We get it, meandering through the hand saw aisle at your local hardware store can sometimes prove a bit daunting. After all, there seems to be a lot of different types of hand saws of all shapes and sizes. The ever-changing advertising and terminology can leave even the experienced woodworker’s head spinning. So, today, we are going to cut through some of that confusion, (and yes, that pun was very much intended) by giving you a rundown on 6 of the common hand saws you might come across while perusing the aisles.
Back Saw: The Accuracy King
The term “back saw” generally refers to any type of saw that has a thick reinforced backing along the blade. This backing helps to prevent the blade from bending or bowing during the cut, which ensures a more accurate cut along with better control compared to the saws without this backing.
While back saws can be used for general cross cut purposes, they are better used for detail work and joinery – such as dovetails, mitres, box joints etc, because of their added degree of stability. The extra steel along the spine places an even pressure along the entire length of the blade which makes precise cuts much easier than with a carpenter’s saw.
Unlike the carpenter’s saws that most of us picture when we think of saws, the back saw has a rectangular blade and is shorter, usually around 35.5 centimeters (14 inches). Because the back saw has a spine that is thicker than the kerf of the blade, it is limited to material that’s thickness is less than the height of the blade – eliminating this saw for through cuts on thicker wood. The back saw’s teeth are closely spaced which allows for a smooth finish and clean cut – ideal for intricate work.
Coping Saw: The scroll saw of hand tools
The scroll saw of hand saws. The coping saw has a very thin metal blade stretched between two points on a thin, malleable, c-shaped frame with handle. Because the blade is so thin and the teeth are relatively small and closely spaced, the coping saw excels at making curved and intricately designed cuts with a fine finish – but the downside to the thin blade and closely spaced teeth is that these cuts take much longer to complete.
The blade of the coping saw can be reversed and removed which adds to the versatility of the saw – different blades can be purchased for different materials such as metal. In addition, because the blade is removable, the saw can be used to perform interior cut-outs from the centre of the material by detaching, inserting the blade in a drill hole, and then reattaching to the saw frame.
The thinness of the blade causes it to be relatively fragile and as the thickness of the material being cut increases, the accuracy of the coping saw decreases. Thicker material tends to cause the thin blade of the coping saw to wander and create wavy cuts – this restricts the coping saw to more delicate work on thin materials.
Intricate designs on thinner materials
Bow Saw: The lumberjack
While there are a few different versions of the bow saw, including some specifically designed for the shop woodworker, I’m going to focus on the common bow saw which we currently see most often in the hardware store.
The common bow saw we see in hardware stores is a versatile saw with a similar design to the coping saw but vastly different cutting ability. The bow saw gets its name from its design, which is shaped like…. you guessed it – an archer’s bow. It is comprised of a long, stiff blade held between two points on a D-shaped frame. Unlike the coping saw, the pistol grip handle of the bow saw is situated directly on the D-shaped frame. This location allows for more power to be directed into the cut – which gives an indication of what the common bow saw is mostly used for these days – quick, rough cuts.
The tooth layout on bow saws is unique in that they are not all angled in the same direction, which allows for cutting action on both the push and pull stroke of the cut. This, along with the low tooth count and deep gullets, results in demonstrably faster cuts than other saws. However, these factors also make for a choppy cut with a rough finish – good for quickly removing material, but not for work that needs a delicate, finished edge.
The bow saw is commonly used outside. Its tough metal blade, and rigid handle design make it ideal for cutting logs and green wood. Throwing back to its outdoor uses, the bow saw generally has two different blade styles to accommodate for the different wood you’ll be attacking outside –
the peg tooth: designed for dry wood
and the peg and raker toothed blade: designed specifically for wet wood.
The design of these blades is beyond the scope of this article, but I encourage you to pick the right one, or even one of each if you do a lot of outdoor work.
Outdoor work on logs/green wood
Fast, rough cutting
Hacksaw: The grinder
The hacksaw has a similar design to the coping saw and the bow saw and is primarily used for plastic or metal. It has a thin, wide blade, with a very high tooth count, which makes for exceptionally clean cuts. The blade is situated in a metal frame with a pistol grip handle, and varies in length depending on the model, though the standard is roughly 30cm. The blades are removable and there are a wide variety of types that can be purchased for use with different materials.
Metal and plastic cutting
Carpenter’s Saw: The Utility Saw
Often referred to as the carpenter’s saw or panel saw the utility saw, is a versatile saw that can be used for a wide variety of applications and can come in several sizes. In the past, this traditional handsaw with its angular, triangle shaped blade and pistol grip handle situated at the back, came either with crosscut or rip cut angled teeth on the blade. This meant that you would often need two saws, a crosscut and ripcut, in your arsenal. However, in recent times most of these saws come with a design that holds both types of teeth, allowing the saw to cut both rip and crosscuts when necessary. These saws are often referred to as “universal” or “utility” saws – also look for saws branded as those with “hybrid” blades if looking for the utility saw.
The blades vary in length but are generally longer than a back saw and have a lower tooth count. Much like the blade technology, which has changed with time, the cutting action on these saws has also changed. While most still cut on the pull stroke, as was the traditional design, there are models now that cut both on the pull and push, which allows for a much faster cut. The length of the blade results in a long cutting stroke, which also increases the speed, but at a detriment to accuracy and fine finish. Because the blade is a singular thickness throughout, unlike the back saw, the utility saw is not limited in the thickness of material it can cut.
Both crosscut and ripcutting
Keyhole Saw: The versatile handyman’s dream
Keyhole saws have a narrow, rigid blade attached to a handle. Think of this saw as the manually powered jigsaw.
The thin design of the blade allows for tight, curved cuts or interior cuts on panels, such as drywall or plywood – most often for outlets or switches. While the cuts won’t have as clean of a finish as a coping saw, the keyhole saw gets curves and odd cuts done fast.
However, this little guy shouldn’t be relegated to only these odd cuts as it is a workhorse around the shop. For instance, the narrow design and sharp teeth make it ideal for cutting out quick mortises after drilling (especially if you aren’t keen on chisel work.)
Many keyhole saws come with a removable blade which opens up the possibility of using varied blades for different materials, and the saw’s relatively small design means it is easy to attach to a tool belt to be used for quick offcuts and utility purposes.
Here’s an example of an awesome use for a keyhole saw that we mentioned: Mortises!
Cuts in cramped, tight corners
So, there we have it…
We hope these explanations on the common saws you see in the hardware store will help you feel less overwhelmed the next time you stand in front of the display and wonder, “Which of these saws is the right fit for my job?”
If you’ve found this article helpful we encourage you to share it with someone else who might need the info! Thanks for reading and get out there and cut your teeth on some hand saw projects! (That pun was intended as well)