Handsaws are, ultimately, all meant to do the same job: They turn wood into sawdust. It’s how they go about that, by this I mean the manner in which the metal causes this transition to occur, makes all the difference. If you ever used a “crosscut handsaw” to rip a piece of lumber into two slightly thinner pieces of lumber of equal length along the grain, you’ve probably decided that a powered tool would be cheaper than physiotherapy; unless you’re this guy from the Chop With Chris youtube series. Without the proper tools, any job can be a pain. I’d hate to have to chop an oak tree with a flint axe, and I’m sure you would to. That said, finding the appropriate tool for the appropriate job can mean the difference between loving woodworking, and setting your shop on fire and claiming the insurance money to fund a new hobby.
Now, for the most part, I would lump two categories of saws (though there ARE some cross-over products). Those that cut ACROSS the grain (Cross-cut) and those that cut WITH The grain (rip). Once you understand this distinction, you’ll begin to have a little more of an understanding as to why there are so many types of saws, but many of these are based upon the nature of the cut as it relates to the product, not the grain direction. Let me explain 🙂
I’ve linked the image to the right to it’s source, a fantastic website that goes into a little more detail than I will, but I’ll summarize here. When you cut using a crosscut saw, you are raking pointed knives across each layer of the tree, cutting through the growth rings. The teeth sever the grain and turn it into sawdust very effectively. The best description I’ve ever heard of a rip-profile is that ripping saws act like a stacked series of chisels that pare away the wood along the grain. MUCH less work and much faster to make thinner, equal-length boards. That isn’t the only difference, but it’s the biggest one.
Now, among the wonderful world of crosscut saws, we went from a world of the giant trees of the West Coast of California and Oregan, where you’d see saws like this bad-boy. These saws had a very characteristic tooth-shape, one you don’t often see around a woodworking shop.
The principle remains the same, however, just not as critically important with shorter lengths of wood. The sharp clusters of 4 teeth chew up the wood, the rakers and gullets ferry the saw dust away from the cut area. If the kerf (the line of wood turned into sawdust by the saw) gets packed with sawdust, it could cause a jam and the blade to bind up. I’ve warped/bend some lovely handsaws when I get a bind, though often caused by the wood shifting and pinching the blade. Like I said, we don’t see much of those any longer.
What we DO see, however, are a variety of handsaws that have similar tooth shapes to the cluster of 4, seen in the above diagram, along the entire blade. These come in a variety of lengths and blade characteristics:
(special thanks to my primary source) What we conventionally call classical “hand saws” are often as long as 30″ (~0.75m) with 10 TPI, with panel saws (used for sheet goods) being a little shorter. These are used for rough-cutting, and I often assume that the cut will require some cleaning or adjustment later, so always back off your line a little bit!
Then you have these strange saws, with rigid backs. They are used when it is absolutely essential to get a straight cut. If you’re cutting joinery, like mortise/tenon joints, dovetails or box joints, and so on. These are also known as “back saws”. Mortise and Tenon joinery, more on that later, are where backsaws really shine. A tenon (described in a future article) is a beautiful piece of joinery, in which a rectangular (sometimes with rounded corners) members are slid into mortise holes for joinery. Fits in joinery are critical, and the longer backsaws 16-20″ (~400-500mm) are commonly used. Sash backsaws are a little shorter, used for window and door construction, and carcass saws are smaller-still, used for cabinetry and furniture. The smallest of all commonly used backsaws is the dovetail saw, as small as 6-10″ (150-250mm) and are used for finely cut dovetail joinery, you can see my first abomination of an attempt here.
You also get push-saws, which cut wood away on the push-stroke, which are common in North America and Europe, and you get pull-saws, which are more common in Asian markets. There’s no really distinct advantage to either, other than adaptation to personal style… and Japanese tools are ancient, beautiful and really great multitaskers. This guy has an aggressive (low teeth per inch, TPI) on one edge and a more fine-work (higher TPI but more time to cut an equal depth) on the opposite edge. They are versitile, flexible, and also double as a flush-trim saw, which is able to remove protruding material from it’s base material without leaving scars, scrapes or other markings… in the right hands. Not mine. Moving on.
Other saws are for specialty purposes, like coping saws that can turn 90 degrees within the wood, because of the insanely delicate and fine blade. They are amazing when cutting dovetails, because they can carve-into the wood cross-grain, then rip along the wood just as easily; though they tend to drift or wander if you’re not careful, and are not designed for thick wood. Also known as jewelers saw, different blades can be interchanged (much like the stronger but similar hacksaws) for metal, wood, etc. These are sometimes referred to as Jewelers Saws.
Next we have what I’ve heard referred to as a drywall saw. They have aggressive teeth to turn drywall into toxic gypsum dust in a hurry, and are not designed for much more than hogging-away this material. Great for a pinch, and also works on wood, if you aren’t too choosy about tear-out (ripping grain away from the board, fraying the edges of the cut) or mangling your boards.
There are many, many other varieties of saws for woodworkers, but this primer (and the supplemental resources provided through photographs and hyperlinks) should be enough to get you on your way to knowing which end of the pointy thing to hold.