How to Master the Backsaw
Follow these tips from handsaw pro Chris Gochnour and you'll soon master the backsaw and be able to cut all kinds of joints quickly.
Synopsis: You may be replete with power tools, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need a backsaw. A backsaw can cut joinery just as quickly as a tablesaw or router when you are making a single piece of furniture. It makes even better sense for difficult joinery like angled tenons, where a tablesaw and routing jigs would require too many fussy setups. And there are parts, like bed rails, that are just too big to tenon on a tablesaw. Follow these tips from handsaw pro Chris Gochnour and you’ll soon be using a backsaw as quickly and accurately as any power tool you own, and with much less noise.
There’s no doubt that power tools like the tablesaw and router are efficient and put perfect joinery within the reach of even the newest woodworker. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need a backsaw. With a bit of practice a backsaw can become an extension of your arm, allowing you to make very accurate cuts quickly.
At that point, you’ll find that there are times when a backsaw is actually a better option than a tablesaw or router, such as when you’re building one piece of furniture rather than several identical pieces at once. For a one-off table, you can cut tenons on the aprons with a backsaw as quickly as you can with a tablesaw, because you don’t spend any time setting up the blade’s height, positioning a stop on your miter gauge, or dialing in the settings on your tenoning jig.
A backsaw makes even better sense for difficult joinery like angled tenons, where a tablesaw and routing jigs would require too many fussy setups. And there are parts, like bed rails, that are just too big to tenon on a tablesaw. Also, don’t forget that for many woodworkers, making furniture is as much about the journey as it is about the destination, and hand tools connect them to the act of creating a piece of furniture in a way that is more fulfilling than using power tools. Making furniture (and not just the furniture itself) becomes part of the reward.
In any case, to get to the point where you can use a backsaw with efficiency and accuracy, you need to learn proper technique and then practice it. I’ll demonstrate how to cut straight, which is the most important skill, and I’ll show you some exercises to help you ingrain the correct mechanics in your body. I’ll also give you some tips on sawing the two most common joints: dovetails and tenons.
One note before we get started. Although Japanese saws are wonderful tools, I prefer Western backsaws for joinery. I find their pistol grip and d-shape handles are more comfortable and make it easier to control the saw. Also, in my experience, Western saws are less prone to drift and deflect in use, because their blades are thicker and stiffer than those on Japanese saws, which are designed to be pulled rather than pushed.
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