A recipe for better sawing…

I’ve been having an on going conversation with Mark Harrell of BadAxeToolworks over email, and Mark has graciously shared with me some of his experiences and insights as a saw maker. One particular insight that struck me was how many times he sees woodworkers approach his table at a show, pick up a saw and bench hook, and be completely unable to saw square despite the exceptional function of his tools.

This got me thinking about what a revelation making and using a bench hook for the first time was for me. It truly changed my work over night.

And a recent post on WoodNet from a woodworker looking for pointers on sawing plumb and square to a line, prompted me to respond with some points that have been especially helpful to me, as well.

So, as I was cutting the final joinery for my super saw bench I figured I would share my thoughts on accurately sawing up on a workbench. And the following is my recipe for sawing square and plumb….now, mind you, none of these pointers are my own ideas….they were collected from great WW minds, both past and present. Each one was a giant revelation in how to saw better. Add them together and you’ve got a winning combination…

1) Use a bench hook. If you don’t have a bench hook, make one. You will be AMAZED!!!  Here’s some plans for bench hooks: http://www.ehow.com/how_4689202_make-bench-hook.html

2) Track your saw in two dimensions. Mark your cut on the face, and the edge of the board and learn how to watch both lines as you stroke. This will make you line up your saw, arm, and body with the cut line. Learn to track both lines, and you’re gauranteed better cuts…


3) Another way to track in two (or three dimensions)…try kerfing in the cut on two or three sides before making the full cut. Kerf in the face, and both edges of the board 1/16th to 1/8th deep and then use those to track the saw. This will automatically guide that saw as the teeth will naturally follow the path of least resistance, i.e. the existing kerf.

4) Slow down! No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to cut a board as fast as your power miter saw. This, for me, was one of the most important lessons in hand tool wood working. I had to force myself to let go of the desire to work as quickly as with power tools. I don’t make furniture in a factory. I don’t work in a cabinet shop. Time is not money. Money is money, and time in my shop should be fun. Now, when I work in my shop, I actually enjoy the WORK!!! I like planing, I like chiseling, and I LOVE sawing! I don’t even care when I finish something…its the process I enjoy now.

5) Lighten up! Loosen your grip and don’t force the saw, either forward, or downward. Just like in golf when you learn to drive the ball..let the club do the work like my dad always says. The same principle applies here….let the saw do the work. This was one of the things that Mark mentioned that most WW get wrong…the death grip!!!! When you eventually learn how to control the subtle nature of the saw stroke, then you can apply gentle force in just the right time parts of the stroke. How loose should you hold the saw? So loose that if the work and bench suddenly disappeared beneath you, it might fall to the floor. Seriously….(almost) that loose. You want to just wrap your fingers around the tote and hold it oh so gently enough that you feel the back curve of the tote pushing the inside of your palm when you stroke forward. You want to ruin the accuracy of your cuts when learning to saw? Grip it like you’re swinging an axe: certain disaster.

6) Finally, if you’re not getting accurate results, don’t keep cutting the same way. Remember the definition of foolishness: taking the same action over and over and expecting a different result. So change it up. Saw in a different position. Try it in a vise, try it on the bench hook. Try it with a back saw, try it with a hand saw. Eat them in a house, eat them with a mouse. Eat them in a box, eat them with a fox. (Sorry…who doesn’t like green eggs and ham?!?!?)

Add these up and what do you get? Table saw accuracy without the envigorating threat of losing a thumb…

And for the truly bold and courageous of you, you can do what I did and FORCE yourself to become a better sawyer: sell your table saw and give your compound miter saw to your dad so he can cut kindling with it. 🙂

Happy sawin’!


Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 9:01 pm  Comments (11)  

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Matt,you hit on a point that is really true:
    “5) Lighten up! Loosen your grip and don’t force the saw, either forward, or downward….let the saw do the work.”

    I wish I had a quarter for every time I have said this to a student. They’ll lighten up for bit and the saw will start to work properly and then they tighten up and speed up again and the saw binds.

    This was a very good post. Perhaps I should use this post to create a printed out bullent point sheet on how to saw for my students.

    You know, come to think of it. I wish I had a dollar for every dollar I have spent. Sweet!

    Be well,


    • Thanks Yaakov….glad you found it helpful!

  2. Well my “workshop” is my home i.e. I live in an smal appartment with neighbors so using machines take up too much space and make too much noice lol. I agree with everything. One final tip I’ve heard is that you can watch the reflection on the sawplate to align your cut!

    • I don’t buy the “watch the reflection on the sawplate to align your cut”. I think that come from people trying to promote/sell new saw.

      Keep you eyes on the lines!

    • Thanks for the comment Jonas, and the added tip. I have to say that I haven’t had much luck with the “watch the reflection” tip, but I know that many find it useful.

  3. Matt,
    I found your blog a few months ago. I have seen the accuracy of my sawing improve immensely since using the light kerf on two faces of the piece to help track the saw. Slowing down has definitely made sawing much more enjoyable for me, too.

    • Francisco
      Very glad to hear you’re finding the blog helpful…I appreciate the support!

  4. Matt,

    I enjoy this post very much. I believe your TIP # 4 is one of the most important tips in doing any work with hand tools.

    I remember vividly my first attempts in cutting with hand saw, drilling with hand drill, and planing with hand plane. In all cases the speed was main reason for frustration and disappointment with hand tools…

    It took a while for me to figure out that I am driving myself crazy because I am pushing to hard and trying to do things with hand tools way too fast.

    After I realized that, it was a while until it became natural to saw a piece of wood at comfortable speed and magic begun to materialize.

    I could cut a straight line!

    I could drill a straight hole!

    I could plane a smooth surface!

    It was one of the most important discoveries for me.

    Keep these posts coming!

    -Wiktor Kuc

  5. Thanks Wiktor…I appreciate the support! 🙂

  6. Hi Matt,

    Email me once you get re-fueled and hydrated! I have a few questions for you.

    Interesting blog, by the way…and great work.


  7. […] if you read my last post ARecipeForBetterSawing then you got a peek at the supports that I cut for the leg assemblies. I realized as I was […]

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