Don’t Hang Yourself: Tote angles change your saw…

Lets play a game.

Look at these two pictures and see if you can find what’s different about the tote on each saw:

16 in. Tenon saw by Adam Cherubini

Model 77 Back SawWenzloff & Sons Disston #77

What do you notice?

Not sure? Lets try again….look at the totes on these two saws…

BA10_1Bad Axe 10 inch Dovetail Saw

Dovetail SawLie-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.


Published in: on July 18, 2011 at 10:13 am  Comments (19)  

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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I couldn’t put my finger on what made the new Bad Axe dovetail so awesome and then Mark nudged me in the right direction. I have used the Lie Nielsen model for years and was a devoted fan, and then I picked up the Bad Axe and it was a night and day different. I second this post, it is impressive what changing the hang will do to the saw accuracy.

  2. But a more aggressive hang forces the wrist to bend, thus reducing control. Really the question of hang is important, but probably a bit more involved than “more hang is better”. It also involves your sawing style and individual ergonomics. That is why it is important to try as many saws as possible to see what fits. In hand saws, the hang of most Simonds saws tend to fit me better than most Disstons. I didn’t realize there was a difference until I first used a Simonds and it just felt more comfortable.


    • A great point Ken…thank you. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. And for me, more aggresive is better.

      Your advice to try as many saws as possible is spot on…that’s the whole idea! 🙂


  3. You lost me Matt. You need more illustrations for me to follow.

    My understanding of the hang of a saw would be defined by a line drawn perpendicular to a line that is drawn along the handle where your palm / fingers rest. The extension of this perpendicular line shows you where the force of your saw thrust will be applied, if your sawing technique is up to snuff.

    This would be where your pointer finger is pointing if you follow a line from your elbow to your pointer finger, as long as your wrist is straight.

    In my experience the older English saws and American saws had the force pointing more parallel to the saw teeth. Then it seems after a time this angle dropped down to a point close the the midpoint of the teeth. This might have been only in joinery saws rather than full size saws.

    Just from a look at the photos it seems Adam’s tote points almost to the very front teeth, Mike’s just to the left of the center point of the teeth, Mark’s just to the right of center, and Tom’s almost to the back end of the teeth.

    There may be reason for some of the differences in the use of the tenon saw and the 77 which is either tenon or carcass saw (wider plates) and the other two that are dovetail saws.

    So I may be totally confused on hang of the saw, and what it does for your ability to saw well. In Chris’s new book, the anarchist’s tool chest, he states that you can get adjusted to either type hang and will do fine once comfortable with one or the other.

    You may have to expand on this entry a little so I can get the “hang” of it (pun intended).

    Rick Roberts

    • Hey Rick
      I don’t think you’re confused…sounds to me like you get it.

      And though I suppose I agree with the reference from “Anarchist’s Tool Chest” that you can get used to either, but to me, one is simply easier than the other. Just like you can get used to cutting with a dull saw just fine, but why would you if your saw can be sharp?

      🙂 Matt

  4. Matt,

    Good subject, may I join in?

    The subject of “hang” as you probably know has been a point of discussion on many occasions in most all of the hand tool forums. It occurred to me about three years ago during one of these discussions that it might be useful to build a saw with an adjustable tote so it could be adjusted up and down and also rotate the hand grip to a certain extent.

    When discussing the design of a tool, I like to refer to the “feasibility parameters”. Your analogy of moving a tall wardrobe chest is a good analogy.. It is a fact, if the chest is tall enough and if you push at the top, it will just tip over, meaning that the far front bottom is digging in. Pushing at the bottom will move the chest, but so will it move if you push a little higher up. Keep pushing higher and higher up and at some point the chest will not move. So between that high point and the bottom of the chest is the “feasibility parameter”. And somewhere within the feasibility parameter is the sweet spot.

    Now if we take that thought a little farther, and take into consideration all the various factors that are involved in the sweet spot being where it is, such as how the weight is distributed in the over all height of the chest, how wide it is from where it is being pushed on to the front side, how is the bottom of the chest made, does it have short legs, longer legs, no legs, etc etc.the list can go on and on. And so it is with a backsaw.

    This brings us back to having a saw with an adjustable tote. One saw that fits all, if you will. Saws differ greatly from one design to another without including the hang of the tote. People differ even more. I agree with you about a low hanging tote being better than a high hang. It is easy to see it from a practical stand point by merely picturing a backsaw with a 10″ blade and say, 12″ below the spine and the tote attached at the top. There is no way that, that kind of saw is going to be pushed forward. Mount the tote at the bottom of the blade and it could be pushed forward, but would be a stupid looking saw.

    Perhaps my next concept backsaw should be a normal looking saw with an adjustable tote. Whataya think? Stupid idea, waste of time? (grin)

    • Welcome to the party Marv! 🙂

      I think your idea for an adjustable tote saw is a good one in theory, and maybe it would make a decent saw…I’m just not sure how sturdy it would be? And the form? the form has to be sweet…..woodworkers are a very aesthetically tuned bunch when it comes to our tools.

      But I like the idea…I love how you push the boundaries and create new saws. Always inspiring Marv!

      And if you do create the saw, I wanna try it out! 😉


  5. A Gent’s dovetail saw is a saw with no hang, right? My first attempts at dovetails were with this style of saw. I soon moved to a real dovetail saw, but several years and many dovetails later, I found my Gent’s saw in a drawer and gave it a try. To my surprise, I cut some pretty good dovetails! I’ve also cut dovetails with a hacksaw. The point is that with a sharp saw of any configuration, someone that has cut a few hundred dovetails can make some pretty decent cuts as the skill in the hands compensates for the less than optimum saw. However, a well-fitted saw is a joy and makes the act of accurate sawing nearly effortless. The idea of an adjustable tote would be great for customizing to fit the individual buyer. Like getting fitted for custom shoes. You try out the saw at differing tote angles until it feels right and then the saw builder crafts a tote to fit your hand and sawing style. Of course, those that could afford such customization are the same crowd that can afford custom shoes.

    • I agree that dovetail saws are a saw that benefit from a very relaxed hang. Interestingly enough, my first DT saw was a Disston #68…first saw I ever sharpened way back when. 😉 I loved it then and I still love it now.


  6. Great discussion Matt! One point of clarification though. Or maybe it’s more of an open ended question to which I don’t really have an answer.

    I am in total agreement with you about a more aggressive hang (force more in line with the tooth line) on long back saws. I built my sash saw and my tenon saw this way based upon mid 18th century examples in Williamsburg. It seems like most saws before the last quarter of the 18th century had this lower hang angle, and I have really grown to like them.

    I have observed just the opposite in dovetail saws though. Earlier dovetail saws seem to have a much higher hang angle. If you take a look at Adam’s dovetail saw (based upon an early dovetail saw design), and the saw from Duncan Phyfe’s chest, these early saws seem to have very high hang angles that are close to straight handled gents style saws. Later saws by makers like Kenyon and even later, Disston, seemed to have made the hang angle of dovetail saws lower while making the hang angle of large back saws higher.

    I’m not entirely sure why this is. While I really like the feel of my sash and tenon saws, the very high angle on my dovetail saws took some getting used to. What I have found is that dovetail saws with these very high hang angles force you to cant the toe of the saw way up in use. If you are used to sawing straight across the end grain of a board when dovetailing, sawing with the toe canted up feels strange at first. It took me some getting used to. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I can dovetail just fine with my dovetail saws, but the push feels as if it comes more from the fat part of the lower thumb between the thumb and fore finger rather than the lower heel of the hand like it does in my tenon saw. I can actually grip my dovetail saws with no more than my thumb and forefinger when dovetailing. Perhaps this very high angle forces a more delicate grip on the saw?

    I don’t really have an answer to this. It’s just something I’ve noticed on these earlier style saws. I’d really like to try an early Kenyon style saw and see how much different the feel and the sawing would be with the same tooth configuration and only the handle hang being different.

    • Hi Bob…always a pleasure to have you in the conversation!

      And of course you are correct with the form of DT saws….they have traditionally always been very relaxed. I especially like the Gramercy DT saw, and it is based on the Duncan Phyfe saw, if I recall correctly. And as I noted above, the Disston #68 is one of my favorite saws to DT with and you can’t get more relaxed than that! 😉 I think you are correct as well about why the totes are as relaxed as they are. I think your reasoning for keeping the nose canted is spot on.

      To me, aggressive hangs really show their worth in tenon and sash saws…hands down. In particular, aggressively hung saws make it easier to saw plumb, in my experience. For those first learning to cut, sawing plumb is perhaps the greatest challenge and these saws make that much more possible. By having your grip lower on the saw, you are less likely to push it out of true and skew your cut.

      Plus, I think they just look cooler. 🙂

  7. May I offer a few thoughts?

    Any saw with a handle has some kind of hang, even a gent’s saw.

    As I see it, the reason for a high hanger such as a dovetail saw is to purposely force the toe end to cut more aggressively right at the beginning of the forward stroke. It kind of acts like adding extra weight on the toe end. Dovetail saws are normally smaller and lighter in weight, so it makes good sense to hang the tote higher and force the toe end downward.

    The size of the teeth will determine just how much higher to hang the tote. Smaller teeth, higher hang, larger teeth, lower hang.

    As for sturdiness of an adjustable tote, yes, that would be foremost in mind when designing it. Also combined with something that would be pleasing to the discriminating buyer. Not an easy challenge, but probably doable. I will assign the task to my subconscious so I will wake up one morning with the basic design in my minds eye. 🙂

    Traditional backsaws are inherently not sturdy. Try placing your backsaw in a vise, clamping only the spine. Now grasp the tote tightly and move it side to side while looking straight down on the mortise. Because the tote is attached only to the blade, the blade will flex, allowing the tote to move sideways.

    My latest tote design is attached only to the spine with the mortise on the underside of the tote, not the top. The tote is not attached to the blade. Many of the present day saws have thinner and thinner blades. The thinner the blade, the more it will flex. The flexing of the blade applies stress on the mortise area of the tote, inviting cracks and breaks just as we see on so many old backsaws.


  8. Hi Matt,

    that is a great article, you wrote.

    I’ve found that there are a (at least) four factors for agressivnes (If such a word is existing.)

    – hang angle or position of the handle – I found that a saw is more agresive the higher the hang is, beauces it leads you to spome downwar pressure.

    – weight of the spine. The heavier a spine is the more agressive is the saw. With a heavy spine you don’t need to putany downward pressure to the saw.

    – pitch: the coarser the pithch the more aggressive is a saw.

    – rake (and fleam) The higher the angles, the less agressiv a saw is.

    So one can not judge a saw by it hang angle only.

    But I love the lower hangs too. They just don’t look that well on the small saws.

    And a Handle that ends lower than the toothline will cause some conflicts with the bench or the bench hook.


    • Hi Peddar

      Thanks for your thoughts! Very well stated…I especially agree about the weight of the back…this is a very important factor.


  9. You did it again. That was damn interesting post. You need to bundle up your blog and turn it into a book on day. Good job!

    • Thanks Yaakov…I’ll keep that suggestion in mind as soon as I finish sharpening all these saws! 😉


  10. Hi Matt,

    I never realized the “hang” of a saw made such a difference. I have 4 handsaws that do get a workout in my shop. I’ve been practicing with my dovetail saw to make handcut dovetails, not easy. I also love using my handplanes, but right now i’m heading for my shop to see how my saws are hung. Great article!


    • Thanks for the support Jay…glad to hear you enjoyed the post. 🙂


  11. Hey there, I was searching google for some useful articles about woodworking, and I can say that your blog here is awesome! I just loved everything on it. Thank you for this great work.

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