The Convenience of a Handsaw

November 5, 2011 Comments Off on The Convenience of a Handsaw

If we are given more than one option to accomplish a task, human nature dictates we choose the most convenient. Even if it’s not the better, or faster, or more “correct,” as long as the results are up to our expectations, 9 times out of 10 convenience trumps all. As I slowly build my shop, many of my tools are stuffed away in boxes out of sight – inconvenient. Power tools in a basement without adequate dust collection is a bad idea, so I need to haul those outside to work – inconvenient. When I needed to cut some cedar pieces to length for a rain barrel stand (future blog alert), I had a few choices. The quickest way to cut them would be with the chop saw. But for me, here would be the process: make sure it isn’t going to rain; pull my workmate out to the patio, moving it around it until it’s level on the uneven concrete; temporarily relocate everything that’s sitting on top of the box that houses the chop saw; pull the (heavy) saw out and carry it up the steps to the patio; run the extension cord; gather up the safety glasses and ear defenders; run and get a tarp to cover the saw because it has un-expectantly started to rain; when finished repeat all steps, only in reverse. All of that is inconvenient. Of course having the saw set up on a dedicated bench and ready to go would alleviate this dance, making it much more convenient to use. But my shop isn’t there yet, so human nature dictates I find a more convenient way.

A nice ryoba hangs behind my bench. I can simply take the board, lay it on the bench, grab the saw, and go at it. Quick to set up, (fairly) quick to cut, and quick to clean up. Given this option, there are two reasons why the chop saw would even be considered. For one, the chop saw cuts much more quickly. No matter how fast someone is with a handsaw, a chop saw will win the speed contest of cutting a 2×4 every time. In this case I only had 16 cuts to make. When setup and breakdown time is factored in, the time: cut ratio suddenly doesn’t look so great. If I had 100 cuts to make, well? The second consideration is accuracy. A chop saw has about a 10 second learning curve. (That’s an exaggeration as every tool has nuances, but as power tools go, you can’t get much simpler). Hold or clamp down your piece securely, hit the trigger, and pull the arm down. If the saw is set up properly, you get a perfect right angle cut. Handsaws scare woodworkers because it seems impossible to get that kind of accuracy on a consistent basis without the hands of a surgeon. Anyone, however, can produce the same perfect results, and it takes only a little more time (and practice).

Robert Wearing discusses three classes of cuts in his book, The Essential Woodworker. First-class cuts are reserved for those where accuracy and appearance are important. Proper layout involves knifing in your cut line, and then carving out a shallow v-shaped trench on the waste side. The saw will start in the trench and, held steady, track a straight line through the board. Second and third class cuts require less preparation, and take a little less setup time. But to practice sawing, I always do the first-class cuts. It gives me a feel for the saw tracking square, and I’m more confident the resulting cut will be accurate. It’s quite amazing how easily the technique can be mastered. Below are pictures of me cutting 4×4 cedar posts to length. I scribed a knife and pencil line across the face of the post, and transferred the line down two additional sides. I then cut a thin sliver on one side of the line, creating a small triangular trench to capture the saw. I cut them using a traditional method of cutting tenons. Three cuts in all – one diagonally through one corner, then another corner, and a final through cut with the saw at a flatter angle. The ryoba tracks remarkably well; it just takes a little concentration to keep an eye on the saw, but it will want to track the knife lines, following the path of least resistance. The result is a square cut, perfectly splitting the pencil line. Even for myself, who has cut far more wood with power saws than hand saws, getting a square cut using this technique is easy – and convenient.

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Another option is to use a traditional miter box with a properly sharpened saw.  There are new varieties of these, ranging from the little plastic yellow things at the hardware store (don’t buy those), to the Nobex saws. Or you could haunt your local craigslist or antique stores and buy a vintage one. I found a nice old Stanley that only needs a little work to get going. The saws are the tricky things with the old boxes. Sometimes you luck out and good a good one, sometimes they’re junk. Whichever the case, it will almost always need to be sharpened. A good miter box and a good saw, though, make quick work of crosscuts.

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