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Handsaw Skills

This topic contains 29 replies, has 14 voices, and was last updated by  Larry Geib 1 year, 7 months ago.

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    Greg Marshall

    Hi All,

    Since this isn’t really about choosing or maintaining a saw, but using it, I put it in the methods and techniques forum. Hopefully that works.

    TL;DR version: I think I need a handsawing mentor

    Full version:
    Although I’m quite handy and have done alot of things like framing walls, and building crude shop projects over the many years, I’ve been “hand tool woodworking” (in the Paul Sellers sense) for about a year. I’m still very unsure that I’m using my handsaws correctly. I have a few decent quality saws:

      A veritas dovetail saw
      A veritas carcass saw
      A veritas tenon saw
      A Pax 7 TPI ripcut panel saw
      A Pax 12 TPI crosscut panel saw

    Now, I know the tool doesn’t make the man 🙂 I just love the feel and look of handsaws, so I’m not expecting them to do the work for me.

    I never get the results I see Paul get, or other online woodworking videos. My rip cuts don’t produce the nice smooth cut with the little curl of wood at the bottom of the cut that I see all the time. Mine are always shaggy and wavy. I can’t imagine getting a 1/8th inch rip cut down an 18 inch long door stile, for example. It would all rip to shreds. I suspect this is a sharpness issue but I may just not be sawing correctly.

    My crosscuts are ok with the very fine saws, but as I go more coarse in TPI, I get progressively worse results. The Pax crosscut is so bad that I am scared to use it on more expensive woods because I get a lot of breakout. Again, I am wondering if this is sharpness or finesse. These PAX saws are brand new, but they could be dull out of the box. I didn’t sharpen them, and they haven’t been used much.

    My problem is I have no frame of reference for what the feel or result SHOULD be like.

    So – my main question is this: Where would you go – what would you do in order to learn to use handsaws correctly? I’ve been searching for local classes, but they are very rare in my area and far away. I can’t seem to find a mentor to connect with. This isn’t my full time job, so I can’t join the only woodworking school (about 90 minutes away) – they require a full-time 4 year program 😀

    Can anyone share thoughts on finding a mentor? Nothing beats some hands on instruction from an experienced craftsperson. Barring that – can anyone recommend a resource (video / book) that goes into depth about using / practising / saw skills and how to know if you’re improving or getting expected results?

    Thanks in advance for your tips, referrals, resources, kind words of encouragement, and anything else you care to contribute!

    • This topic was modified 1 year, 10 months ago by  Greg Marshall.



    Sawing is the gateway skill, yet the least written about and videoed of the basic skills. I can understand your problem. The best advice I can give is check with your local woodworking shop (if you have one) for someone to show the basic way to stand and hold the saw. Once you know how, practice until you can do it without thinking about it.

    Bottom line: Stand so your sawing arm can move freely without interference, hold the saw’s tote almost like you would something you did not wish to touch, and try to not saw. In other words move the saw back and forth while trying to just let the weight of the saw do the work.

    Do it over and over trying to stay square and vertical. Check each time with a square to see how you did, try to correct any mistake on the next cut.

    Learning to saw is mostly about seeing and learning to feel vertical plus learning to trust the saw to work for you.




    Hey Gregm,

    This may not be exactly what you looking for but I experience the same challenges as you and have been following Paul for quite a bit longer than you. For me, a big part was resetting expectations. Sawing with Paul’s level of accuracy is hard and is developed over time. I know for me on a 24 inch rip, starting a couple mil off the line will always end in disaster. I just can’t keep it perfect on both axis over that type of distance. As an amateur that only gets a few hours in the shop per week I found I needed to come to terms with the fact that it is going to take time to build the skill to the level I hope to achieve.

    It may sound like the wrong way to solve the problem but I have to say finally converting a Scrub Plane has transformed how I work. On a long rip cut I start more like 3/16 to 1/4 off the line. I still put a lot of effort into to accuracy and evaluate my results so I can continue to get better but at the same time the larger margin for error allows me to account for minor run off and still end up with a usable piece. The scrub allows me to take down extra waste in a few swipes so I don’t lose much time.




    Well, one way to eliminate sharpness as the culprit would be to send one of your saws out to be sharpened by a pro. Then you’ll know it’s sharp and can evaluate the results without sharpness as a variable. It’ll also be useful feedback on your saw-sharpening skills.

    Since you have a number of saws, losing one for a month or so wouldn’t bring all your woodworking to a halt.


    Ecky H

    Prior to everything else: I’m a newbie in woodworking, so I know the doubts and the thoughts that in most cases the culprit is on the handle of the tool.
    But when it comes to sawing that isn’t the case every time. First thing I’d exclude is the saw itself as the reason of the problem. So I second the suggestion of @etmo.

    To improve the sawing technique the videos of Sannon Rogers about saws and sawing helped me a lot – at least to recognize what I’m doing wrong, eg. that one:

    Hope that helps,


    Veni, vidi, serravi.

    Münster, Germany


    Greg Marshall

    @bubba1, @mictau, @etmo, @eckyh,

    Thank you so much for responding. I will take one of my pax saws (crosscut) and have it sharpened, while I attempt to sharpen the other (rip) myself following Paul’s instructions.

    Also, I’ll work on the techniqes described by Ken while I try to find someone knowledgeable to mentor me or take a class from.

    I will check out the Sannon Rogers video as well. Perhaps Paul will do a video on sawing basics one day too 🙂

    Thanks again for the great help!


    Dave C

    I went on a short weekend woodworking course with a heavy focus on improving sawing skills.

    One of the things which we did that helped me a lot was to set up a mirror opposite where we were sawing (vertically 90 degrees from the bench).

    The teacher got us to saw very slowly and to keep checking our body positions in the mirror, and also to keep looking at the lines marked in front, on top, and on the back (in the mirror) very frequently, so that we could stop and notice when something was out.

    Another main thing he focused on was getting us to focus on moving our sawing arm with nothing getting in the way (i.e. making sure it could always move straight forwards and back without being forced to the side).

    Other than that, we mostly just did lots and lots of test cuts on scrap wood, making minor corrections one one thing at a time (e.g. if the cut was out of vertical, just focusing on fixing that, rather than trying to fix everything at once).


    Greg Marshall

    Excellent idea. I’ll scare up a mirror and try this. Was this class offered by a woodworking school or hosted by a local shop? I’m not having much luck finding anything near me, unfortunately.


    Larry Geib

    An old framer’s trick If your saw plane is shiny, is that you can use the reflection in the plate of what you are cutting to align the saw square and plumb.

    If you don’t have the saw oriented correctly, it will look like the board has a kink in it. If it is straight, it will look like a continuous piece of wood. Keep checking while you cut.

    A 45° cut will reflect as a perfect right angle.

    [attachment file=425785]

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by  Larry Geib.
    • This reply was modified 1 year, 9 months ago by  Larry Geib.

    Spencer Gaskins

    I have to second (or third, or fourth…) the ideas presented here. I, too, struggled a long time with sawing more than any foundational skill when working with hand tools. I can now rip and crosscut towards a scribed line, or knifewall, relatively accurately – but getting there took a LOT longer than chisel work or plane work. Here’s what worked for me:

    1) Get a known sharp saw. Knowing what a good known sharp saw feels like made a world of difference in how I was applying the saw to the cut. Someone earlier mentioned that you really aren’t trying to saw. That’s the saw’s job – your job is to move the saw back and forth efficiently and effectively with no added pressure. Let the weight of the saw and gravity do the work of cutting. but you can’t KNOW what that feels like unless you have a known sharp saw. Another benefit of this is that you aren’t taking agressive cuts, going too fast (slow down!), and getting way off line quickly.

    2) Now that you have a sharp saw, and can feel what that sharpness feels like with gravity, learn to sharpen a saw yourself. The cool thing about this is that it’s an easy skill to learn, Paul Sellers has some great, free videos on it, and you’ll get lots of practice sawing. I, too, wanted that curl of wood at the bottom of the kerf. Well, learning to sharpen my saw gave me that because I could compare my skills with my known sharp saw.

    3) Use the knife wall and the chisel nick as much as you can to get started. And learn to plane end grain. Once again, you aren’t trying to saw so much on the line (as an amateur…) as you are trying to saw near the knife wall. The knife wall is your best, most favorite friend. Look at Paul Sellers almost every time he crosscuts – he pops out the number 4 and planes the end grain to that square knife wall. So, leave the knife wall in and use it to get square after you cut. This was the biggest epiphany to me when struggling – rip cuts weren’t a problem because, of course I was going to plane them to the pencil line. Use the plane along with the crosscut and knife wall – and viola! Square and crisp, just like Paul Sellers. To belabour the point, I just today had to cut-to-length 4 boards to 42 5/8 in. Using the above method worked perfectly – 4 boards EXACTLY 42 5/8 square and straight by planing a face and edge, using these to scribe a knife wall all around, crosscutting, and then planing the end grain down to the knife wall – checking for square as I planed. This one is hard to accurately describe – you aren’t so much cutting AWAY from the line as you are cutting TO (or near to..) the line. The saw kerf should be very very near the knife wall without obscuring or crossing over the knife wall. And if it is drifting away, then bring it back.

    4) Once again, slow down and lighten up! If you are having to work hard when sawing, your saw isn’t sharp enough, or you are bearing down too hard, or both. Aggressive cuts go off line quickly. What worked for me was to get the mindset that “… if I had to hand saw all day, could I keep this pace up?” If not, then I’d slow down. This was hard as I have a tablesaw that cuts beautifully, quickly once it is set up. And many times I would use this as a crutch. Then two things hit me: a) I hate the sound and dust of the tablesaw which is what got me into hand tools in the first place, and b) I am not doing this work for money, but rather for enjoyment – why do I have this mindset that what I do for enjoyment has to be fast? It doesn’t. And so, I tried slowing down which gave me a lighter touch. Lo and behold, slowing down, letting the saw work, gave me much greater accuracy.

    5) Read as much as you can and try it – if it doesn’t work for you when you try it, file it away and come back to it later. You just might not be ready for that particular lesson, yet. There is a wonderful article that pops up on Google if you search ‘Popular how:to:saw’ (leave the colons in when searching and it will be the first result). But it didn’t fully make sense to me until I changed my mindset about what I wanted out of my sawing technique – 30 minutes to cut a perfect tenon! That’s just silly, I thought. Now, after slowing down, it all kinda makes sense…

    If all this sounds like some kind of ‘Zen and the art of sawing’, it kinda is. It’s practical, it gets you started, but it doesn’t get you mastery right away. Sawing is kinda like that – or calculus. It’s frustrating, people can point you along a path, and then you just kinda ‘get it’. Paul Sellers, or Joshua Klein, or Roy Underhill, or Christopher Schwarz, and countless others have handsawn thousands upon thousands of cuts. They didn’t start out being Saw Masters day one – or even day 101. I, too, am just ‘getting it’ after being very frustrated like you – heck, I was too embarassed to ask, so good on you for having courage to ask (I wish I had…) Andwhen I say I am just now ‘getting it’, I mean like, within the last two months, getting it – so… not a Master… just barely an apprentice!

    Last bit of advice in a lomg wimded post – Speed comes with proper form and technique. Right now, speed is your enemy – Slow. Down. Really – S L O W D O W N! Get a sharp saw, don’t try to saw, and SLOW DOWN!


    Greg Marshall

    This thread is turning out to be a really great resource! Thank you Spencer, and thanks again to everyone who has contributed. Your words and information have really encouraged me!


    Ecky H

    Shannon Rogers made a new video about sawing:
    Maybe that helps with another point of view.


    Veni, vidi, serravi.

    Münster, Germany


    Greg Marshall

    Excellent addition to this thread. Thanks!


    Ecky H

    Not quite on topic, but heavily saw related and imho worth sharing:
    Saw handle template library:
    Saw handle angle considerations:


    Veni, vidi, serravi.

    Münster, Germany


    Debra Jenney

    This is the best thread.

    I had a lot of trouble when I first picked up the saw, too. Dull saw, bad form, cuts wandering off, exhausted, etc.

    The other night I cut three little slabs about 5/8″ thick off an irregular chunk of mulberry about 3″ thick and 8″ wide. I was happy to see the cuts I made were reasonably parallel and fairly straight. I could not have done that a year ago.

    Last month I crosscut the ends on the top of my workbench build. What a workout! But I did it and that feels great.

    I think the biggest change for me besides the knife wall was to NOT try to bend the saw back on track. When I start to wander off, lift the saw ever so slightly and gently start a new kerf where it went squirrely. I quit trying to dig the saw through the wood and now support the weight of the saw more. I imagine I am just trying to slice the top layer of fibers in the kerf and not disturb the ones below.

    This is a skill that you really have to use your feels to get it. Looking at sawing videos is one thing and it helps a lot, but you gotta feel it in your hands. Pay attention to the way the teeth feel through the plate and handle. Are they hitting and jarring or slicing easily? Lift the weight off the teeth a little.

    But yeah there a lot of awesome bits of advice above. Great thread!

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