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A Guide to Japanese Hand Saws

Learn the benefits of using a Japanese saws, the different types, and how they compare to western saws.

Two Japanese saws laying next to each other.

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.

Why Are Japanese Saws Better?

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. 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.

Hand Saw Teeth

Japanese hand saw. Photo by Plamen Petkov

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.

Can You Sharpen Japanese Saws?

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.

Kerf Comparison

Wood with you kerf cuts on it, one is thinner and made by a Japanese hand saw while the other is thicker made by a western hand saw. Photo by Plamen Petkov

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.

Japanese Hand Saw Types and Benefits

Here are the many benefits and varieties of the Japanese hand saws.

What Is a Ryoba Saw Used For?

Double edged blades on a Ryoba Japanese saw. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Double-edged sword. 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

When to Use a Dovetail Saw?

A Japanese saw with an adjustable stop. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Depth control. 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

Why Choose a Cross Cut Saw?

A Japanese saw with a folded handle. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Folds up. 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

What is a Dozuki Best For?

A Dozuki Japanese hand saw being used to cut wood. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Precision cuts. 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

What To Use An Azebiki For?

A Japanese saw with a long handle and double-edged cross cut blade. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Plunge cutter. 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

When to Use a Curve Cutter Saw?

A curved Japanese hand saw being used to slice through wood. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Flexibility. 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

What is a Kataba Saw?

A single edged Japanese hand saw. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Faster cuts. 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

What is a Kugihiki Saw?

A thin Japanese saw being used to trim a dowel from wood. Photo by Plamen Petkov

Flush cutter. 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

When to Choose a Bent Handle?

A Japanese saw with a black bent handle that curves around your hand. Photo by Plamen Petkov

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