I get a lot of emails from woodworkers asking my opinion on what kinds of saws are essential in a kit of tools, or what kinds of saws they should get if they are just starting out in hand work. Sometimes people even reference books like ‘The Anarchist’s Toolchest’ and want my opinion on the saws listed as necessary by the author.
I am always humbled when I get emails or questions in person like this. After all, who the heck am I, and why should anyone care about what I think?!? Humility and self-doubt aside, this is not an easy question to answer.
On the one hand, I don’t think it matters one bit if your first saw is a 30 inch rip saw with 3.5 points per inch or a dovetail saw from Sears. The thing that’s truly important is that you learn to use the hell out of it. Use it in every way you can…as it was intended and in every way that it wasn’t. Hell, I think you should try to carve your dinner roast with it, that is if your wife will let you bring it in the house. Then, take all that you learned from using that saw to within an inch of its life, and get another saw. Repeat the process. And again and again and again. This is honestly what I did, and the lessons learned literally cannot be put into words or have a real value assigned to them. They are indescribable and invaluable.
On the other hand, I realize that the above suggestion is not all that helpful. So, in the interest of providing some assistance to those wanting guidance, for what its worth, the following is my list of ‘necessary saws’ for the hand worker of wood. Keep in mind I try to be a bit of a minimalist…I think we can ALL make do with less, and not only is that better for our wallets, it’s better for our skills. So here goes…
Sash Saw: No surprises here, right? This is the number one saw on my list. Whether you’re new to working by hand, or been doing it for a while, I think everyone can use a good sash saw. Critical features are a 14 inch toothline, at least 3 inches of depth under the back and a proper filing for both ripping and cross cutting…that’s what makes this traditional form really sing. For me, I like 8 degrees of rake and 10 degrees of fleam. It will change your life. Right now, my every day sash saw is this 14 inch Disston from the 1880s. It does everything. And if you absolutely insist, after you’ve mastered the sash saw, then you can go ahead and get a dedicated rip backsaw and crosscut if you want. But I don’t think you ever “need” either. And the historical record supports this idea as well.
Dovetail Saw: It’s tough to build really fine furniture without this little guy….and its useful for much more than just dovetailing. I recommend a fine saw plate….no thicker than 0.020 inch. 15 points with no fleam is my preference for the teeth, and rake can be zero (for the brave and experienced) up to 10 degrees. The tote should fit your hand like a glove.
Here’s my Groves DT saw….this thing was a total basket case when I found it….I love the lost causes. Groves is probably my favorite English backsaw maker….I think they perfected the form.
Crosscut Handsaw: Once you’ve got backsaws under your belt, full size handsaws shouldn’t be too far behind. I think a well filed crosscut saw is a must for any workshop, and I honestly think you only need one for furniture making. 26 inches is a perfect size, and 9 points per inch is my preference, but 8 to 10 points is the ideal range for a saw that can handle all of your crosscutting tasks. There are so many good cc saws out there in the wild….throw a rock in the woods and your bound to it at least 2 or 3. My main crosscut saw–this Disston #7 with 9 points c. 1880–will be in my will. I think it is the most perfect tool ever made. Find one of your own and fall in love.
Rip saw: This is the last saw to add to your kit. Ripping a board by hand is what separates the men from the boys. It is real work and not for the “blended” woodworker. For most boards, I love my 4.5 point Disston #7. For all but the hardest woods, it is a monster saw. For oak, ash, hard maple, etc. my Disston #99 in 6 points is an easier tool to use. (Go ahead….you can call me a sissy if it makes you feel better ) A 5 or 5.5 point saw is a good all around spacing and will work well in soft and hard woods. I like 26 inch rip saws….but you may need a 28 inch saw if you’re over 6 feet tall.
So there you have it.
You may have noticed that I didn’t include panel saws or carcase saws. While little panel saws are nice to have, I don’t think they are a necessary part of a woodworker’s toolkit. Especially rip panel saws….there is a reason you never find any in the wild…they were relatively useless (unless you are 4 feet tall). And while a sash filed carcase saw could be substituted for the proper 14 inch sash saw, I don’t think they are absolutely necessary either. Of course, the manner of your work dictates necessity, and I’m referring to cabinet making in general. There are other saws you may need once you’ve permanently tattooed yourself a purist…like a bow saw and keyhole saw. But those are more specialized and not entirely necessary.