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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