Link 4 Link 5

Advantages

There are four advantages to this saw your humble servant is aware of. First, while it is by no means a lightweight wood-gobbler, it does not require the long, clumsy, heavy frame of two-man saws, so it can be more easily transported.

Second, it can be operated by a single craftsman.

Third, due to its wider, much stiffer blade, the maebiki saw tends to cut a straighter kerf with less effort than two-man frame saws can typically achieve.

And finally, while it appears to be larger, most of the blade’s width, except the area right at the teeth, is comprised of unhardened low-carbon iron, requiring a reduced quantity of expensive steel to produce compared to a two-man frame saw.

In any case, as Gentle Readers and Beloved Customers with experience ripping wide boards are no doubt aware, using human bones and muscles to saw boards and timbers requires patience, and a lot of sweaty, hard work. Thank heaven for machine saws.

I own two maebiki oga saws, both purchased at flea markets in Japan in the 1980’s before collecting them became popular. They are currently in storage in the USA, no doubt sad and lonely in the dark.

Long ago I had them both professionally evaluated and learned that they were produced of iron and tamahagane steel sometime during the mid-Edo Period (1603~1867).

I had them professionally sharpened and, just for the heck of it, used one to square up a pine timber under the tutelage of an old-timer. An interesting experience but one I would prefer to not repeat. For you see, while the saw was simply quivering with excitement at having sharp teeth again and tasting fresh wood after so many years of neglect, I fear I did not provide it the excitement it so desperately wanted, disappointing it badly. At the time, I thought I heard a mumbling issuing from its many gullets, something about me being a lazy bum… But of course, that couldn’t have been the case (シ)

After that I mounted it over the door to my workshop so it could at least imbibe the savory smells of fresh sawdust on a regular basis as it gazed down upon its domain. No complaints so far.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its unusual appearance, no saw I am aware of exudes a more powerful presence, or contains more internal focused energy, than the maebiki ooga saw. What think ye?

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click 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 in 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 all my sawkerfs wander.

Handsaws: Some Guidelines to Aid Precision

A famous wood block print by Katsushika Hokusai titled ” Mount Fuji Seen from the Mountains of Totomi,” one scene in thirty-six. With pre-big-bang Mount Fuji in the background, a group of four sawyers, and judging from the mother and baby in the foreground, probably including at least one family, are sawing boards from a huge timber on the very mountain where the tree was felled. Two men are sawing away with maeibiki ooga saws, one from above and another from below, while a third sharpens a saw underneath. OSHA approval was not obtained for this working arrangement, oh my! They probably slept in the rough shelter erected at the left. A brutal, if scenic, lifestyle with abundant, fragrant fresh air.

Perfection is a necessary goal, precisely because it is unattainable. If you don’t aim for perfection you cannot make anything great, and yet, true perfection is impossible.

Leonard, The Outfit

Cutting joints connecting one piece of wood to another, such as mortise and tenon joints, bridle joints, dovetails, etc. using only handtools is not difficult, but most people find, at least initially, that executing them to fit together tightly without slop or unsightly gaps can be challenging.

The ability to routinely and quickly cut tight, workman-like joints with a handsaw is a critical skill for the professional that specializes in making limited runs of custom furniture and casework because the appearance of exposed joints is a direct, long-term reflection of his standards of quality. And while it may not be a critical skill for the amateur who produces high-quality woodwork, it is nonetheless extremely satisfying, especially if the cabinets, furniture or casework he makes will remain in his house or with family where any poorly-fitting joints will silently laugh at him with “open mouths,” as the Japanese saying goes, over many years. Your humble servant loathes and fears such mocking whispers!

So, how does one go about improving one’s skill with handsaws thereby avoiding the sidelong glances and silent, but nonetheless snide, remarks of gaping joints? In this article your most humble and obedient servant will be so bold as to provide some guidelines I have shared with friends and Beloved Customers over the years, but which I have never before compiled into a single document. Please let me know in the comments below if these techniques prove useful.

The Saw

Of course, hand-cut joinery is accomplished using handsaws, tools that vary widely in quality and performance, so it is appropriate to begin this discussion with an explanation of the features a high-performance handsaw should incorporate.

In your humble servant’s well-informed opinion, the handsaw is by far the most difficult woodworking tool for the blacksmith to produce. Sadly, there are few skilled blacksmiths producing handmade saws nowadays, and while new companies producing pimped-out high-priced backsaws targeting amateurs have sprouted up, many of those exhibit performance inconsistent with the high prices their manufacturers demand. Imagine that….

But never fear, for below is a list of key things Gentle Reader should look for in a high-performance, professional-grade handsaw to be used for precision joinery.

The Plate

Whether Western or Japanese, the “plate” of a saw (the piece of sheet steel that comprises the blade) is its most important component. It must be adequately hard to resist bending and buckling, and so the teeth cut into it can be made sharp and stay sharp a long time, but not so hard the blade will crack or the teeth break off. This is a delicate balance. Sadly, most manufacturers err on the side of softer and duller. Sigh…

The best handsaws are made from plain high-carbon steel with a fine crystalline grain structure. Thus it has always been, and for good reason. Sadly, high-quality steel of this sort is difficult to procure nowadays.

Most of the new American and European manufacturers of backsaws, as well as all the Japanese manufacturers of replaceable-blade handsaws, make their saw plates from pre-hardened, thickness-sanded steel purchased in sheets or rolls, metal never touched by a blacksmith. This is a cost-efficient material that eliminates the need for blacksmithing skills, but it has a few serious limitations that negatively impact a saw’s performance.

In the case of Japanese blades with the discolored, hardened teeth, after the plate has been stamped out with dies and a press, or cut to shape with a laser, the teeth are shaped by grinders, set is applied by machine, and the blade is passed quickly through an induction coil formed by two metal blocks charged with high voltage electricity, suddenly heating the teeth in a technique called “shock hardening.” The plate never slows down, and as the red-hot teeth exit the copper-alloy blocks fired by an induction coil, they pass through a coolant spray which instantly quenches them creating a hard, crystalline structure in the metal.

Most Western backsaws are made using similar materials and processes but without the induction hardening step.

210mm Dozuki saw hand-forged by Nakaya Takijiro, the ultimate handsaw for precision woodworking.

Taper Grinding

A high-performance saw’s plate will be taper-ground in at least one direction, with the plate made thinner at the back than at the teeth, providing extra clearance in the cut, increasing as the blade cuts deeper into the wood, reducing friction between wood and plate for a smoother cut with less effort, and reducing the risk of buckling.

Handmade Japanese handsaw blades are of course double-taper-ground, as once were all quality Western handsaws too, but sadly neither replaceable-blade Japanese handsaws nor modern Western backsaws are taper-ground to any degree. John Disston would puke.

Unfortunately, too many modern users of handsaws, lost in a Twitter world, have become entirely inured to terminal Chinese Logic, such that most are incapable of even considering qualities they can’t instantly infer (correctly or not) from a photograph on the internet. These confused souls deserve our pity.

Gentle Reader would be wise to place his priorities regarding performance above outward appearance, because a prettily-finished exotic hardwood handle, a beautifully sanded/polished finish on a sawplate, and even an eye-catching etched brand contribute neither diddly nor squat to a handsaw’s job of making precision cuts.

Hammer Tensioning

Hammer tensioning is an ancient technique whereby the sawsmith or saw sharpener rests the plate on an anvil and taps the plate with his hammer creating small dents in specific areas. Each tiny dent deforms the metal making the plate slightly thinner at the point of impact while at the same time displacing a corresponding amount of metal away from the point of impact. Being constrained from expanding as much as it wants to by surrounding metal, the accumulated strain of many dents creates internal stresses that tend to make the saw wider and longer. Taken too far, these stresses will make the sawplate buckle or oilcan, but if done just right, for all practical purposes the sawplate will remain flat and stable.

Why bother with all this noisy tapping with hammers? Clearly Gentle Reader is exceptionally perceptive to pose this question, and accordingly your humble servant quivers with joy at the prospect of clarifying an elegant and ancient mystery, one that is still employed to good effect in high-quality modern circular saw blades as I learned during recent meetings in Nagoya with three of Japan’s largest circular saw blade manufacturers.

So here’s the reason: As a sawblade heats up due to friction in the cut, the metal of course expands, but not uniformly over the blade’s entire surface. This differential heating and resulting differential expansion causes a sawplate that has not been hammer tensioned to temporarily warp, increasing friction in the cut even further, and making the cut wander thereby ruining the precision of the cut, and in the worst case, causing the saw to buckle. The residual stresses produced in a saw’s plate through proper hammer tensioning counteract and cancel out stresses produced in the sawblade through friction heat preventing the plate from buckling, excessively warping, or oil-canning, with the result that the saw will cut straighter and cleaner with less effort even as it heats up.

I don’t know who invented this subtle technique far back in the mists of time, or where, but it is genius-level craftsmanship.

The better-quality Japanese replaceable-blade handsaw makers have taken a page from the circular sawblade manufactures and run their sawblades through a pair of opposed steel rollers which induce stresses in the steel similar to hammer-tensioning by hand. I may be wrong, but I am unaware of any modern Western backsaw makers that either hammer-tension or roller-tension their sawplates, but instead rely solely on the stiffness of the applied back to prevent buckling. Once again, JD would weep.

Another benefit of hammer-tensioning, and one Gentle Reader can ascertain easily by examining a saw blade in person (but without the back installed) is that the internal stresses resulting from hammer-tensioning make the sawblade much stiffer than it would normally be without adding metal or weight. Simply remove the back and handle and hold the sawblade out level supported on only one end. A hammer-tensioned blade will sag significantly less than one that has not been hammer-tensioned.

Another easy test for hammer tensioning applicable to panel handsaws is that of bending the sawplate and tapping it with a fingertip producing a musical note that can be varied by changing the degree of bend in the sawplate. In fact, believe it or not, the handsaw was once a popular musical instrument in some quarters in the USA, with all the major saw manufacturers producing specialty musical saws (sans teeth).

In summary, a properly hammer-tensioned saw will be stiffer, will cut straighter, can be made thinner and lighter, and will require less force to operate for the amount of sawdust generated.

The hand-cut and hand-filed teeth of a 210mm Dozuki saw by Nakaya Takijro. The small dings visible near the chin of the blade are the marks left by hammer tensioning.

Teeth

Tooth types and preferences in handsaws vary so widely that little can be said that applies to all. However, Gentle Reader should consider the following when evaluating a handsaw to be used to cut precision joints.

First, assuming the teeth are the desired shape and size and progression, they should be uniformly and extremely sharp, indeed, sharp enough to cut you if touched carelessly. If you place the palm of your hand gently on the line of teeth, you should feel the little buggers trying to grab your skin. Not just one or two of the vicious little teeth should frantically try to eat you, but all of them in contact with your hand should seem eager to nibble because each tooth is either a frightfully-sharp, pointy little knife, in the case of crosscut saws, or a razor-sharp little chisel, in the case of rip teeth. And of course, a well-made and sharp saw is always eager to cut anything and everything it can get its teeth into. Just ask it.

Unfortunately, the teeth of most of the new crop of Western saws made nowadays are, in my experience, poorly sharpened and in need of TLC before they are useable. I say this as someone that prefers Western handsaws for some tasks, sharpens his own saws by hand, has purchased, collected and tested both new and antique Western handsaws over the years, and continues to use the better of them regularly.

In the case of most woodworking tasks, sawteeth need to have some degree of set to make the sawkerf wider than the thickness of the plate to reduce friction, binding, and buckling. Indeed, to compensate for a missing taper-grind and hammer tensioning, most modern Western saws are made with excessive amounts of set. This matters because all the extra wood the sawblade must cut to accommodate this extra set is wasted effort turned into sawdust that does nothing to improve speed or accuracy. Therefore, a good handsaw will have no more set than absolutely necessary to get the job done.

This means, of course, that one needs different saws with different set and different tooth styles for different types of cuts in different types of wood. It makes a difference.

On the other hand, if Gentle Reader uses handsaws solely to burn calories, the aforementioned points should all be studiously ignored. (ツ)。

The teeth of a 210mm Hozohiki rip saw hand-forged by Nakaya Takijiro. The hand-filed steel back finished in traditional burnt silk is also visible at the top of the photo. These teeth are specifically designed to meet the demands of professional Japanese luthiers working in exotic hardwoods.

If Gentle Reader is in need of a high-quality hand-forged saw, you may want to consider those made to C&S Tools’s specifications by one of Japan’s last remaining master sawsmiths, Nakaya Takijiro. You can see some of his products at this link.

A 210mm Hozihiki rip saw hand-forged by Nakaya Takijiro from White Label steel No.2. This saw, and especially its teeth, are specifically designed for cutting precision knock-down joints in the hard, exotic woods, such as ebony and rosewood, that Japanese luthiers use to make shamisen, harps, lutes and other traditional musical instruments.

Using a Handsaw to Make Precision Cuts

The overarching guiding principles in using handsaws to make precision cuts are the following:

  1. The Saw: Use a high-quality saw with the features described above. If you don’t yet own such a saw or can’t afford one, and even if you do, educate yourself in blade sharpening, applying set, and in the techniques of straightening sawplates so your saw will achieve its maximum potential performance;
  2. Layout: Layout the cut so there is no confusion about where it starts, where it continues, where it ends, and the angle of the cut. Whenever possible mark cuts in such as way that the sawblade can positively index itself. Marking knives and marking gauges with sharp cutters can produce such layout lines better than pencils and pens. If there is any chance of confusion, include marks in your layout indicating, for example, the side of the line to cut to and where to stop;
  3. Arrangement: Arrange, support and align the workpiece, your body, and your eye to produce only straight cuts with every single stroke. This point is relevant to item 4 below;
  4. Make of Thyself a Machine: More details below;
  5. Attention: Pay attention to make every single stroke accurate;
  6. Stop & Correct: The instant a stroke goes astray or the cut wanders even a little, stop sawing, figure out why, and make corrections. Not ten strokes or even two strokes later, but instantly. This requires concentration and iron-handed control of your inner badger.

Layout

Spend the time to do layout and marking properly, because confusion and uncertainty during the cut will result in reduced mental focus, and often, poor precision. A solid, well thought-out plan combined with a sharp marking knife, a sharp marking gauge, and an accurate, hardened steel square help to make good lines yielding good cuts.

Arrangement

In order to achieve No.4 in the list above, “Make of Thyself a Machine,” you should spend the time and develop the habit of securing the workpiece at a height and angle that will aid the imperfect human body to make perfect cuts. In my case, this means checking the angle of the dangle and using a vise, C-clamp or a butt-clamp to hold the wood down. It also means stopping work to rearrange the workpiece when necessary.

In most cases, I like to make gravity my friend by positioning and securing the workpiece so the plane of the cut is vertical. My workbench is level, so a square usually suffices to confirm alignment, but a small spirit level is sometimes helpful too.

For example, when cutting the tails of dovetail joints, I secure the board in a leg vise, and tilt it so the cuts for half the tails are plumb. When done making those cuts, I next rearrange the board in the vise so the opposite sides of the tails are in the vertical plane, and cut them. Perhaps this is overkill, but it is a habit that helps me to consistently make precise cuts with less brain and eye damage.

The body must be aligned with the cut to avoid stresses and strains from misaligning “The Machine.” A comfortable position is therefore necessary.

If at all possible the eyeball must be positioned so it can see both sides of the cut to not only guide the cut, but quickly detect a wandering cut, because we all tend to get lazy partway through a cut and stop looking, allowing our inner-badger to run amok with predictable results.

3 sawyers sawing lumber from a timber, one on top, one from below, and another carrying a saw, probably one he has freshly sharpened. At the right, a carpenter with pipe and tobacco pouch hanging from his waist sash (obi) is using square, sumitsubo, and sumisashi ink pen to do layout on the end of another timber. The mother hens at OSHA would simply be clucking with disapproval if they saw this scene in the flesh.

Make of Thyself a Machine

The title of this section is not intended to suggest Gentle Reader should surgically install bionic parts or change their racial and gender pronouns listed in social media to “Synthetic Person.” (シ) No indeed, nothing so “progressive” is necessary (BTW, what is the politically-correct pronoun for a cyborg: Clank or clunk?). Rather, this phrase refers to a combination of techniques that will help even non-cyborgs overcome the erratic tendencies of flesh, sinew and bone in order to produce more consistent, precise results with a handsaw.

To make a straight cut, the sawblade must travel within a single vertical plane during both the cutting and return strokes. While obvious, this is where nearly all people screw up, always when learning how to use a saw, and in most cases, forever. But we can do better.

If Gentle Reader will pay close attention when making a cut with a handsaw, you will notice that the hand, and consequently the saw handle, tend to move in an arc right and left in a horizontal plane as seen from above. This movement is a result of naturally flexible linkage between hand, arm and shoulder that transmits the force generated by the muscles to the tool handle. We must control the limits of this “flexibility” if we are to make a straight cut. We can do this by making of ourselves a “machine.” It’s almost as easy as the “tricky part” of the Big Fig Newton dance.

How to do this? Let’s take it step by step. First, grip the saw firmly but not too firmly. The old swordmaster’s instructions apply: Hold the handle like a small bird: Too loose and it will fly away; Too tight and the little bird will be crushed. This grip is important because if you hold either sword or saw too tightly, your muscles and tendons will lock up and you will be unable to form the consistent machine necessary to accurately control the tool’s movement.

The second point to understand about grip is that, while all of the fingers of the hand may touch the saw’s handle, apply your gripping force through the index finger and thumb only (in the case of straight-handled Japanese saws), such that the saw can almost freely pivot around a line drawn between these two fingers and through the handle.

Next, with the workpiece arranged securely, assume a relaxed stance facing the layout line you will be cutting to on the workpiece. Then, with saw held in the relaxed swordsman’s grip you intend to use during the cut, hang it loosely down alongside your leg. Stand back from the line and adjust your stance so the plate of the hanging saw is in the same plane as the the intended cut line. This is important: Don’t move your hands, arms, shoulders or hips to align the sawblade with the plane of the cut, but rather move your feet. This is approximately the ideal angle between your body and the intended cut.

Next, without changing position, center your dominant eye on this plane.

Then, being careful to avoid hitting anything (especially stray bench dogs or kitties), gently but freely swing the saw forward and back 90˚inside this same plane. If your hand or your saw touches your leg, or your elbow hits your side, then adjust your stance so they don’t. The saw must swing freely with the sawblade in the same plane as the cut, with your shoulder joint, elbow, wrist and eye all centered in the same vertical plane.

Next, swing the saw up into the cutting position, and move it back and forth as if cutting wood. Your grip should still be loose (remember the little bird), and the saw should continue to move in an invisible plane centered through your shoulder, elbow, wrist, sawblade, and the layout line. Now pay close attention to the movement of your hand as it goes forward and back. Is it still traveling a little right and left in a horizontal arc? It probably is, my cyborg friend.

Now, maintaining the stance established earlier, step forward enough to actually make a test cut. Start with a few itsy bitsy teeny weeny little cuts in a test piece to establish a stable beginning for the kerf. Then begin cutting in earnest, but while doing so, pay attention to the movement of your hand. Is it still scribing right and left horizontal arcs in the air? If it is, then on the cutting stroke, in the case of a Japanese pull saw, or the return stroke in the case of a Western push saw, reposition your stance so the inside of your elbow lightly brushes your side. Then adjust your head and eye to match. This contact between elbow and side is an important target point that will help position one end of each stroke, essentially creating rails for the machine to operate within. Remember the feeling of this contact.

When you make the cut, you will notice the sawblade is still scribing small arcs right or left. This fine movement persists because the wrist joint is too stiff preventing it from rotating slightly to keep the sawblade moving in a straight line, with the result that the saw’s handle is either rotating too much or too little, too soon or too late, causing the sawblade to deviate from the plane of the cut. It is impossible to reduce this out-of-plane deviation to zero, but you can cancel out most of it by maintaining your swordsman’s grip, loosening your wrist and actively rotating it in anticipation of this right-left arc. Yes, you can do it.

Your shoulder, elbow, flexible wrist and hand, supported by the rest of your stone-stable body, and watched over by your unrelenting Sauron-like eye, now form a machine with invisible rails that will move the saw in a vertical plane almost perfectly aligned in the plane of the line to be cut (perfection is unattainable and unnecessary).

One last point. It is essential to realize that the saw cuts because it is sharp and wants to make sawdust, not because of thy mighty arm, Oh Lord Cyborg. This is another phrase worthy of a forehead tattoo if you have any room left (ツ)。When we actively apply much force to a saw, especially if the teeth are dull, it will resist our boorish behavior, stumble over the woodgrain, clog with the sawdust, and almost always wander out of the plane we want to cut in. To avoid giving offense, please ensure your saw has a true plate and sharp teeth, do your layout, make the machine, start the cut, then get out of the saw’s way, dammit, and patiently and carefully watch it make sawdust. Don’t be too proud, Lord Cyborg, because, after all, you are the weak link.

Making the machine takes practice and time, but once you have figured it out, and know how it should feel, you will develop muscle memory. It’s like driving a car: Every modern car is different, but every modern car is the same.

BTW, there are various saw jigs one can make and use to enhance one’s cybernetic capabilities which we will consider in future articles.

Pay Attention

Until the necessary muscle memory has permeated all the way to your bones, don’t forget to pay attention to every single stroke you make with your saw. This is exactly the opposite of human nature that wants to keep on cutting like a badger after a ground squirrel until the cut is finished. But when training oneself to make highly precise sawcuts, it is best to concentrate on each stroke, making sure it doesn’t wander. After all, it is the accumulation of many accurate small cuts that results in an accurate final cut. Likewise, it only takes a few inaccurate cuts to result in a sloppy final cut, so please pay attention.

Once you have become the machine and developed the necessary muscle memory the process will go very quickly indeed. Sadly, this fine muscle memory is not a permanent thing, but once learned it can be quickly remembered.

Stop & Correct

While sawing away, if you notice your cuts are going astray, stop and figure out why. Is your position good? Is your eyeball where it should be? Is the sawblade aligned with the plane of the cut? Is tension released from your wrist? Is your elbow brushing your side? Is the machine operating faithfully or are the invisible rails bent? Are the teeth dull? Are you applying too much pressure? If things aren’t right, stop the cut, figure out why, and make corrections NOW. Don’t wait.

This self-control is possibly the most difficult task in making accurate cuts with a handsaw, but also the most critical to gaining skill. Failure to do it will result in either learning bad habits, or in delays in correcting the ones you already have. BTW, everyone has bad habits they need to work on, including YMHOS.

The Essential Oilpot

Unlike quadruple-distilled, aged in ancient bog-oak unicorn wewe, wood is not a friction-less material. To make things worse, a saw kerf usually becomes “hairy” with loose wood fibers increasing friction in unpredictable ways. And the cherry on top is sap and resin residue found in all wood and which increases friction further.

This friction not only heats the sawblade, possibly warping it and wasting our energy and time, but it makes it more difficult to control the sawblade in the cut, often making our precision suck big donkey donuts. How to counteract this friction? The classical Japanese solution is the Oilpot.

This tool has long had counterparts throughout the world, and it’s as valuable now as it was six thousand years ago. If you want to use handsaws with high precision, you need to make yourself one. You will be impressed with the difference. Nuff said.

The Two-handed Pistol Grip

When I was a young carpenter working commercial construction, I had a foreman named (I kid thee not) Jack Frost who was offended that God did not give him a tail, especially when working on high scaffolding. Gentle Reader may agree that a fifth appendage could often be handy, despite the fashion compromises it would “entail.” However, consistent with human physical limitations, the fact remains that most joinery saws are operated using either one hand or two, but not by tails.

The discussion above is relevant to all saw grips, but is focused mostly on the single-handed grip. However, just to be thorough, your humble servant would like to describe another style of grip used by some Japanese craftsmen, one your humble servant calls the “Two-handed Pistol Grip.” As the name suggest, instead of gripping the saw in one hand off to the side of the body, the saw’s handle is gripped first by the dominant hand in a pistol grip with the index finger extended along the handle’s side. The index finger of the off-hand is then extended alongside the grip parallel to and opposite that of the dominant hand, and the remaining fingers wrapped over those of the dominant hand.

The sawblade is then operated inside a plane going through the chest and centered on the user’s nose, often quite effectively counteracting the right-left arc tendency. The “swordsman’s grip” is essential to using this technique effectively.

This technique is not good for powerful cuts, but works well for shallow, precise cuts.

I apologize that, despite popular demand, this article lacks clean diagrams and pretty pictures of your humble servant exhibiting these techniques while wearing his sexy blue sequin bikini and famous aluminum foil alien mind-ray dispersal cap (with curly copper wires and red fringe). But, as the saying goes, “Life is a bowl of cherries, mostly pits.”

Until we meet again, I have the singular honor to remain

YMHOS

Another construction jobsite non-compliant with OSHA rules.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click 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 in 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 all my sawteeth shatter.

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 the grain of the 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 color. 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 is called a “shumoku tsuka” 撞木柄 (shoe/moh/ku/tsu/kah) and is attached to the blade’s tang at an angle.

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 (at least in Eastern Japan) the curvature of the back of each saw is the inverse of its partner so that they nest neatly against each other all lovey dovey. Although these cosmetic details have little if any practical purpose, Japanese shokunin are unreasonably fond of these matched saws, 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 but hard 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 professionally 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.

The Mystery of the Scratched Tools

Redwoods

The wiser a man is, the more he stands ready to be educated.”

Joe Abercrombie, A Little Hatred

In this post your humble servant will offer some advice that, if followed, will save Gentle Readers time, money, and wear and tear on their valuable woodworking tools. These are not original techniques; I stole them long ago from professional woodworkers in Japan. Wise Gentle Readers will be as bold.

But first we must solve another mystery, so prepare to enlist the help of your inner Agatha Christy.

As with the other mysteries we have examined, this one involves no dark and foreboding alleys shrouded by ominous mist and concealing footpads with rubber knives, or bottles of vintage Tabasco Sauce spiked with arsenic. Indeed, nothing so mundane.

Investigating the Scene of the Crime

Last December your humble servant received an ordinary Christmas Card from an old friend, probably a “re-gift.” It was unusual in that it contained brick dust. The sender of the card was my old friend Woody, a charming fellow, diligent woodworker, amateur thespian, and possible alcoholic. Gentle Reader may recall this gentleman from a previous adventure I wrote about called The Mystery of the Brittle Blade. Wait a minute! Now that I think about it, you went with me to visit Woody at that time and actually helped solve his little mystery. Thanks for your help!

BTW, the screenplay for that story is currently being reviewed by top producers and directors in Hollywood, at least that’s what the movie promoter I met at Krispy Creme Donuts here in Tokyo promised (ツ). He seemed like a reliable guy so I paid for his donuts and coffee.

Obviously, Woody’s dusty Christmas Card was a subtle cry for help so I went to visit him in his rickety, leaning workshop during my international travels last January. When I got onto the airplane I was shocked to find myself only one of approximately sixty travelers on a commercial flight that normally carries 350+ passengers, so I reclined across the center aisle of seats in cattle-class and slept like Nero after a night on the town.

Gentle Reader may recall Woody’s shop from the visit we made there together. Still cold and drafty and filled with the pungent funk of his faithful mutt Stinky.

I found Woody collapsed on the floor, an empty tequila bottle in one hand and a shiny bronze No.4 smoothing plane by Lie-Nielson in the other blubbering like a fool and muttering something like “Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” Woody ain’t much of a scholar but he still tends to see every difficulty in life as Shakespearean in nature.

Seeing that my friend would be of no help in solving this mystery, I left him on the floor to practice his lines while I began my investigation of what, judging from the source material he was reciting, could only have been caused by a deep betrayal by a Brutus of sorts.

I pried from his paw the pretty little plane and observed a series of deep, uneven scratches on its sole, more or less in line with the long direction of the sole. Whereupon, I twirled my white mustaches like an older, more dignified Hercule Poroit, and asked myself the following questions:

Question 1: What could have possibly created these scratches? Had iron pixies been using Woody’s beautiful plane to shave bricks?

A quick investigation of the workshop revealed several bricks, but no signs of iron pixies at play. I remembered seeing Woody use these bricks to shim the legs of his combination router table and barbecue betimes (he makes wonderful barbecued pork ribs, marinated in a whiskey sauce, BTW). I concluded it unlikely that either Woody or pesky pixies would have used this valuable plane to shave bricks at the unthinkable risk of disturbing a delicate combination tool (router table/barbecue) of such importance.

As I considered the wood Woody had been willingly working, another question popped out of my brain like an egg from a hen:

Question 2: Is there anything that grows naturally inside a tree that is harder than a plane sole and large enough to have caused such deep scratches? And if they do exist, could these particles have been maliciously concealed inside the growing tree by compadres of the shambling horde of 6-armed, green-skinned, Fanta-guzzling aliens that follow me everywhere? BTW, If you have seen these aliens, please send photos!

I next removed the plane’s blade, which was made of a tough and difficult to sharpen metal called A2, developed for making dies and other industrial components, and checked its condition. As suspected, the edge was not just deadly dull, but exhibited dents perfectly in-line with the deepest scratches in the plane’s sole. Egads! The thlot pickens!

Of course, Gentle Reader is aware that many varieties of wood contain hard silica particles that can wear out tools and quickly dull cutters, but they are seldom large enough to create deep scratches of the kind I saw on Woody’s plane’s sole. Hmmm.

Question 3: If these hideously-hard particles did not grow inside the tree, and were not concealed inside the tree by aliens, exactly how did the infernal particles that made these scratches come into contact with Woody’s pretty plane?

To make a closer visual inspection possible, I recovered my magnifying glass and deerstalker hat from my truck parked in Woody’s beer can-cluttered driveway.

Could the damage have been caused by nails, screws or staples left in the wood? Perhaps, but the appearance of the damage to the blade would have been different.

Pixie toenail clippings? Happens more often than we realize.

A tiny fragment from a divorce lawyer’s heart? Certainly any piece of such an organ would be harder than stellite, but being a fragment of a microscopic organ, such particles are harder to find than an honest politician in a California drug cartel’s cafeteria.

“No,” I confidently declared; The culprit was harder than all these substances, more insidious than even Murphy’s pointy purple pecker, a substance all around us, one we often ignore. Rejoice Woody, for the mystery is solved!

Dust & Grit

Logging Redwoods in Humbolt County California, 1905

Politics and journalism aside, we live in a dusty, dirty world, and although the steel in your tool blades is very hard, ordinary dust and dirt contain plenty of particles much harder. I guaran-frikin-tee you that collision with even a small particle of mineral grit embedded in the surface of a piece of wood can and will damage a blade’s cutting edge.

You may believe the damage is minimal and of little concern, but every time your blade becomes dull, you must resharpen it. Every sharpening session costs you time pushing the blade around on stones, time not spent cutting wood. And sharpening turns expensive blades and stones into mud. This is time and money lost forever.

And the abrasive action of dirt and grit embedded in wood is not hard on just chisel blades, plane blades and the soles of steel planes, but is even harder on sawteeth and wooden planes.

The damage is not limited to just your handtools either. Take a closer look at the steel tables of your stationary equipment such as your jointer or tablesaw. Unless they are new, you will find scratches. Has that pervert Murphy been smokin dope and humpin sumpin on your jointer’s bed when you weren’t looking?

Nay, Gentle Reader, supernatural causes aside, and unless you have been dismembering the bodies of divorce lawyers in your workshop, these scratches are clear evidence that the wood you’ve been working is neither as clean as it looks, nor as clean as it should be. You’ve gotta do something about that.

Ruba Dub Dub

So what can you do about damaging dust and grit? Strange as it may seem, the simplest and surest way to get rid of dirt and grit is to follow your mother’s instructions about cleaning the bathtub: Simply wash it with soap, water and a wire brush, followed by a rinse.

Bet you never thought of washing wood before have you?

The idea is to wet, scrub with a wire brush, and quickly rinse the dirt and grit off the wood, not to make the wood soaking wet, so none of that “rinse and repeat” nonsense, and don’t get carried away with the water hose. A bit of dishwashing soap or washing soda mixed in the water bucket will help lift out dirt and grit.

Don’t forget to pat each board down immediately afterwards with clean rags to remove surface water. Then separate each board, rest it on stickers on-edge out of direct sunlight, and allow time and circulating air to dry it.

Remember to wet both sides of each board to minimize warping. And don’t soak a lot of water into the ends.

Disclaimer: Rubba-dub-dub is not well suited for thin material or laminated wood products that might easily warp, or if you are in a hurry, or if you lack adequate space to properly air-dry the wood. 

Whether you wash the wood with water or not, be sure to do at least the following two steps on every board before you process it with your valuable tools.

Scrub Scrub Scrub

If you can’t wash the boards, use a steel wire brush to dry-scrub all the board’s faces both with and across the grain. Yes, I know it makes the surface rougher. Tough pixie toenails. Scrubbing with a stiff steel brush is extremely effective at removing dust, dirt, embedded particles of grit, and even small stones from long grain. Give it a try and you will both see and smell the dirt and particles expelled. Pretty nasty stuff sometimes.

Saw Saw Saw

Second, and this is supremely important, before planing a board either by hand or using powertools, saw 2~3mm off both ends. This is why you have that circular saw with the carbide-tipped blade. If you can’t do that, at least use a steel block plane, drawknife, or other tool to chamfer all eight corners of the board’s ends to remove both surface dirt and embedded grit thereby saving your planes, planer and/or jointer blades bitter experiences.

This step is critical because grit and even small stones frequently become so deeply embedded in endgrain that even a steel brush can’t dig them out. But sure as God made little green apples, Murphy will place them directly in the path of your plane blade.

If you do these things, I promise your tools will thank you over many years with abundant chips, shiny shavings and cheerful little songs.

Until either Woody sobers up or we meet again, I have the honor to remain,

YMHOS

Yosemite Valley California, 1865

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click 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 all Gentle Readers using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter, nor a US Senator’s Communist Chinese girlfriend and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May Murphy poke me with his pointy purple pecker if I lie (say that ten times fast!) (ツ).

Japanese Saws: The Dozuki Saw

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais

It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible.

Tim Jackson

This post is about a variety of handsaw unique to Japan called the “Dozuki Nokogiri.”

Description

Dozuki saw is pronounced doh/zoo/kee – noh/koh/gee/ri and is written 胴付鋸 in Chinese characters. The first character means “trunk.” or “torso.” The second character means to “attach” something. The third character means “saw.” It’s a thin-bladed, fine-toothed, single-edged crosscut saw with a steel back specialized for making precise, shallow cuts in wood, especially tenon shoulders. Dozuki are not intended for ripping tenons or cutting dovetails, although they can do both fairly well.

Along with the Hozohiki saw, this is the thinnest and most precise variety of Japanese saws, and some, including your humble servant, would say it is the most precise type of saw made anywhere in the world. Certainly, it is the most difficult to make properly.

The Dozuki was the first Japanese saw that became well-known outside of Japan. As many thousands of woodworkers around he world can attest, if you need to make clean, precise, shallow crosscuts, then the Dozuki is a must-have tool.

A variant of the Dozuki is the “Handozuki” meaning “half dozuki.” Handozuki do not have a back steel, but have a slightly thicker and stiffer blade than a normal dozuki, but even then, they are flimsy and more difficult to use than a standard Dozuki. The lack of a back steel, however, allows them to make very precise crosscuts in material where the back steel of a standard dozuki would get in the way. Handozuki were once common, but are seldom seen nowadays.

I have previously written about another variety of Japanese saw with a back steel called the “hozohiki” or “tenon cutter saw.” This type of saw is nearly identical to a Dozuki, although sometimes the blade is shaped slightly different. In any case, it always has rip teeth and excels at cutting precision joints with the grain.

If the Dozuki has a shortcoming, it is the delicate nature of their teeth, which can break when cutting harder woods in a ham-handed manner. Bigger teeth have a larger cross section of steel and are more resistant to breaking than smaller teeth, so it is wise to match the thickness of the Dozuki’s plate and size of its teeth to the hardness of the wood and the user’s sawing skills. In this regard, Western saws with their thicker plates and relatively blunter teeth are much tougher, and in many cases, better suited to cutting harder woods. It’s too bad their precision is often poor.

Using the Dozuki Saw

The proper technique for using a dozuki is to mark the cut with a sharp marking knife and to cut to the line. Goes without saying, right? Perhaps not, because many woodworking gurus in the West advocate first making sawcuts offset from the layout lines and then paring to the layout line using a chisel or a shoulder plane.

While such obviously inefficient techniques may be necessary when using Western backsaws with their thick plates, dull teeth, and excessive set, they are seen by Japanese woodworkers, accustomed to using Dozuki saws, as slow and amateurish.

I strongly encourage Gentle Readers to tune and sharpen their saws and train themselves to cut precisely to the layout line first time, every time.

There are easily-made, simple wooden guides one can use to make this process quicker, but the ultimate guide is a good saw combined with eyes and hands working together confidently. Perhaps I can address the subject of cutting guides and jigs in another article.

As your humble servant mentioned above, the tiny teeth of Dozuki saws are fragile and do not endure ham-handed abuse well. It is recommended that Gentle readers new to the Dozuki saw become accustomed to using it in soft woods such as White Pine before attempting to make a piano from ebony.

Sawteeth are too often damaged by inadvertently banging them against hard objects like a chisel, another saw, or a concrete floor. Please be careful.

Other common causes of damaged sawteeth are forcing the saw too hard, a brutish habit the gods of handsaws frown upon mightily, or swinging the saw left and right in the cut causing the tender teeth to snag on the entrance and exit to the kerf, bending and even breaking them. This last cause of damage is perhaps understandable but still about as intelligent as eating boogers. If you are afflicted with any of these unfortunate habits (especially gnoshing on “nose ‘taters”), please make a conscious effort to train them out of your life.

The first bad habit of using excessive force can be easily remedied by simply not pressing down on the saw. Back saws, including both the Dozuki and Western varieties have a steel back that applies downward pressure automatically. You cannot improve on this, so don’t even try.

Using the proper grip can help too. A good rule when using a Dozuki or Hozohiki saws to make precise cuts is to extend the pinkie finger so it is not touching the handle. This makes it much easier to control the downward force your hand puts into the saw. Don’t worry, this grip will not make anyone mistake you for a lady of refinement, unless you are wearing a pretty pink woodworking apron with frilly lace, that is. (ツ)

I like to extend my index finger along the top of the handle because I find this helps me feel the direction of the cut. Your mileage will not vary.

I also like to pinch the saw lightly between the first knuckle of my middle finger and the pad of the thumb forming a single pivot point which helps to keep the saw in proper alignment.

While perhaps a tad anthropomorphic, understanding the following three points about handsaw psychology is absolutely helpful when making precise cuts with any handsaw, or at least that’s what my saws tell me:

  1. A saw cuts because it wants to cut (not because you are strong or clever);
  2. A saw cuts well because it is true and sharp (not because you are strong or clever);
  3. Get out if it’s way (because you’re not as strong or clever as you think).

The first point is a simple acknowledgment of the nature of the saw, it’s motivations, and your relationship with it. Perfection is unattainable.

The second point is an essential truth of the saw, one many people never understand. Most problems with handsaws can be resolved by truing the plate (an extremely common problem among neglected and/or abused handsaws) and sharpening the teeth. If you fail in this basic duty, your saw will neither be happy nor will it serve you well. Would that humans were as easy to fix.

It all comes together in the third point because, once we understand the nature and truth of the handsaw, and have dutifully made it’s bright blade true and its vicious little teeth sharp, then we must forget how strong and clever we are, get out of its way, and let our slender buddy do its job.

And just how do we get out of a saw’s way? I just knew you were going to ask:

  1. Keep the saw moving in the right direction. Not as easy as it sounds. But remember, a well-made handsaw is a simple-minded beastie that wants to move in a straight line, so if it doesn’t, it’s your fault;
  2. Rely on the weight of the blade and its back alone to apply adequate pressure (not thy mighty arm, Oh God of Thunder);
  3. Keep your wrist loose and actively rotate it (this is important) so the sawblade moves to and fro only, not side to side. If you lock your wrist, the blade will unavoidably swing right and left and up and down in the cut, hindering the faithful saw, and buggering the precision of the cut it wants to make. This technique requires practice to learn. Do it.
  4. Focus on the sawkerf; Encourage your sharp little buddy to cut true. Banish all distractions, including that bench cat swanning around demanding its lazy servant (that’s you) provide it savory snacks. Using a Dozuki saw is a meditative process. Indeed, an occasional prayer to the gods of handsaws can never go amiss.

The C&S Dozuki Saw

We have a special Dozuki hand-made to meet the severe demands of our professional Beloved Customers. Like our Hozohiki saws, it too is hand-forged from Hitachi Metal’s Yasuki Shirogami No.2 high-carbon steel by Nakaya Takijiro, an extremely skilled craftsman, and one the very few traditional sawsmiths left in Japan. Takijiro hand-scrapes the plate to the proper double-taper to prevent binding, hammer tensions the blade to stiffen it and to prevent it from warping and binding as it heats up in-use, and hand-cuts, hand-files and hammer-sets the teeth.

Very few saws are still being produced to this level of quality and with these performance characteristics. If you need a professional-grade high-precision saw that prioritizes performance over appearance, one that will not get in your way but will help you do better work, then these will be available in limited quantities for a limited time. Unlike you and me, Takijiro is not getting a little younger everyday.

You can view our latest pricelist at this LINK.

YMHOS

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Georges_de_La_Tour._St._Joseph%2C_the_Carpenter.JPG
Joseph the Carpenter by Georges de La Tour

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, or twitchy twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. My arm is untwistable.

Other Articles About Japanese Handsaws

Japanese Saws: The Ryouba

If you can’t stay young, you can at least stay immature.

Red Green

The Ryoba saw is certainly the best-known woodworking saw in Japan if only because of its unique shape. Indeed, for as long as your humble servant has been making a damned nuisance of himself on the earth, it has been the single tool that most represents the Japanese carpenter in the public mind. It is probably the best-known Japanese saw outside of Japan too, second only to the Dozuki saw.

In this post we will discuss the Ryouba saw in general, and the Ryouba we provide to our Beloved Customers in particular.

Definitions

The full name of this saw is “Ryouba Nokogiri” written 両刃鋸 in Chinese characters, and pronounced “ryoh-/bah/noh/koh/giri.” Ryou means “both,” “Ha” means “blade” or “cutting edge,” and “nokogiri” means “saw.” In other words, a “double-edged saw.”

The word is almost always spelled “Ryoba” in the English-language alphabet, but the “o” in “Ryo,” in this case, is actually pronounced a little longer. When I was young man first learning the Japanese language on Shikoku Island, the convention was to express this longer pronunciation by adding a straight line over the letter “o” to look like “ō”, but with the wide use of computers nowadays, the trend seems to have shifted to adding a “u” after the “o,” which is perfectly consistent with how it’s written phonetically in Japanese (りょうば ). But I digress.

History

Being double-edged, the Ryoba has a set of progressive rip teeth (becoming gradually larger towards the tip) on one edge and cross-cut teeth on the other. It is a relatively recent invention, first appearing around 1897, instantly gaining tremendous popularity throughout Japan.

While the invention of cross-cut teeth is at least several hundred years old, archaeologists and researchers have postulated that they are a recent development, at least in Japan.

Why a Double-Edged Saw?

Because the Ryouba saw combines both a rip-saw and crosscut saw into a single saw, it has the following advantages over single-edge saws:

  1. More efficient use of expensive steel and labor than a two-saw set comprised of a single-edged crosscut saw and single-edged rip saw;
  2. Reduced weight and space requirements, especially important before people generally had automobiles to help carry the load;
  3. Fewer saws to keep track of, and less time spent switching between them.

But all is not blue bunnies and fairy farts because, compared to the single-edged saw, the Ryoba saw has a few disadvantages Gentle Readers should be aware of:

  1. While the blade of a single-edge saw (kataba nokogiri 方刃鋸) is thickest at the teeth, and tapers thinner towards the back of the blade to reduce friction in the cut and to prevent the blade from binding, the Ryouba saw is thickest at both cutting edges and thinnest at the centerline of the plate between the teeth. The result is that, if one makes a cut using a Ryouba saw in a timber or board deeper than the thin centerline of the plate, friction in the saw kerf acting on the blade will increase as the cut approaches the offside teeth. The result is that the Ryouba saw is not ideal for deep cuts;
  2. If one uses a Ryouba saw to cut into a board or timber deep enough that the teeth from the opposite edge fall into the saw kerf, the opposing teeth will tend to score the surface of the wood surfaces inside the kerf. While these scratches may be of no consequence for many types of cuts, the Ryouba saw is still not ideal for some types of cuts.

The Ryouba saw is perfect for many other applications, however, especially when working in the field.

When doing cabinet or joinery installations I always have a Ryouba saw on-hand simply because a single saw that can make shallow rip cuts and crosscuts is simply more time and cost efficient. The one in the photos below is my favorite.

Fine-toothed Ryouba saws like the one above were once common but are difficult to find nowadays.

The C&S Tool’s Seigoro Brand Ryouba Saw 清五郎印両刃鋸

We carry two ryouba saws, a 270mm (teeth length = 255mm) and 240mm (teeth length = 230mm). The longer of the two is well-suited for general carpentry, while the 240mm is better suited to finer work.

C&S Tool’s Seigoro brand 230mm Ryouba saw

Our Seigoro brand saws were made by Azuma Kenichi 東賢一, the third generation Nakaya Choujiro in Nagaoka City Japan.

I have been using Choujiro brand saws made by Mr. Azuma’s father and grandfather for many years and have been absolutely satisfied with their quality and performance. We are thrilled to be able to offer a limited number of his Ryouba saws to our Beloved Customers.

These saws were a special order Choujiro filled using the last of his stock of Shirogami No.2 steel some years ago. We purchased the remainder of this order from the wholesaler who originally ordered them. There will be no more.

Choujiro no longer makes saws this large, having since shifted his focus to smaller saws used by European luthiers and model makers.

Of course, used Ryouba saws are available on the auction sites. The problem with used Japanese saws, however, is that it is impossible to judge the quality and preservation of a saw from photos alone. The only way to tell if a sawblade is kinked, warped, or oil-canned is to hold the saw up to the light, bend the blade, examine the reflections and feel the teeth. And the teeth of used saws are always dull and often damaged. Caveat emptor, baby.

These are new, high-quality saws made by a well-known blacksmith still working, perfect in every way, and backed by the C&S Tools warranty, so the risk of wasting money on an old saw you cannot examine in-person (assuming you have the expertise to examine Japanese saws to begin with), made by someone who’s name you cannot read, bought from someone that won’t give you back your money if the saw is not as good as it looks in the photos or even damaged before you receive it, is not a problem. (Wow, that was mouthful)

If a saw you purchased from us needs sharpening or repair, simply ship it back and we will arrange for a professional saw sharpener to restore its beautiful smile and revive its voracious appetite for sawdust, or even have Azuma-san repair it, if necessary, for a reasonable fee. Unlike thee and me, he doesn’t work for free. (Ah, poetry!)

Specifications

The specifications of the saws are listed below.

  • Blade Steel: Hitachi Metal’s Yasuki Shirogami (White Label) No.2 (1.05~1.15% carbon content)
  • Tang Steel: SK No.5 (0.80-0.90% carbon content)
  • Tang/blade connection: TIG weld
  • Thickness/taper: Thinnest at blade centerline
  • Finish: Buffer
  • Tension: Hammer tensioned
  • Rip teeth: Standard (increase in size progressively from heel to toe)
  • Crosscut teeth: 3-facet “edome”
Size
Edge LengthBlade
Steel
Tang
Steel
Quench Temper HardRip TeethCrosscut
Teeth
8 sun230mm Shiro 2SK5800°C (1472°F)305°C (581°F)Rc60°3T/cm
7.7T/in
6.5T/cm
16.5T/in
9 sun255mm Shiro 2SK5800°C (1472°F)310°C (590°F)Rc60°2T/cm
5T/in
6.3T/cm
16T/in
Saw Specifications

Ryouba saws are not specialist saws, but excellent general-use saws. If I could have only one saw in my workshop, or could take only one saw to a jobsite, it would be a Ryouba saw.

They are especially handy for general carpentry tasks and ideal for cutting tenons and many other joints in timber framing.

If you are interested in learning more, please check out the folder at this link containing pricelists and photos for most of our products, and drop a note in the contact form below.

The article at this LINK has some guidelines about using handsaws accurately.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the form located immediately below titled “Contact Us.” Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, thuggish Twitter, or an IT manager for the US Congress and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May I swallow a thousand needles if I lie.

Japanese Saws: The Hozohiki Saw

Nakaya Takijiro’s forge. Set into the floor of his workshop, it was originally used for forging swords for many decades.

“I see,” said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw

Anon

In this post we will look at a relatively unknown but extremely precise and useful rip saw called the Hozohiki saw. It is an essential tool for the more precise styles of advanced joinery work in Japan.

We will begin by discussing the general attributes of this saw, and then delve into the primary specifications by category. The saw under consideration is one recently developed by C&S Tools with, and produced by, Mr. Takijiro Nakaya, a famous master Japanese sawsmith in the old tradition.

The Hozohiki Saw

The C&S 210mm Hozohiki saw

The name of this saw is pronounced ho/zoh/hee/kee, written 枘挽き鋸 in Chinese characters, with “hozo” 枘 meaning “tenon,” and “hiki” 挽き meaning to “cut with a saw.” In other words a “tenon saw.”

The hozohiki saw is almost, but not quite, the twin of its better-known sister the Dozuki with a thin blade and a steel back, but instead of crosscut teeth it has fine rip teeth.

As the name suggests, the Hozohiki saw excels at making the rip cuts that shape the cheeks of tenons. In addition, it excels at making precise rip cuts for joints in joinery, cabinets, and furniture.

The Blacksmith

Nakaya Takijiro at his forge shaping a saw tang

The saw this post references is made by Nakaya Takijiro, a fifth-generation sawsmith who operates a one-man smithy located in Kawagoe, Japan. The traditional sawsmiths of his caliber still producing in Japan can be counted on the fingers of one damaged hand.

The Nakaya Takijiro line of blacksmiths were originally swordsmiths that shifted their production to saws after the Haito Edict of 1876 made it illegal to wear swords in public greatly reducing demand. The advanced skills of the swordsmith inherited by the current Takijiro make his products superior.

The front of Takijiro’s tiny smithy.
Saws temporarily residing in Takijiro’s forge waiting sharpening, repairs or pickup.
More saws wrapped in newspaper.

The Steel

Takijiro hand-forges the blades from Hitachi Metal’s Yasuki Shirogami No.2 steel, an unusually pure, simple high-carbon steel entirely devoid of alloys such as chrome, nickle, molybdenum, tungsten or vanadium. When hand-forged and properly heat-treated, this steel will form a crystalline structure of unsurpassed quality, from a handtool perspective, incorporating fine, evenly distributed carbide particles typical of the “fine-grain steel” coveted for cutting tools and weapons for millennia.

Some may wonder why Shirogami No.1 steel is not used. The answer is simply that the only difference between Shirogami No.1 and No.2 is that No.2 has less carbon, making the teeth a little less brittle.

A blade made from this steel by a master like Takijiro will hold a sharp edge a relatively long-time, but at the same time will be relatively tough, important properties in a fine-toothed professional joinery saw.

Double-tapered Blade

After forging, shaping and heat-treating the blade, Takijiro double-tapers it by hand using a two-handed scraper called a “sen.” The tapers are not flat, but curved to be narrowest at the toe (end opposite the handle) and near the steel back, increasing in width approaching the tang for proper “spring,” and of consistent thickness along the teeth. He does not use grinding equipment to achieve these tapers.

A properly tapered saw will cut straighter and bind in the cut much less than one with a blade of uniform thickness.

Takijiro’s sen scrapers, all handmade by himself.
The pile of sen shavings at Takijiro’s tapering/truing station.

Hammer-tensioned blade

In addition, Takijiro “tensions” the blade using a hammer, essentially creating points of plastic deformation with precisely-placed hammer blows in a long oval pattern above the teeth to create internal compressive stresses that tend to stretch the blade in length, placing the teeth in “tension,” thereby significantly stiffening the thin blade and its teeth.

Besides stiffening the blade, hammer-tensioning greatly reduces the tendency of the blade to ripple and buckle as it heats-up in-use. The result is a blade that is stiffer, straighter, and cuts smoother than a flat un-tensioned blade even after it heats up.

True Saw Plate

The saw plate of a high-quality handmade dozuki or hozobiki saw will not be flat, because it is double tapered, but it will be true, meaning it will be free of problematic bumps, dents, waves, and oil-canning.

Dreaded oil-canning is a form of localized buckling caused by stress concentrations. This phenomenon is named for the buckling commonly seen in the tops and bottoms of metal oil cans. Besides saws, steel drums, metal tanks, metal roofing and metal siding routinely exhibit oil-canning. Oil-canning is easy to produce but difficult to eliminate. It increases the friction forces acting on a sawblade while cutting and reduces accuracy.

Oil-canning exists but is not as obvious in modern Western saws due to the extra-thickness of the blade. The degree of this buckling will vary with changes in the steel’s temperature making it a serious problem.

Because high-quality dozuki and hozohiki sawblades are so thin and are forged from warpage-prone high-carbon steel, and because they and are subjected to multiple heats and thousands of hammer blows, warpage and oil-canning are a serious problem the sawsmith must correct many times during fabrication. Indeed, this is the most difficult task he must perform, and the one with the most significant benefits.

A hand-tapered, hammer-tensioned sawplate without the defects listed above will track true, cut easily, and create less friction. The difference is night and day.

The Teeth

The teeth and hand-filed back of the C&S Hozohiki saw.

Takijiro hand-punches the teeth and then sharpens them by hand using tiny sawfiles hand-made for him in Hiroshima. He prefers to use newly made fresh files because he is convinced that within a few months of manufacture the cutting edges of files lose a significant degree of sharpness. I’ll take his word for it.

The Hozohiki saw Takijiro makes for C&S Tools has 7teeth/cm (17.8teeth/in). To help get cuts started, the teeth at the last few centimeters nearest the handle have zero rake. The rip teeth to the far left in the image below are the style of tooth used.

The shape and size of the teeth are critical to the performance of a saw, and must be designed to work best for both the type of wood the user will cut, and the joints he intends to make. The style of teeth is the same as those at the far left in the sketch below.

The saw has minimal set to ensure smooth, precise cuts in hardwoods.

The Back

A closeup of the Takijiro’s hand-engraved signature, and the saw’s back, “jaw,” and teeth. Takijiro produces this coloration by heating the steel back quite hot and then wiping it with raw silk causing the protein to stick and oxidize forming a black skin. An elegant finish indeed.

The saw’s back is relatively thin, and curved as it should be for a fine Hozohiki saw. Takijiro has also hand-filed the steel back leaving file marks, and blackened it using burnt silk as is traditional in the best hand-forged saws. Beware a saw with a steel spine that exhibits the marks/ distortion of being bent by machine. This one is very sexy!

Using the Hozohiki Saw for Crosscutting

Here is a trick used by advanced Japanese craftsmen.

In especially hard wood such as ebony and rosewood, a fine-toothed Hozohiki saw such as the C&S Tools saw, despite having rip teeth, will often cut smoother and faster than a crosscut Dozuki saw making it an especially useful tool.

Do you doubt it? Make sure you have a camera on hand to take a selfie the first time you try this because the result will be a big goofy smile you will want to remember.

The Normal Commissioning Process

The old part of Kawagoe City lined with original “Kura” buildings, most designated as historically important structures. It is said that Tokyo looked much like this in past centuries, but without the asphalt, electric lights, and ice-cream banners. Kawagoe is known for its annual festivals, in which Takijiro usually performs the Chinese Lion “Shishi” dance in a costume he made himself.

When ordering a saw from Takijiro, as I have done several times when seeking excellent saws for my own toolchest, a craftsman (few amateurs are given this opportunity) makes an appointment to visit his forge for an informal interview to discuss his preferences for the desired saw as well as the products and types of cuts he intends to make with it. Takijiro also insists the craftsman provide a small sample of the wood he will cut most often.

As a result of this interview and his hands-on tests cutting the sample, Takijiro is able to make a saw that suits the craftsman’s needs as perfectly as he understands them: a custom saw for a specific craftsman for a specific type of work.

A handmade hozohiki saw of this quality is normally available only by custom order, taking 6 months to fabricate, and costing approximately ¥60,000. Takijiro-san was kind enough to accept a special limited order at a reduced price.

Specifications

When developing any product, and especially tools, it is important to establish the product’s specifications and the performance criteria of the end-user. The ideal way to determine these specifications and criteria is the face-to-face meeting between the craftsman and sawsmith mentioned above. In this case, however, in order to save time and reduce costs, we worked with Takijiro to develop standard specifications and performance criteria preferred by our international customers. Entirely by coincidence, those specifications are closely aligned to those Takijiro’s luthier customers demand, especially those who routinely make extremely precise, almost invisible sliding joints in unforgiving and expensive hardwoods such as rosewood and ebony for shamisen stringed instruments.

FYI, the shamisen is a traditional three-stringed Japanese musical instrument that can be disassembled into its component parts without tools. In this YouTube video the owner of a shamisen shop instructs his customers how to properly disassemble their shamisen in preparation for sending it in for repairs or a new skin. In this video you can see a luthier actually making a shamisen. Notice the precision of the mating surfaces of the sliding joints. I think you can sense the skill of the luthier with his hozohiki and dozuki saws.

The logic behind this choice of specifications is that Western craftsmen who perform high-precision hand work use more hardwoods than many of their Japanese counterparts, and so need sharp but tough teeth, without the additional set necessitated by sticky, hairy softwoods. In addition, we assume these craftsmen are willing to sacrifice some speed in exchange for increased precision and tougher teeth.

Another criteria was that starting cuts be as easy as possible, a problem for most people when cutting hardwoods with rip saws. To satisfy this criteria, the first few centimeters from the heel of the blade have zero rake, as mentioned previously.

Everything humans do entails compromise, but based on experience, we feel this saw is best suited to Western woodworkers in general.

My advice to our Gentle Readers and Beloved Customers is to not judge a saw by its handle, but by its performance. That is, after all, the professional way.

We will describe how to make a handle for Japanese saws in a future article.

Why Should You Own a Hozohiki Saw?

If you are tired of the inaccuracy and fat, wandering kerfs of Western rip joinery saws; if you want to do more precise work than the throw-away kaeba saws can achieve; if you need a saw that will easily cut extremely precise joints in all woods smoothly and quickly, but will not spray teeth all over when cutting hardwoods; if you want to taste the performance of a high-quality professional-grade hozohiki saw hand-made by a Japanese master sawsmith, but without the months of waiting and high cost of a custom saw, then this is your chance. Perhaps your only chance.

If you would like to learn more about this saw, please contact us using the form below.

YMHOS

Shamisen Girls Ki&Ki performing with their shamisen, no doubt handmade made from rosewood using a Hozohiki saw. Here’s another video if the same shamisen song fans of Zatoichi will know.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, or gossipy twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. Promise.

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