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Preview: Handsaws for Boatbuilding, with Harry Bryan

July 19, 2016

When it comes to handsaws, whether you’re working with plywood or natural stock, Harry Bryan knows which saw is the best tool for the job.

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– Here are three western panel saws. Nicholson, and a Disston, and a Sandvik. They’re obviously different in length. And they are also difference in the fineness of their teeth. Hand saws, unlike band saws, are designated by points rather than teeth per inch. So to find out what this saw is here, I will count the zero point, which you would not do if you were doing teeth per inch. So I’ll count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eighth tooth lands on the 1-inch mark. So that’s an 8-point saw. And usually, it’s not the case here obviously, they may well be stamped in this area here a number of points on the saw. The 8-point saw at 26 inches long is your standard carpenter saw for cutting off 2×4’s for a house. A wonderful saw, neither very rough nor very smooth in its cut but the teeth are big enough, and therefore can be set to the sides enough to clear the sometimes less than dry fiber soft wood that you’re gonna run in to in house construction. For boat work I almost never use the 8-point saw unless I’m just rough cutting pieces to length. For an accurate cut, which may or may not be further refined with block planes, then I will use a 10-point, or in this case 11-point and the case of the Sandvik a 12-point saw. Very, very much finer teeth than the Nicholson here. So there’s also a difference in the shape of the backs of these saws. This one is dead straight, this one the Disston is dead straight, where as the Sandvik is askew back to it, slightly concave in the back. And also siding on the blade the Sandvik is very slightly convex. Where as these other two saws are straight. These are subtle differences. One nice thing about a straight back is you could use it for a straight edge. And that actually comes in handy quite often. The advantage of the askew backs are it gives you a finer point to get in to some places where the heavier saw might not. The handles of saws intrigue me. There’s one from a saw, I don’t know what’s happened to the original saw, it’s a Spear & Jackson, made in England the company no longer exists but there is a Spear & Jackson rip saw right here that I’ve used for years and years. But look at that care that some one took to make that beautiful. Far beyond what is actually needed to make the saw work. It feels just wonderful in my hand, and the grip is fairly small. Yes I can get my four fingers in here, but just like the hand plain, it’s extremely important, perhaps more so in hand sawing, to keep that finger outside to help your brain, your body know that that blade is a true extension of your arm. If the saw is a good quality blade it will be tapered round. It will have set in the teeth too, one tooth bent one way, one the other to give clearance. I have my calipers adjusted for a sliding fit along what is the thickest part of the saw, about at the edge where the teeth are. Now if I go to the back edge here, we are very slightly thinner. I can feel by the looseness of my calipers here than the thickness of the blade near the teeth itself. So there’s a bit more clearance going on here, less binding, without having to set the teeth. And that difference is even more apparent toward the tip where we are very much looser here, little bit of a gap showing either side that the blade is ground thinner. You’ll only find that on quality saws but it is common enough that you should look for it when you do pick up a saw. These two 20-inch saws are my favorite saws. This is a Sandvik here and it came with 12 points per inch. Nice fine saw, and I did almost all my work with that for years and years. In fact we took this on the boat with us when we sailed three years to Australia and back. L. Francis Herreshoff said, “When you go cruising, “paint your shotguns with shellac.” Well I tried that with my hand saw and there’s some shellac left over since 1988 when I put that on that blade. And this saw has been used continuously ever since. Shellac is a wonderful thing for keeping rust off. But also here’s the saw I use day to day now. This I bought at a second-hand tool store, it’s a Disston. It had been an 8-point saw, the same coarseness as this one below it here. But I wanted to see what it would be like to file teeth on a saw myself. And so, again, this had been a 26-inch saw and I wanted a 20-inch saw so I cut off the extra and I slimmed up the back of the saw this way. And held the saw directly on to a big, flat sanding belt like this and took all the teeth off. And then this is not the scale I use but I wanted something between 10 and 12 points per inch. So I’ve found a scale ruler, you’ll have to imagine one finer than this, rummaged around ’til I found one that found marks that were in fact about 11 points per inch there. And painted the whole saw with a white shellac-base compound and drew with a pencil a little mark at every where every tooth was to be. And filed those teeth in to it. That was about four years ago, on a Saturday morning at the wood and boat school and I have never sharpened this saw since that time. Which is I should be embarrassed about, but the saw is only very slightly dull. Incidentally you can tell where the saw needs sharpening or not because we never use, or hardly ever use this last inch, or this inch, because of the handle you cannot use this part of the saw. So if you take the sensitive side of your thumb and draw it down your blade, feel the drag there, feel the drag where you saw all the time and feel it change again as you approach the end. If there’s a marked difference between the ends and where you use it all the time, it’s time to sharpen your saw. And here, after all these years, I cannot be sure that I feel any difference. A tribute to the Disston company. The older Disston blades were so hard that if they were any harder you’d break the teeth bending them to set ’em. But that hardness allows the edge to last many many more months or years than a softer steel would. If you want to buy hand saws for boat building for one saw only, I would use a 12-point saw, assuming that I had a power band saw to do the other work. For cutting off coarser pieces of wood, keel timbers, and stuff like that, the 8-point saw. And next to it, the larger teeth, a rip saw. Sharpened somewhat differently than the others. And very efficient for working with the grain of natural wood. But if you wanna get in to rip saw, it’s a wonderful tool to own. But if you have a jig saw or a power band saw or table saw in your shop you probably will not use it that much. You can do most of the work you need with a hand saw. This particular saw was used to build a 21-foot boat which was entirely built of half-inch plywood. All the cuts were made with this saw. But most people will elect to use a power saw. And if you had only one, a good quality sabre saw and jig saw, whatever you call ’em, is a great investment. This Bosch is a particularly good tool, and with a coarse wood working blade in there will make good, quick progress with plywood, any of the curves you need, and do a reasonable job with all the straight line cuts as well.


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