Lets play a game.
Look at these two pictures and see if you can find what’s different about the tote on each saw:
Wenzloff & Sons Disston #77
What do you notice?
Not sure? Lets try again….look at the totes on these two saws…
Bad Axe 10 inch Dovetail Saw
Lie-Nielsen Dovetail saw
Are you starting to notice something?
The big difference is in how the saw is hung (no, not that way…get your mind out of the toilet). The “hang” of the saw refers to the angle of the tote in relation to the tooth line. And this is not simply an aesthetic detail….in fact, its one of the most important factors in the design of any hand saw. Why? Because it changes the way the saw cuts.
In each pair of pictures, the first saws shown (the Cherubini and the Bad Axe) both have tote angles more perpendicular to their tooth line; this is more “aggressive” hang. The second saws in each pair (the Wenzloff and the Lie-Nielsen) have totes that more approach a parallel with the tooth line; this is more “relaxed” hang.
So what you say? Read on…
Imagine you had to push a 6 ft. tall wardrobe chest across a carpeted bedroom. If you stand behind the chest and push high up on the back, its likely to dig the feet into the carpet, be difficult to steer, and maybe even tip over. Not good. Now, imagine pushing from low down on the body of the chest. It moves more smoothly, the feet don’t dig into the carpet, and you can steer much easier with more subtle movements. Why? Because you’ve gotten below the chest’s center of gravity and you’re using its mass to help stabilize it as you push. Which method would you rather employ? The latter, of course.
Now what the heck does moving furniture have to do with sawing? A lot….its all physics. If you swap out the wardrobe for a saw, and switch the carpet for your cut line you’ve got the crux of this argument. And here it is: If you want more control over your back saw, then try a more aggressive hang angle because it will put the thrust of your stroke more below the saws center of gravity and BEHIND the cut instead of on top of it.
Get it? Good. Now lets take a break from physics and talk about history…
The first form of large back saws are much like the Cherubini shown above…very aggresively hung. Most of the 17th, 18th and many 19th Century tenon and sash saws have a similar form. In the mid 19th century however, Americans started messing around with traditional saw forms (a big no-no in England if you didn’t want your shop burned to the ground!) and in particular, they started making almost all of their back saws with more relaxed hang. Why? Some say it is because a more relaxed hang let the user leverage downward pressure with the tote and allow a dull saw to continue cutting, thus saving the worker time in needing to stop and sharpen his saw. It also may have been to make the saw more comfortable for use on benches of differing heights and in different locations outside of the shop. Another factor to keep in mind is that as machinery took over work previously dominated by hand tools, industry and craft work began to dismantle its attachment to effective tool forms in pursuit of mechanization and mass production.
But what relaxing the hang also accomplished was to make the saw more difficult to cut properly with, in my opinion. So, if you’ve ever been frustrated by sawing dovetails, tenons, shoulders, dados, or any joinery with a back saw for that matter, than this may be the reason why. Try using a saw with an aggressive hang and low center of gravity and your eyes will be opened to why traditional forms may be better.
Now I’m not trying to say that the more American pattern of back saws with relaxed hang angles are poor…they are great saws, and God knows I love Henry Disston, but how a saw is hung can make a HUGE difference. And I like aggressive hang on my saws…the control in the cut is unequalled. Try it and see. You can thank me later.