Unleash your inner samurai with every pull stroke
If you've never picked up a Japanese saw, be prepared for a shock. Its floppy blade stuck on a rattan-wrapped stick may seem at first glance to be more toy than tool. But get down to cutting wood, and you'll ask yourself why you put up with traditional Western-style handsaws for so long.
Many traits distinguish saws from East and West, but it all boils down to this: In Japan, you cut on the pull stroke. Pulling keeps the blade straight, so it can be thin—up to 75 percent slimmer than a Western blade, which must struggle to resist bending with every push. And since thin blades produce thin kerfs, Japanese saws remove less wood, produce less sawdust, and need less muscle power. You can cut longer, more accurately, and with less fatigue.
Cutting wood the Japanese way is much easier for an amateur. Perhaps it's because you steer the blade with your fingertips rather than the heel of your hand. Or it could be all those tiny, surgically sharp teeth that make starting a cut so simple. Even a die-hard push-cutter can appreciate the silky surfaces those teeth leave in their wake: cuts that feel as if they've been smoothed with a plane.
True, those delicate teeth are no match for plywood or knots. But if a tooth or two does break, the blades can be replaced, which is cheaper than buying a new saw.
So go ahead: Put the samurai moves on a slab of cedar. You're in for a pleasant awakening.
The most versatile of Japanese saws, the ryoba, has little teeth for cutting across the wood grain and bigger teeth for making rip cuts with the grain. The 10-inch blade has 9 teeth per inch (tpi) on its rip side, 15 on crosscut. Near the handle, etched characters identify the blade's maker: master blacksmith Harima Daizo. Approx. $57, Tools for Working Wood
The adjustable stop, or rib, on this saw limits the blade's cutting depth, a useful feature when making dovetails or dadoes. Depth measurements are etched on the blade in ½-inch increments. Crosscut side is 24 tpi; rip, 16 tpi. Approx. $119, Bridge City Tools
Japanese saws' teeth are slender and brittle, so letting a blade rattle around in the toolbox can leave it looking like a hockey goalie's smile. Fortunately, the 10-inch, 15-tpi blade on this crosscut saw folds safely into a wooden handle. Approx. $30, Garrettwade
Like an English backsaw, a dozuki has a steel back to hold the blade rigid as it cuts tenons and dovetails. Although dozukis can't make deep cuts, their blades are half the thickness of unbacked saws. 20 tpi. Saw: approx. $40, spare blade: approx. $19, Japan Woodworker
The curved blades of an azebiki are useful for making rips and crosscuts that start in the middle of a board. Just rock the handle up and down and watch the teeth sink into the wood. Crosscut side is 16 tpi; rip, 10 tpi. Approx. $29, Japan Woodworker
This 3-ounce curve-cutting saw is light as a feather. The maker, Hishiki, hand-tempers the short, white-steel blade to give it enough flexibility to saw gentle curves in thin wood. 24 tpi; approx. $47, Japan Woodworker
The ikeda-me teeth on this kataba (single-edged saw) have a repeating pattern of seven crosscut teeth followed by a tooth that clears sawdust from the kerf, making for speedier cutting. 18 tpi; approx. $69, Bridge City Tools
The thin, bendy blade on a kugihiki (peg-cutting saw) has teeth without any side-to-side set, so it can trim wood dowels and plugs flush without scratching the work surface (INSET). 19 tpi; saw: aprox. $22, spare blade: approx. $13, Japan Woodworker
With its compact, pistol-style grip on a long (113⁄16-inch) kataba blade, this saw lets you take lengthy, satisfying strokes but is still short enough to fit in a 24-inch-long toolbox. 12 tpi; saw: approx. $22, spare blade: approx. $12, Tajima Tool
A kerf is the narrow gully made by a saw's teeth as they chew their way through wood. As you can see, Japanese blades produce much narrower kerfs than ordinary Western-style saws do, thanks to blades that are a mere .02 inch thick—that's about half the thickness of Western-style blades—and teeth that have less “set,” or sideways splay.
On all handsaws, regardless of origin, the teeth are made either to cut with the grain (known as ripping) or across it. The rip teeth on both Western and Japanese saws are similar: fat triangles with chisel-edge tips.
Japanese crosscut teeth, on the other hand, are long and narrow, like miniature swords. Each one slices through wood fibers with three knife-sharp edges; a squat Western tooth has only two. You can easily sharpen a Western saw, but taking a file to Japanese crosscut teeth requires steady hands, deep reserves of patience, and a master temple-builder as a teacher. If you're lacking any of these, just replace your blade when it gets dull.