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 her left 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 sorta almost hardly makes sense in light of the other tools that do the same job.

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 wood, 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. This is definitively not a one-handed saw.

The best material for this type 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


There are four advantages to this saw of which your humble servant is aware. 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.

Two sawyers using a frame saw to rip planks. A heavy tool and surprisingly difficult to control.

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 the strip of metal forge-welded to the edge and containing all the teeth is hardened high-carbon tamahagane steel, the rest of the blade is comprised of unhardened low-carbon iron.

This bi-metal construction technique is not only ancient, it was once standard procedure among all civilizations back when steel was comparatively expensive (not really that long ago actually). As a result, the maebiki ooga saw employs far less costly steel than that required to make 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, muscles and tendons 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 many many decades 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?


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