I’ve been standing on top of my workbench again.
Strangely I’m up there quite a lot. Sometimes I just lay on there… and think.
I’ve been a long time obsessive of Japanese woodworking.
I find it truly fascinating and have promised myself if I make it to retirement, I’ll treat myself to a nice little rug for the corner of the workshop and give it a real go.
Strangely it’s my most researched field of woodworking.
Refined Disposable Saws
Japanese tools are of course very popular over here, and out of all of them I think it’s the saws that are used the most.
Japanese saw teeth on a whole are far more sophisticated than ours, and require extreme skill to sharpen. They’ve very delicate and the metal hard.
In a weird way, such well-developed teeth are surprisingly well suited to today’s throw away nature.
As a result there are many varied and cost-effective pull saws that are designed to stay sharp for a long time, and then be disposed of once blunt.
Unlike the crud that’s our Western disposable saws where you throw away the saw and the nasty plastic handle, Japanese saws can have surprisingly nice wooden handles that you keep and just replace the blade.
I’ve always felt dissatisfied with our Western ‘cut owt but nowt’ hard point saws, particularly for anything beyond rough cross cutting. So I’ve spent the whole of this year trying numerous Japanese saws.
I’ve tried various sizes and prices, and eventually I may come to some kind of conclusion that will be worth sharing.
Using A Japanese Saw
Now, as many of you will know, Japanese woodworking is a bit backwards compared to what we are used to.
They pull when we push. We stand at elaborate benches with snazzy vices; they often sit on a rug and hold things with a foot and an arse.
These are the differences that have encouraged me to save my exploration until I can give it some proper time. But the saws are too good to wait, even with my less than authentic approach, using my swanky vice and bench.
Crosscutting with these saws, with their highly developed single purpose teeth, was an instant pleasure. Very little practise was needed to adapt from my western methods.
The cuts tracked beautifully and were the cleanest I’d ever seen. Very close to a planed finish.
Small to medium joinery was also a faff free affair. The saws were intuitive and did as I wanted.
Long rips, particularly in thick ‘ish’ material were always less than satisfactory though. Rips needed for joinery were fine, but those for dimensioning were problematic.
I’ve tried various ways to work with the saws with the work held vertically in my vice, but with every saw tested I was dissatisfied with the tracking.
Fast, yes. But the cut would wander all over. I’d split the pencil line on the show face, but the back of the cut was a unpredictable cock eyed job.
Of course, I blamed the tool. What self-respecting English man wouldn’t.
But how could I conclude that they were shite when you see what the Japanese can do with them? I had to do them more justice. I had to become a wannabe.
So I clambered on to my bench, laid the work horizontally and stuck my gnarly toe on the work.
Not quite authentic, but now I could cut the work horizontally with the saw moving up and down almost vertically. Basically the saw was being used as it was intended.
Now the saw tracked beautifully.
Since then I’ve been using this method continuously and found it to be very effective and enjoyable. You also tire much slower, as you’re using more of your core muscles rather than just one arm.
The picture above shows a section of 4″ pine that I’ve just ripped with a 300mm Ryoba. I let gravity do the work and the tracking was perfect. I came in with cuts from both ends of the wood, and you can hardly see where these two cuts meet.
Now, I know that clambering on to your bench top isn’t the only way that Japanese saws can be used, but for myself at least it really transformed my perception of their capabilities when it comes to large rips. It just goes to show that you can’t make conclusions without experiencing things in the manner they’re intended.
I know many of you will be more qualified when it comes to Japanese saws than what I am (I bet you can even pronounce the names), so I wonder if you’ve come up with your own approach for using them at your bench.
Do you go at it with a very western approach or try to incorporate more authentic Japanese methods?
Eh, I’m not Japanese. I had a floppy Japanese throwaway crosscut, and when it was new it was great. But the thing’s nearly $30 at the store now and I’m not about to toss $30 every time my saw gets dull.
So I opted to go with Western methods. At least it is easy to find the tooling to resharpen.
Same here. I want a serviceable tool, so I neither throw a $30 every 6 months nor spend a fortune sending ’em to Japan for resharpening.
We can learn a lot from Japanese artisans on their approach to work, maybe in design and general appearance, not so much in terms of actual techniques. Joinery is exactly the same (but the choice of it is different though), most of the tools is the same, their sharpening techniques produce identical results to traditional western techniques. There’s very little practical sense for an accomplished western woodworker in switching to eastern method, unless it’s “all or nothing” kind of thing.
Mark Dennehy says
I wonder; if you added up all the waste wood (from offcuts left over and sawdust created) during those six months and figured out how much it was worth, would you be throwing away less or more than $30?
I think it might be more.
And hell, if a $30 blade that I chuck in six months (or a year or two to be more realistic about what an amateur will do) can save me a few quid by wasting a little less wood by being more accurate and creating less firewood, then that sounds cheap at the price to me.
Mind you, if I stood on my bench, I’d have the shed roof in my ears on the first stroke so I may stick to western saws for resawing stuff…
Well, I’m frugal, my offcuts do a triple service, even after being burned. I just don’t subscribe to the throw-away mentality. Also, a $120 annual cost of ownership is a bit too high compared to other tools I own, and it can be avoided.
Not sure why you create more firewood with a western saw. A western saw is as accurate as a Japanese saw, but only when it’s sharp and set, so this might be the
culprit. This isn’t the case unless you did it yourself, and inability to do so is the most often quoted reason for preferring a Japanese saw among people I know. That’s the second reason: it’s a substitute for skills, exactly how most power tools guys use machines as a skill substitute.
With this being said, I do own and use Japanese saws, it’s all a matter of personal preferences after all.
Japanese saws stay sharper for a lot longer than 6 months. I bet even professional woodpeckers have Japanese saws that they use for a lot longer than six months. And why throw the blade away? Why not use the blade as a scraper when its down being a saw….
Because they loose a tooth or two when used on hardwoods. Or it might hit an embedded rock or a screw. Or a nasty knot. There are also woods with high silicone content (cedar, etc.). So there’s a bunch of reasons, really.
Richard Maguire says
Hi Dmytro, it’s an interesting point on why an accomplished woodworker would change his methods and I have to agree. Changing my sawing methods this year has sent me back to the stone age, and I’m only now after months of practice starting to get any efficiency back.
I did start this experiment for a beginner’s perspective and there’s no denying that these saws are precise and nice to use. They’re well set up straight out of the box for a sensible price and will last well for a beginner who hasn’t a clue on saw sharpening.
Richard Maguire says
Db, I’ve had some of my most used Japanese saws for nearly 8 months now and they don’t seem to show much sign of wear, and that’s in a professional environment. I mainly work with native wood though, so nothing too hard, and I am pretty selective about knots and the like. But still, I think that’s pretty good going.
My sentiments exactly. I couldn’t get on with Japanese saws. I bought one, thinking about the fine cuts I could make. Indeed they were fine cuts, but they went everywhere I didn’t want them to go. I tried for a couple of months, but I couldn’t master control of the kerf. I even considered making some sort of handle, to fit the ‘Western end’, so I could push-cut. Not worth the bother, so I returned to my trusty, brass-backed Spear & Jackson dovetail saw. Would you believe; I could still cut dovetails, and they still fitted? (Sorry my American friends; still fit. ) At 79 years of age, maybe I should learn my lesson. Stick with what you know. There’s no harm in trying to match Japanese levels of skill, but Western tools, properly sharpened will get you there just the same. (Though I do see the sense of a ‘scalloped’ face on a chisel, and my wallet is itching to be opened.) I will resist and stick with my Marples chisels, and their cold, smooth, tool steel. What an edge!
joseph laviolette says
I use Japanese saws exclusively. I’ve found the amount of time to dull the teeth is measured more in years than months or weeks. I’m just about to replace the blade on my heavily used Ryoba and it’s about 2 and a half years old.
Gravity is key. I take 2 approaches. For cross cuts, I tack the board to my bench with holdfasts and have it hanging off the back or side. I start the cut closest to me, with the handle pointing down. I get cuts clean and straight enough that a shooting board isn’t even required a lot of the time
Rip cuts, especially long ones, are more difficult with this method because I end up next to the piece instead of directly over it. Bad news. A pair of very low (Japanese style) saw horses keep me from hauling my slightly overweight and out of shape arse on top of my bench.
What I described above is probably not the traditional way, but the saw is working as it was intended to, and I cannot argue with the results.
Richard Maguire says
Cheers Joseph, I’ve had great success cross cutting with the methods you mention. It did feel a little clumsy ripping that way though. Some low sawhorses are right up there on the short list of things I need.
It ain’t pretty watching me climb on to my bench either 😉
Come on Richard; a youth liked you should have no trouble climbing onto a bench!!! I HAVE to do it to reach my timber rack! (Well sometimes I get Number One Son to do it!)
Chris Decker says
I echo those who use Japanese saws exclusively. As an amateur, I have found that a $20-30 saw blade will last me at least 18 months. To be fair, I use power tools to mill my stock to final dims, but all of my joinery is 100% hand tools. So, my saws have never been through a full length rip cut. But, I have found that I am much more comfortable using Japanese saws, and find that I have more control and better results.
I could see myself going back to western saws eventually, and still have my old ones on hand. I suppose I’ll wait for the appetite to improve my sharpening to come back. I’m still working on sharpening chisels and irons. One thing at a time!
For now, it’s basic economics. I get less than 10 hours per week to enjoy my workshop, and you can be certain that at least half of those are when I should be sleeping. I put as much of that time as possible towards completing a project, and have a tendency to hurry too much when I’m maintaining/sharpening.
Richard Maguire says
Some excellent reasoning there, and that’s precisely the reasons I believe these hardened saws have a place. Their not that disposable, and allow the time constrained woodworker to just crack on.
Steve Tripp says
I’ve had my ryoba and dozuki saws for at least 3 years and they are still sharp. I use them more than I do my western saws. I have decided that my next will be one that I can sharpen.
I use them in a very hybrid manner, depending on the cut and the lumber. When ripping, I’ll stand on the lumber with one end propped up. For smaller pieces, I’ll clamp it vertically. I do not like using them one-handed unless absolutely necessary.
Richard Maguire says
The rip teeth don’t look that hard to sharpen, but them little cross cut ones…. blimey.
I must say though I find myself very tempted by some of those beautiful hand made re-sharpenable ones.
I’ve tried the Japanese saws and while they are fun to play with I think I’ll stick to my Western style saws. I can sharpen them easily enough. I watched a video by the Samurai Carpenter who talked about how difficult it is to sharpen the authentic (imported) models and is cost-prohibitive to send to Japan for resharpening (unsure about stateside sharpening).
Regarding replacement blades – I have enough scrap metal in my shop. It just doesn’t make sense to me to buy a saw blade that you have to replace in 1-2 years. I have a hard point saw and bought it for the same reason I bought the Japanese saw…curiosity. No judgment from me for those who love them…different strokes and all.
Good article and great discussion!
Richard Maguire says
The difficulty or lack of sharpening is certainly the main turn off, so like yourself I will almost definitely be sticking to western saws long term.
The extra scrap metal is a good point, at least they’re one up from scrap metal and a plastic handle.
Brian Holcombe says
These are considered ‘Throw Away’ but I literally do everything by hand and it takes me a long, long time to dull a saw. My 295mm ryoba gets a ton of use and I sharpened it at 6 months, still going strong at that point.
I know you’ll raise an eyebrow at that ‘I sharpened it’ comment, I use a diamond feather edge file and have at it. I’ll keep doing that until I can’t resharpen.
True resharpenable blades become more cost effective if you use them a lot and want to keep up on them….and of course if they’re rip profile. Crosscut last an incredibly long time and I’m not quite brave enough to sharpen them.
Great post Richard!
When I mentioned sharpening the Japanese saws I was thinking primarily about the crosscut teeth. That is some interesting geometry to contend with. I’m not sure I would want to try sharpening those unless I had several throw-away pieces.
I must admit, those Japanese saws do have a rather satisfying feel when you pull it towards yourself to cut the wood. It’s almost…zen? *I couldn’t resist*
Richard Maguire says
Went for a sharpen… I take my hat of to you. The rip isn’t that much different from our Western saws but I know what you mean about the cross cut. Thanks for the tip on the diamond feather file, I might have to give it a go.
Martin G. says
In this context, I just want to add, that there are also single-faced feather edge saw files available. These are more suitable for sharpening the cross-cut teeth geometry of japanese saws, since you are less likely to touch the neighbouring tooth. Probably there are other retailers, but since I’m located in Germany I can recommend Dieter Schmid – Fine Tools. You can find the files here (in the middle of the page…): http://www.fine-tools.com/euroscha.html
Derek Long says
I think you need a disclaimer, Richard. “Photographs of sawing while standing on benchtops not to be viewed by my insurance agent or agents of my insurer under any circumstances.”
Richard Maguire says
Ha, if you watched how I got up there, it’d definitely be more like, ‘the following contains scenes of an adult nature and should not be viewed by a younger audience’.
Steve Symes says
Well I’d need a much higher ceiling in my workshop to stand on my bench…
In my integral garage/shop, I can stand on my bench, but only to get at the timber storage in the rafters. 🙂
Michael Knox says
Have you tried the Classic frame saws sold by Dictum? (https://www.dictum.com/en/tools/woodworking-metalworking/saws/frame-hand-saws?p=1&n=12&o=1&followSearch=9704)
They use Japanese TurboCut blades in very nice European frames and are available in 400, 500, 600 & 700 mm lengths. The universal blades work quite well on both rip and cross cuts, and they make dedicated rip and cross cut blades in the 600 mm length.
I have found that these saws are unbeatable for most general work, and then I turn to my traditional Japanese saws for the finer work. (I also use a number of Western saws.) The thing I like most about the frame saws is that the Japanese blades will track a simple knife line with no need to deepen it with a chisel.
Richard Maguire says
Hi Michael, yes, I’ve an absolute love for them. It’s just a shame they don’t do the rip blade at 700mm.
I have a Dozuki rip saw that works great for small joinery & dovetail cuts. One issue I have is, I like to cut the waste with a coping saw but it’s blade is to wide to fit in the Dozuki’s narrow cut. Issue two is the slick caning they wrap the handle with, it bothered me enough that I ended up wrapping the handle with friction tape.
I’ll never stop using my western saws, but for certain jobs the Japanese saws are great.
The Dozuki was around 44.00 when I got it a year ago, the teeth still cut like new but it doesn’t get used everyday. I think a replacement blade is close to 30.00 To be honest, when it does get dull I probably won’t replace the blade. Their not a “super saw”, the only thing they can do that a western saw can’t do is cut on the pull stroke.
Richard Maguire says
Good point, sometimes super thin blades can be an issue. Like yourself, I often like to whip out the waste with a coping saw, but when it doesn’t fit, the only thing left is to chop.
Dick Clendaniel says
Question: It appears to me that the photo of you on the bench ripping the 4′” x 6″ shows a weight attached to the end of the saw by a cord. That would undoubtadly helped keep the saw tracking. Is my observation correct? How much weight?
Richard Maguire says
Sorry Dick, that’s my bench brush. It hangs on a nail in the end of the bench. I know what you mean though, it does look like a weight.
David Gendron says
I’ve always liked the Japanese tools, I have a few saws, cheap one, and one plane, the saws work good, I would like to try a higher hand one, but it is really confusing what is good and what isn’t! As for the planes, the one I have seems to be alright, but again, so confusing on what is a good one and what is a not so good one! I once read that if you want good Japanese tools, you need to trust a dealer on what they tell you is reputable and good!
Richard Maguire says
Hi David, you certainly do have to re-educate. I’ve recently been looking at the planes and I haven’t a clue on what is good or crud.
Paul Bouchard says
You might try standing on the floor, leaning the workpiece against your bench, holding the near end with your knee or foot. I worked in Korea way back in the 80s (before I was really getting into woodworking) and remember the carpenters doing long rips that way. There were a bunch of really fancy houses around my apartment building with some amazing trim work being done by hand. I’ve always regretted not stopping in to try and get some tips.
Richard Maguire says
Ah.. hindsight, as they say! To watch those Korean craftsman now with a woodworking mind would be priceless.
I’m going to build some lower saw horses and give that method you describe a go. Cheers.
Ed T says
I pick whichever version suits the job, some Japanese, some Western. Also, when we say ‘disposed’, I hope we mean recycle. There might be some shops out there that offer that service. Otherwise, that’s an awful lot metal wasted sitting around in landfills when it could be put back to good use in another application or another saw blade.
Richard Maguire says
Use what’s best for the job at hand is definitely the way to go. Don’t worry, the very thought of land fills troubles me… deeply. I’d imagine most people will recycle, or even reuse directly in their own workshop.
Steve Edwards says
Pre loved Japanese saw blades become excellent card scrapers.
I agree with the sentiment of turning them into scrapers. The steel in even the shark corp brand disposables is excellent. And you actually can get the blades for twenty dollars fit it with your own handle.
And even as the blades start to dull you can throw one in the back of of the pick up to use at the lumber yard.
I like Japanese chisels. They are a tad more practical then Western ones, but they aren’t all that different. Therefore, I won’t be replacing all of my chisels. I have nothing against the Japanese, but I do sometimes feel, if there is an ass-about-face way of doing things, the Japanese will adopt it. Chopsticks for instance. Can you really think of a more impractical way of getting food from a plate to your mouth? The food doesn’t taste any better after all! Yes the Japanese do produce some stunning work, but I can’t help thinking they would be even better had they adopted a more natural way of working.
Richard Maguire says
Don’t get me started on chopsticks. In particular Westerners using chop sticks. If you’re eating noodles there’s nothing more efficient than a fork.
I did try Japanese chisels many years ago and they just felt weird, but I’ll consider giving them another look with a more open mind.
Ass-about-face, ha ha, that sums my old man up. If there was a digger on hand, I’d still end up on a spade. It would be called character building!
Kerry Benton says
Eeek, “more natural” embeds some dangerous presumptions, my friend.
No doubt, to use your example, it’s a bit perverse using chopsticks for eating noodle soups (though i do so all the time, and with success), but i assert it’s no better faffing about with a fork on, say, a salad of baby spinach, whose leaves resist at all turns any attempt to spear them. It can be done, of course, but without elegance and with more difficulty than is necessary. Chopsticks, on the other hand, being essentially just long finger extensions, are perfect for gripping recalcitrant leaves of this sort. So too grabbing and flipping bacon stirring sauce and so on. Meanwhile of course to attack a fine piece of sushi with a fork would be high barbarism.
All of which is only to say, let us not confuse “natural” with preference, nor ignore that some things really are fit for purpose… just perhaps not our own purpose, which is fine. A tool to match the job, and the person doing the job, always. Essentialism, never.
Mark Dennehy says
If you want to know how natural chopsticks are, try getting a pickle out of a half-full jar with the least amount of faffing about. Or eating noodles properly (it’s not spaghetti, you’re supposed to slurp them up to get oxygen into your mouth with the noodles so you can taste them and that’s damn hard with a fork). The reason they feel awkward to most of us is we keep trying to eat off flat plates with them. You never serve rice or noodles on a flat plate, you put them in a bowl. Giving someone chopsticks and a flat plate of rice is borderline abuse 😀
Steve Edwards says
Hi Richard, I have swollen disc in my lower back and sometimes have trouble standing for too long. I have built a low, wide saw horse type bench that I sit on to perform a lot of tasks. I have an old vise bolted on one end and I sit at the other. The work is help in the vise vertically and I use saw as the Japanese intended, pulling with both hands. The saw also dictates that I sit upright with a straight back, thus adopting the correct posture. I use a Japanese veneer/ penitrating saw to cut a kerf round the work first which is done using a marking knife and then sitting on the work and using the saw, once again with both hands. Incidentally, this saw, as you probably know has rip on one side and cross cut on the other. Me and bad back love Japanese saws.
I have not used Japanese saws, but recently treated myself to a lovely 20in Pax rip saw. It is so sharp that I had difficulty cutting a straight line. I’m sure it’s just getting used to it, but it always seemed to wander after about 6in cut. I usually either clamp wood upright in the vice or clamped flat to the bench to rip, but I have just made a split top saw bench at knee height. The knee on the wood position has worked perfectly. Lovely straight lines almost from the off. So I think I’ll stick with the Pax for now.
I liked your comment, Tarnmaker.
I wonder if you know that you have to fettle your new saw the same as you have to fettle your new plane or chisel?
Usually – even in an expensive saw (that isn’t a Skelton) – you have to “stone” the teeth to get it to track straight; assuming your sawing technique is good.
Draw a straight line on the wood and cut along it. Don’t try to steer at all. This will show you where to stone. If the saw tracks to the right, this means the set on the right side of the saw are generally sticking out more than on the left.
Lay the saw flat on the bench with the right side up. Run a sharpening strong – lightly – from heel to toe (handle to tip), ONCE. And I mean ONCE.
Try another cut. Assess and repeat until it tracks straight. If you start tracking the other way, lightly stone that side.
You have to be light with the stone, in other words push it along rather than down, for fine control.
Hope this helps. Both my saws are 15 years old Victors from Axminster and see a lot of use and now rarely wander off line.
Ken Harvey says
Blimey. 6am and I’ve already learned something new and useful. Thanks Jim!
Have been wrestling with some budget saws and blaming my dodgy technique for the way they drift. Will try stoning one later and, if it works, I’ll raise a mug of tea to you.
Walter Ambrosch says
Down the Rabbit Hole you go Richard…
I too have begun the journey into the Japanese saws.
While I fully understand western push saws and how they are sharpened.
And, whileI like the fact that at a moments notice I can touch up a Rip or Dovetail saw… all my Western Crosscut saws I send to a pro for sharpening. The cost of a skilled professional and the shipping both ways is approaching the cost of a good Japanese saw.
While there are different levels of quality in Japanese saws as in Western… even a mid prices quality will stay sharp many times longer.
1000’s of cuts and they still work as intended.
I feel that the Continental Frame saws with thin blades, could easily adopt the Japanese saw technology and could be pulled or pushed. Disposable blades while maintaining a nice wooden frame.
My knees will not permit me to take on the working positions of most of our Japanese woodworking friends, there are methods of work at a bench with the aid of a stool or chair which can give similar results.
Just a quick rebuffal of the notion that Japanese saws cannot be sharpened – or that Japanese tools are extraordinarily difficlt. I’m by no means an expert woodworker, yet I only use hand tools from standing tree to finished product. I started out with Japanese tools solely because I was drawn to the aesthetics of a 2- or 3-component tools. So I learned from the beginning to work with Japanese planes, saws and marking methods (ink and line). It works well, and having acquired chops on Western tools as well, I still prefer the Japanese tools.
Start out by buying a semi-disposable, resharpenable saw at the largest end of the spectrum you need. E.g. a 300 mm ryoba or small anehiki from fine-tools in Europe. They sell the corresponding feather files as well.
Put it in a small wooden saw vise, it’s shown in Odate’s book and cost is a few scraps and a couple of bolts or machine screws. Then just follow the sharpening as it came from the factory and you’ll soon get the hang of it. You can set these teeth with a a western style saw set. I much prefer to hammer set the teeth of the very hard teeth of my hand made saws these days – you rest it against a rounded off anvil and hit the low base of each tooth giving it a nice curve through stretching the iron – and you don’t risk breaking off a tooth. Sure, a proper metate in Japan by an expert would probably work wonders. However, the alternative is that these NOS saws painstakingly made but now sold for next to nothing would get recycled as metal scrap.
Hopefully, someone with strong Japanese skills and a deep interest in the field will be able to get some of the secrets out of the few remaining saw sharpeners in Japan and publish it for all to learn from. Until then, even someone as me is able to keep a well-set saw up to spec. I haven”t got the skill to set very tiny dozuki-teeth yet, and I wouldn’t want to do this for a living. However, for cuts that rival anything I have tried or seen with Western backsaws, I can keep up the teeth of a 210 Ryoba, which is feasible to everyone, I’m sure.
One of the complaints I often see of Japanese tools are the work holding. But of course, they’re not designed to be used at a bench. Even the cabinet-maker’s vises I have seen from Japan (on the interweb) are positioned upright on a floor plank. Why? Because you get everything balanced around your center line.
I suggest everyone should try to screw a couple of 1×2 across a 2×10 to act as runners/feet and a small section of 1×1 to act as a bench stop on the top. Sit on a pillow. Don’t think you must sit in “weird” Japanese tea ceremony positions. Use your legs and feet to pull the work towards you, which will keep it stable while planing. Sit on it while mortising (remember to keep inner thigh COMPLETELY away from the direction of travel if something goes wrong!). Make some low horses for sawing, if you like, but I just keep a spare 4×4 that lies adjacent.
The ability to reposition the stock at will (because it is not locked in a vise), is exhilerating at first, but also incredibly freeing because you don’t feel limited by position. That is, in my opinion, the biggest advantage of the complete system that is the plank with stop and tools you pull — you must learn to work very softly, but this gives you enormous freedom and control over the work.
Hope everyone will try it out and not stick to conventional wisdom. Good work Richard for challenging presupposed truths.
Edward Ocampo-Gooding says
I keep coming back to this comment; what a wonderful sentiment and consideration.
Thanks for your kind and wise words, Henrik.
L. Arthur says
Hi Richard! ..I too have long been fascinated by the methods and techniques of Japanese Craftsmen. I have a few ryobas and dozukis all of which perform amazingly well. It is however their methods that are most intriguing to me.
While we ‘western’ woodworkers work at a bench ( some quite elaborate ) with vises, hold-fasts, and various other sundry devises to hold stuff, the traditional Japanese way is to work on the floor, on a wide plank with usually nothing more than a small rudimentary stop to work against. It is an amazing thing to watch. However, we western workers aren’t used to working this way, and (at least for me) my body complains loudly after a short while of working in the Japanese manner. I’ve done some research and I believe that the Japanese techniques have mostly evolved from the fact that much of the woodworking in Japan was traditionally done on site. The Japanese craftsman would typically make low-horses and a planing beam to work on, using as little (and the cheapest) material possible. This negated having to transport a bench and/or other heavy appliances to the work site. The horses and beam would usually be stored at the clients house for later work if needed. Very pragmatic and practical. (reference: Toshio Odate, Making Shoji). The Japanese saw design is indeed ingenious; stating the obvious, when you pull the saw into the cut, it tensions the blade, keeping it straight through the power stroke. This allows the saw plate to be much thinner, with very little set. Less saw through the wood equals less effort, and a smaller kerf. Also less metal used (cheaper), and less weight to carry around. And lets not forget that with the ryoba (the two sided saw) that you really get 2 saws for the price, so even at say ~ $50 dollars, that is really only $25 per saw. (Again the genius of Japanese practicality; you only have to carry one saw around that does double duty as a rip and a crosscut.) And the ryoba’s blades are angled so that pulling it into the cut ‘as intended’ will give the saw an optimum angle for the cut ( especially when ripping in a vertical plane. When you stand over the work on your bench, you are doing the same thing, but horizontally). I have noticed that Japanese tools are optimized where it counts, and are quite evolved. (At first glace, Japanese planes look like a blade stuck into a two-by-four, but on closer examination, they are much, much more sophisticated that that.) I have used both western and Japanese saws, and I do like them both. Like you, I continue to evolve my working methods, using for the moment, a hybrid way of working, (i.e. having a ‘backwards’ bench hook, and adjusting my approach to the work when using Japanese saws at a ‘western’ bench, while standing). And as far as longevity of ‘throw-away’ Japanese saws, mine have been going for a couple years now, cutting just fine. One of my Dosukis even has a few teeth missing (my son trying to overpower the tool) it still cuts just fine. I am still experimenting, trying to find middle ground, where the tools work most effectively while not causing my joints and back to complain to loudly. I still go down to the floor hoping that perhaps with practice, my body and muscles will get used to working in the Japanese manner. I think that perhaps while the western world was re-inventing our tools (we still are), the Japanese were simply perfecting what they already had. And lastly, I have to mention that for a beginning woodworker, the ‘Japanese way’ is arguably the most cost-effective way to go. With a plank, a stop, a few tools and some practice, much can be accomplished. A dedicated shop is not even required, as the low-horses, ‘bench’ and tools are easily stored away when not in use. Actually, this is what led me down the path to explore Japanese techniques – The low cost and very small footprint involved to get started. Don’t get me wrong, I love my ‘western’ bench and vice too, now that I have one! And I am not advocating one approach over the other, they certainly both work equally well. We are truly fortunate to be living in an age were we have such options!
My first real hand saw was a douzuki. I used it for making simple cross cuts, long and wide. I have other saws. A big box hardware dovetail saw that came too dull and with too thick a blade to really be used for dovetails and I think I’ve finished one cut with it ever (should probably bin it), green wood bow saw, and big box mitrebox and saw. Also have a Miller Falls mitre box with Disston back saw that I’d only pull out for really long and thick stack (e.g. 2×4’s). The douzuki was the first saw I purposefully purchased for hand cuts before I even knew I wanted to move toward more hand tool only work. It’s an amazing saw and I’ve done some pretty great cuts that I don’t think anyone in their right mind would use the saw for (dado – check, plywood – check, hockey stick laminated with fibreglass check, hardwood check), but lately I’ve been focusing on getting better. What I mean is I want to improve my quality and mostly I want to mostly improve the efficiency of my work when I’m in the shop – it’s so easy to spend a day puttering around the garage for the first time in a month and not accomplish anything.
It’s much easier to find information on the internet in my native language (English) than it is to find information about Japanese tools and how to properly use them. You only need to look at classic Japanese architecture to know there’s nothing wrong with their approach to woodworking. I have no doubt it works. Brian Holcomb’s eastern inspired work and approach to design is inspirational as a westerner. But I only have so much time in the shop and only so much time to spend on the internet (who am I kidding?). So I watch the videos by the western masters (Richard included), I’ve gotten a western back/tenon saw, I’ve sharpened a western style rip and I’m working now. Maybe by the time I retire from my day job I’ll be good at it 😉
I still like to read/watch Brian Holcomb, Chris Hall (the Carpentry Way) and Wilbur Pan (Giant Cypress), and I still find I learn things that apply to western tools from their writings, but when I’m building, I’m using a western approach so my attention isn’t so divided.
I currently have two Japanese saws and several Western saws. I think the key is to become proficient with the tool of choice. Like Richard I can cut straight on line on one side and be not even close on the back side when using a Japanese saw. With Western saws I do not have that problem. At 70 I don’t know if I can ever become proficient in the use of Japanese saws as I still have lots to learn about using and sharpening a Western saw but I am going to give it a try.
Its the floor work that intrigues me. I love the Japanese style. Though I’m a chubby boy, I’d love to try and work on the floor.
I also wanted to add that I do use Japanese saws exclusively. I have trouble with my large hands fitting the small western saw grips. I don’t throw the used ones away (the whole two I have after 15 years) I cut scratch stock blades out of them.
Harry Hacksaw says
Very late to this party but you should read Toshio Odate’s book on japanese woodworking.
He uses some very short saw horses – enough to lift the work a several inches off the ground and you hold the work down by standing on it. It’s just easier if you build a couple of these and stop standing on your bench and use the saw the way it was intended for long cuts. I did this and built a japanese workbench afterward without much trouble.
To me, the problem with these saws is not so much tracking but vision. I’m fairly nearsighted and it’s hard to get up close to the work when your eyes are at standing high and the work is at your toes. For that reason alone, I’ve always found them frustrating.
I recently built a bow saw for myself and found it far far more enjoyable. I can now get up close to the work so long as it’s held on a bench and the lines cut straight mainly because I see so much better. Something to consider.
Workbenches seem optional for some of them.
Talbert McMullin says
To my esteemed British Woodworking Brethren on the other side of the pond: I’m in my 45th year of woodworking and never owned a western saw. My father had one. Hated it. I’m strictly a user of Japanese saws. I have no desire to spend my time sharpening a western style saw. My time is better spent cutting dovetails or drinking whiskey. Damn, I love whiskey….and Japanese saws.
Richard Maguire says
Thanks Talbert, that makes a lot of sense. I could certainly go that way. Japanese saws and whisky that is.
Though an amateur, I’ve played around with Japanese, own a Veritas dovetail saw, and even made and used my own frame saw but I have to say I just recently figured out how get the most out of my japanese saws after watching this vid:
I think the key thing to remember is that the pull saw will follow the path of least resistance. If you start with a nice kerf, it will just keep going back to that. I get very accurate cuts now and have ripped longer pieces using a rip Kataba (single edge) and it works beautifully. All the non-japanese saws just collect dust now. If you want to make sure you get an accurate cut, then just notch a couple corners and then create the kerf using a knife or chisel. Almost foolproof. Using the same technique I was able to create an almost veneer like cut on a piece of pine since I didn’t want to spend the time planing it down..
I prefer to saw on the bench, and kneel on the floor or stand with the workpiece clamped to the top or in the face vise. This way I can use both hands, get close to the work (my vision isn’t great), and use gravity to do the work of cutting the wood. Standing on the work does indeed work but only good if you have good vision.
I also built a couple of raised bench hooks that puts the work up 3 more inches off the benchtop. This way I can saw a little bit more vertically without cutting into the benchtop. If I were cutting a large piece like you are in the photo, I’d lean it with one end on the bench and the other on the ground. and fix it so that it doesn’t move – at least to just start the cut. Once its going for a good distance you can just take it over to some saw horses and straddle the beam or sit on it.
I really like to use japanese saws for general/medium sized work. My ryoba is the most used saw i own. For joinery I might use a dozuki for shoulders, and a finer ryoba for non fine dovetailing. But one thing that bothers me out of my sanity is the dozuki-dovetail mytheme. A dozuki is not a dovetai saw. It is a fine crosscut saw. Actually, it literally means “shoulder” if im not mistaken. Cutting dovetails with one takes 19 strokes, which cant possibly result in a good cut line. Now, they are absolutely great for cutting the half pins shoulders on the tailboard, and great for cutting thin veneer-ish stock. Thats what they are designed for.