Japanese Saws
posted on April 7, 2006 by Rockler

Many years ago, after many years of using nothing but typical Western style hand saws, I bought my first ryoba saw. In Japanese, "ryoba" means “both blade” and refers to the fact that the saw has a ripping blade on one side and a finer-toothed crosscutting blade on the other. A short time later, I picked up a dozuki saw, which is a type of back-saw made for exacting joinery work. Just a couple of days ago, I blew a modest portion of my allowance on a replacement blade for the dozuki saw, and the crisp, ultra-thin kerf cuts it’s giving me have reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Japanese handsaws in all their forms.

People who try Japanese style saws rarely go back to strictly using Western style saws, even though the change from one to the other can take a little getting used to.  A  Japanese saw cuts on the pull stroke, in contrast to a classic Western handsaw, which cuts on the push stroke.  There’s a little difference in “steering” between the two. Also, a Japanese saw’s blade is under tension while it cuts, so it can be (and is) much thinner than a Western saw’s blade (a Western saw needs to be rigid enough to keep from bending all over the place as it’s being pushed through the cut).  A ryoba saw feels a little wiggly at first if you’re used to plowing through crosscuts with a typical push-stroke saw.

But once you get acclimated, you may find yourself looking forward to hand-cutting pieces of wood.  Japanese saws produce an extremely thin kerf which means that with a sharp saw, cutting through even the hardest woods requires very little effort.  Less effort translates into greater control, and once you develop a little skill, you can make a 90 degree cutoff with a ryoba saw that looks like you cut it on a miter saw with a brand new Freud blade.  Establishing the cut is also extremely easy.  I use the knuckle of my thumb to guide the blade of my dozuki saw when I’m starting the cut for a dovetail pin, and after only a couple of drags along the cut-line with just a little more than the weight of the saw bearing down on the wood, I’m on my way.

There are a number of types of Japanese saws.  Other than the dozuki and the ryoba (the two I find most useful) there’s the azebiki saw, which has a short convex blade and is used for starting cuts in the center of a workpiece, the mawashibiki saw, which is something like a keyhole saw and is used for cutting curves, and the kaeba from the Japanese kae (change) and ba/ha (blade) which is a saw with a disposable blade.  Another useful permutation of the Japanese pull-stroke saw is the “flush cut” blade which has flat-set teeth and makes it easy to cut off the protruding ends of  plugs or through joint members without marring adjacent surfaces.

Trying out a Japanese saw doesn’t involve a huge initial outlay of cash.  You can get and excellent quality dozuki or ryoba saw for less than 50 bucks.  If you haven't tried one, I’d encourage you to give it a shot, especially if you like to do hand cut joinery.  As I mentioned, I got acquainted with Japanese saws years ago, and my only regret is that I didn’t hear of them sooner.

posted on April 7, 2006 by Rockler
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