Hand-saw Showdown – East vs West: Western-Style Hand-Saws

Shop Skills: With a number of differences between Western and Japanese saws, it can be confusing when it comes to making a purchase. Learn why two woodworkers reach for the saw they do.


Hand-saw Showdown – East vs West: Western-Style Hand-Saws

Photos by Dan Russell; Lead photo by Rob Brown

I believe woodworkers should be encouraged to use whatever tool feels better in hand and will perform the tasks we ask them to. Working with the same tools over a period of time brings a sense of comfort, control and most importantly, confidence.

Why do I tend to use Western-style hand-saws (WSHS) in my wood shop? The truth be told, it starts with simple geography. I’m from Nova Scotia and guess what? We didn’t have any Japanese saws where I grew up. Like many woodworkers, I eventually purchased a few Japanese-style saws (JSS) through the years due to my own curiosity and as an inexpensive option when starting out in woodworking, but the truth is I barely touch them anymore. Why? Probably because I was so used to using Western saws I seemed to naturally gravitate back to them; remember – comfort, control and confidence. This is important while you’re working wood.

My earliest hand-saw memories start with panel saws and from there onto back saws and a mitre box would soon follow. These were the saws used in the wood shops I grew up in and these are the saws I got used to using over the course of my life working wood. Today we have many choices and it’s up to us to get comfortable with a style and try to master it.

What I find the most appealing about WSHS is basic comfort and form in hand. I can work much longer using a ‘pistol grip’ handle and once in hand, the motion seems to allow my arm to ‘track’ much better while sawing. This is especially true while performing rip cuts.

Sawing on the push stroke over a decent saw-bench makes sense to my body type and the style and methods of work that I do. Working with only hand tools, the first stages of material preparation is usually a cross cut followed with a ripping cut. If you’ve ever tried to rip a strip off an 8' plank of 2" White Oak with a JSS, I’d be curious to hear how it went.

I work with mostly domestic hard woods and buy my stock from a mill either rough or pre-dimensioned. Either way, I’m ripping large panels and this is where a Western-style panel saw makes the most sense for me. The longer saw plate allows for a longer, more fluid stroke with much less of a back and forth motion. My body weight and gravitational force, when combined with a properly set-up panel saw takes much of the strain or effort out of the process.

Having a thicker saw plate, as most WSHS do, makes for stronger saw teeth and less chance of breaking them in hard-working applications.

While Japanese saws seem to be easier to start for the beginner, with their finely set tooth pattern they seem to cut faster on first impression. The truth is they require many more strokes to get the job done and eventually that leads to more effort from the sawyer. A quality WSHS is no more difficult to start once you get used to the process and in my own experience, will win the race for speed of sawing every time.

Once lumber is dimensioned, joinery is soon to follow and from delicate dovetails to deep tenon cuts there is a Western-style saw designed and suited for each stage of the process.

Pistol Grip – Some woodworkers prefer this type of grip because it feels more familiar and therefore more comfortable.

Consider this Point Carefully – When purchasing a saw, make sure you take ‘points per inch’ into consideration. A saw with fewer points per inch will cut better in thick material, and vice versa.

A Good Selection – It’s nice to have a number of saws that are better suited for the task they are asked to accomplish. Working with the right saw will be easier and the results will be better.

Where to begin?
I think a safe place to start is with two panel saws; one filed rip in the 5 to 8 ppi (points per inch) range and the other a cross cut in the neighborhood of 8 to 12 ppi. You can add more to your nest but those two alone will cover most of your dimensional sawing needs. When we discuss points per inch, a good rule of thumb is: the thicker the wood, the less teeth you want on your saw. For heavy ripping cuts in thick material, a lower ppi is generally preferred, with the opposite for working thin stock. Material less than ¾" in thickness will be better suited to a finer-tooth saw with a higher tooth count, somewhere in the range of 10 to 12 ppi. These are general guidelines and you should experiment with your own personal preferences. From the panel saw, we’ll need a few decent back saws; again a cross-cut and a rip tooth are desirable.

Most wood workers will want a dedicated dovetail saw. Filed with a rip tooth, the dovetail saw may meet some of your ripping needs in joinery applications but I’d recommend a larger back saw for more joinery options. Most dovetail saws are made in the 8" to 10" range but again in my own work I prefer a larger saw plate between 10" to 12" in length. This translates to less strokes and I find it’s easier to guide and sight the longer saw blade.

A second, slightly larger back saw specific for cross cutting stock at the work bench is the next to consider and these four or five saws mentioned will take care of most of your sawing needs. A saw bench and bench/mitre hook will also make life easier for you when using a back saw at the work bench.

Helping Hand – A saw bench and bench hook will make working with hand saws much nicer.

Keep Those Teeth Sharp
The final point I’ll make for the case of Western-style hand-saws is sharpening. I sharpen my handsaws on almost a monthly basis depending on my workload and would encourage woodworkers to learn the skills of filing and setting their own saws. I’ve met and spoke with hundreds of woodworkers over the past few years and have yet to meet someone capable or confident enough to try to sharpen their own Japanese-style handsaws. Sharpening a Western saw, on the other hand, is something that every woodworker can learn and with a little practice can achieve some fine results.

I encourage you to challenge your own methods and discover for yourself what works best for you. There isn’t any one right answer and whether you decide on Western-style or Japanese-style, the important thing is to get into the work shop and start working wood! Enjoy the process.

Stay Sharp – A Western-style saw can be sharpened and used for a long time, unlike most Japanese saws. (Photo by Carolyn Fidgen)

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