A common struggle for new hand saw users is starting the saw cut cleanly and accurately. Often when trying to learn to use hand saws, the saw will seem to want to jump around and not stay on the line where it’s put, or it will grab and be difficult to move forward through the cut. In order to solve these “issues”, many folks will draw the saw backwards several times with heavy pressure to try and create a kerf to start the saw in, but this really does little to help the sawyer. While the symptoms being experienced might seem like a problem with the saw itself, they are all caused by improper technique.
When I work with a new hand saw user, there are a few important points that I teach that are immediately helpful to them in starting the saw cut and progressing through the cut. Proper body position and sawing mechanics are very important in achieving straight, square, precise cuts, and I’ll cover hand sawing mechanics in a future article. But when it comes to starting the saw cut, there’s really only two things that you need to do to be successful – provide a proper guide, and support the weight of the saw. Let’s talk about the best ways that I’ve found to accomplish both of these requirements.
The first step in successfully starting the cut with a hand saw is providing a solid guide for the saw. This seems obvious, yet many new hand saw users are either hesitant to do it correctly, or simply don’t know how to do it correctly. However, providing a good guide for the saw is extremely important because once you start the cut in the wrong place, it can be very difficult to restart it in the proper place, especially if you were just a little bit off. It’s much easier to get the cut started in the right place the first time.
When you’re first learning to use a hand saw, it’s important that you are able to see the “keep” side of the line. This means orienting your board or part correctly. If you saw with your right hand, that means putting the waste side of the saw cut to the right. If you saw with your left hand, put the waste to your left. As your skills improve, you will learn to saw on the “wrong” side (meaning putting the waste side opposite of the way I just told you to) when making cuts such as dovetails and tenons. That’s because it’s faster to just saw with the keep side of the cut on the “blind” side of the saw instead of constantly flipping the board around when you’re making these kinds of cuts. But when you are just starting out, make sure you can see the desired cut line when you set yourself up to make a cut by orienting the waste as I’ve suggested above.
With the board oriented correctly, you can set up to start the cut. Put the entire thickness of the saw blade on the waste side of the line, and then place the thumb of your non-sawing hand right up to the saw so that it is in clear contact with the blade, but not pushing the blade out of position. Your thumb should not be just close to the blade, or nearly touching the blade – it must touch the blade. That way, when you start to saw, the blade can be kept in contact with your thumb the entire time so that the saw is cutting exactly where it needs to. Don’t worry, you won’t saw your thumb off. Hand saws have built-in flesh sensing technology.
Now that you’re set up properly to start the cut, you can move on to the second step in successfully starting the saw cut. When I’m working with students new to hand sawing, I have them go through an exercise I call “saw without sawing”. The concept is simple. Set your body up in the proper position to make the cut. Set the saw and your thumb in place as described above. Then go through the motions of sawing, right above the cut line, keeping the blade in contact with your thumb, without touching the board, or just barely ticking the corner. The goal is to get the teeth as close to the board as you can without actually doing any cutting.
This exercise has a single purpose – to train the sawyer what it feels like to take the weight of the saw off of the board. Every guide on using a hand saw tells you to take the weight of the saw off the board when starting the saw cut, but none of them that I’ve ever seen actually explain how to do so. So every new sawyer that I’ve ever worked with has let too much of the saw’s weight rest on the board. Then instead of starting the cut smoothly, they have to drag the saw backwards harshly several times to get a ragged kerf started and then they proceed to force the saw through. This then causes the blade to flex and jump out of the poorly established kerf and land in an area that they don’t want to cut, like the “keep” side of the piece, or their hand.
The “saw without sawing” exercise forces you to lift the saw off of the board by taking the weight in the proper part of your hand – the heel. As shown in the photo above, if you are holding the saw properly and going through the motions of the “saw without sawing” exercise, you should be able to loosen your grip on the saw with your upper fingers and still hold the saw securely because the saw is supported by the bottom horn and the heel of your hand.
If you go through the “saw without sawing” exercise for 10-15 minutes, I guarantee you will have an easier time starting the cut with any size hand saw, from the tiniest of dovetail saws to the largest of rip saws. Focus on maintaining a relaxed grip on the saw. Work on the exercise for just a couple of minutes at a time. Then put the saw down, rest your hand and arm (to avoid death gripping the saw and wearing yourself out), and repeat the exercise again. After you’ve done this a few times, you will find that you can basically scrape the corner of the board for the entire duration of the exercise without actually making a cut. Once you can do this, you’ve learned how to smoothly and precisely start the saw cut. Now gradually let the weight of the saw drop into the cut until the kerf is fully established and the saw is then fully engaged. You will find that your cuts with your had saws are much smoother and more precise.
Try it for yourself!