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Pleasures of a pull-stroke saw

by Leon A. Frechette

Click to PurchaseOn any fine woodworking project, the time will come when a handsaw will be required. If you have been there, then you know the problem of selecting the right saw for the job, especially with all the different types of saws on the market today!

How pull-stroke saws work

Perhaps you have noticed the Japanese-style saws; if not, take some time to investigate. Unlike their Western counterparts (push-stroke saws), they work exactly opposite of what we learned growing up—they cut on the pull stroke.

If you observe your own behavior, you'll notice that a majority of your everyday gestures involve a pulling motion. If you don't believe it, then think about how you open the door to your car or home, or better yet, when you slice a tomato or cut a steak. Do you believe me now? How about when you take a tissue out of the box?

The idea of pulling a saw—rather than pushing—may be new to us, but the Japanese have successfully used this technique for hundreds of years. Don't get me wrong; there is a time and place for both types of saws. But once you become hooked on the pull concept, the chances of your going back to a push-stroke saw will probably be very slim.

Advantages of the pull-stroke

The difference between the two saw techniques (pull vs. push) is rooted in the thinness of the blade metal which produces a narrower kerf (width of cut), thus the saw requires less effort to use. The blades are uniquely designed so each tooth has three cutting edges (except the rip tooth; it only has two). This allows the saw to cut straighter, faster, smoother, and cleaner and yet still be able to rip and crosscut.

With this tooth design, it appears as though the teeth would clog with waste material during the cut. Not so! Every time you pull the saw to cut and return with a push-stroke, the blade cleans itself, and it really works. The two inside edges clean while the point does the actual cutting—not tearing, but slicing. And that's important when precise and detailed cuts are required for a fine woodworking project. What is unique about this design is that even a general or rough-cutting blade can produce the same results as a fine cutting blade. Of course, this depends on the amount of downward pressure you apply as you pull, and it doesn't require much.

Correct use and care

One thing that will take some getting used to is sawdust covering the cutline. It needs to be blown off during the strokes. Also, the blades (depending if it is a traditional Japanese saw or the new breed with its Western design for the American market) are 50 percent thinner than blades on push-stroke saws and it takes some practice to get used to the flexibility. It is important to follow the cutline and to stay on that line within the first 1/4" of the cut. The teeth are set to a minimum (not much more than the thickness of the blade) so if you get off the cutline, it will be difficult to get back on track. Just like anything else, it takes practice....

All these blades are extremely sharp, so blade guards are essential. When installing the blade guard, always slide it on from the toe (nose) of the blade and not the heel (rear) because the teeth point towards the handle. You will want to exercise care when using and storing these saws. Their steel blades are much harder and the teeth are longer so they are very susceptible to damage. These saws are fine instruments and need to be treated as such.

Try a traditional Japanese saw

The traditional Japanese saw has a combination hardwood and wrapped bamboo handle. The blade is slightly thicker than the new breed, but these saws are the ultimate when it comes to achieving the best cut possible. If you are an artisan, I highly recommend trying your hand at one. Garrett-Wade offers a fine collection of traditional Japanese saws to fit any particular need including flush, keyhole, trim, tensioned tenon (or back saw), two-sided, hardwood, dovetail, power tooth, slotting, and folding. These saws range in price from $13.60 to $65.45. While some of these saws come with replacement blades, others do not, so decide what is best for you. Sharpening these blades is somewhat difficult and takes lots of practice. However, they do manufacture a deep gullet file (feather file) to help you sharpen your saws. While master Japanese carpenters sharpen their own blades, I find that replaceable blades work best for me. If you choose to use a traditional Japanese saw, then I recommend you only use it to cut clean, nail-free material so as to avoid damaging the teeth.

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Sharksaws by Shark Corporation

Shark Corporation manufactures Japanese-style saws with replaceable blades and weather-resistant high-impact ABS plastic (encased in rubber) handles designed to fit a particular application. The idea behind the handle design is to permit the saw to deliver the same fine cut as a traditional Japanese saw while providing a comfortable Western-style pistol grip design (10-2312, 14 pt.). It works well when cutting 2 x 4s, 2 x 6s, ABS, or PVC plumbing pipe. For some cuts, however, such as cutting a sheet (4 x 8) of plywood, the handle can get in the way. That is when the straight handle model (10-2440, 17 pt./19 pts.) really comes in handy. Its flexible blade is great for under- and flush cuts such as casings or dowels, or wherever your imagination turns. Their Model 10-2410 17 pt. saw is ideal for precision cuts because its blade is extremely thin.

Choosing the right saw

When choosing a saw, keep in mind that "pt." ("points") means the number of teeth per inch. The higher the number, the finer the cut will be. Some saw blades have combination crosscut/rip teeth while others have crosscut only and still others have crosscut on one side and rip teeth on the other (a double-edged blade).

As mentioned earlier, Shark saws have replaceable blades that slide in (or out) when you push a small button on the side of the handle. This makes disengaging the blade a cinch, and the saw compacts for easy storage in most tool boxes. The blade is made of high-quality spring carbon steel and the teeth are hardened by electric impulse so they will last longer than conventional saws. Of course, this depends on what you're cutting.

The cost of the blade is two-thirds more than a conventional handsaw sharpening, but the pull-saw will last much, much longer. Only you can judge which is a better value for your situation. The Shark Saw pull-saw has a suggested retail price ranging from $20.99 to $31.99.

Pull-saw techniques

For better control over your cut when using either a traditional Japanese-style saw or the Shark Saw, simply put the straight handle between your thumb and forefinger (for the pistol grip, grab the handle lightly with your index finger riding on the side) and pull with a full stroke—firm but with a light downward pressure. Remember to utilize a pull technique so begin at the rear of the blade (closest to the handle) and pull. Don't push! Pretend you are cutting a tomato. Always start your cut by placing the saw at a 10º angle to the front or rear of the material (not at the 45º angle commonly (but incorrectly) used with a conventional saw).

If you are using a double-edged saw to cut a dowel and you do not want the teeth to scratch the finish surface, then you will need to knock the set down a little. The best way to do this is to place the blade flat on a piece of hardwood (like oak), not on a concrete floor or on any metal surface, and lightly hammer the teeth the full length of the blade with a smooth-faced hammer. Turn the blade over and repeat the process. Take care to not pound too hard and knock the set completely out—it will make the saw difficult to use. Don't worry about dulling the teeth because their cutting edges are on the inside. If you are going to try this, I would recommend trying it on a replaceable blade

For more information:

Click here to read customer's feedback. If you are open to trying a new concept (the pull-stroke) in handsaws, then check out the Japanese Saws we offer by clicking the purchase button below!

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Copyright © 1994, 1998, & 2006 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved. The previous
article, in whole or in part, appeared in the November/December 1994 issue of Woodworker.

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