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How to Use a Back Saw for Woodworking

Learn how to use a back saw in this Howcast woodworking video featuring Makeville Studio.


Back saws are a special kind of saw that are used in fine woodworking for cutting joinery. And there's two different styles. You can see them here. There's a Japanese style and there's also a western-style saw. The thing they have in common, though and what makes them back saws is that they have this rigid, metal spine on the back that keeps the blade stiff. So, it gives you a little bit more accurate work when you're cutting. Let's look at the blades.

The blades, the Japanese, are generally very thin, compared to the western saws. And that means that you get a really easy cut because there's much less material being removed and it's very fast. But it also means that you can't sharpen these blades and so, when they get dull or broken, you just have to throw them out and replace them. The western-style saws, on the other hand, can last you forever, if you learn how to sharpen saws, which is pretty difficult. But, if you do, it's well worthwhile because you can get a nice saw and it will last you a lifetime.

So, let's look at how to use these saws. Both saws, like I said, are for doing different kinds of joinery in woodworking. And that includes cutting tenons or cutting half-lap joints. And I thought we would look at just cutting a half-lap joint really quick. A half-lap is where you join two pieces of wood at a 90-degree angle by removing half the material of each piece. And it's a pretty common woodworking joint. We're just going to cut one just to demonstrate how to use these saws.

Now, whether you're using the western-style saw or the Japanese saw, you're going to start in the same way. And what I mean by that is starting a cut involves positioning your hand a certain way of the saw, getting your arms straight in line. So, get your hand lined up with the saw. You can put your finger over the back. That helps sometimes. Wrist, elbow, shoulder all aligned. This just helps the saw sort of become one with your arm.

And then you want you to be standing squarely behind what you're doing. If you're off to the side, you really can't tell if this is going on an angle or not. And if you're using a Japanese saw, which cuts on the pole, you're always going to start your cut with a push. Now, the reason we're doing that is because when you're pushing the saw, it's not really taking out a lot of material. It's taking out a small amount, but it's establishing a curve for that saw to sit in while you do the cut. If I were using the western saw, it cuts on the push. So, I would be starting this cut with a pull. So, you just do the opposite of what it's supposed to be doing. Push and then, you'll make your actual cut.

Now, when you're cutting with a saw, whether it's one of these back saws or a carpentry saw, it doesn't really matter. You'll want to use the whole face of the blade when you're doing your cutting. It's just more efficient, you'll get through the cut much more quickly. Once you start your cut, though, if you're off your line, I'm off my line a little bit here, there's no way to reposition the saw. Once these saws are too thin, you can't reestablish your line very easily. That's the importance of starting straight.

Anyways, continuing on. We're just going to continue and cut this line all the way down. Now, when you're cutting all the way through and stopping at a particular point, you need to keep the saw level. So, you're not cutting deeper on one side, then on the other. So, just be aware of that as well as you're cutting. You're going to need to stay level.

And then we'd have to flip this over and do the same thing on the other side. So, for this cut, the same technique. We're just going to start on the corner, saw forward. Pretty quickly, you'll get down through there and you'll meet your other cut if you went all the way down. Finish the cut and the wood pops out.

Now, with sawing, with handsaws, it's very hard to get a smooth surface. You're getting all the little marks from the saw teeth as you're cutting. There's always going to be a secondary piece of work to do on a job like this, which is smoothing out these surfaces. And you can do that, usually with chisels.

But that's really it for the sawing. Sawing is very straightforward, it just takes practice. And you can use these saws for simple joints, like these half-laps. You can use them for the most complicated joints like dovetails, all the way down the line.

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