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Saws, Western vs Japanese

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I'm evolving as are we all. This particular evolution is surrounding saws. When I started working with hand tools in the mid 80's I was using western style saws, frustration was quick to set in. I own (still do) a Ramada carcass saw and a Freud Dovetail saw, the dovetail saw was ok, not easy to manage and not very accurate but OK, the Ramada was good for crosscutting to rough length but I wouldn't use it for joinery, learned that the hard way a few times. Then I stumbled on the Japanese saws, wow, half the price, twice as sharp and easier to use. Now I have a quiver full of them and I've used them happily for the past few years. But, as I said, I'm evolving; they lack the aesthetic quality of the newer western saws available they also seem to be more delicate, prone to breaking teeth.

I broke down and bought a Glen Drake dovetail saw at the local Lie Nielsen Hand Tool event. What a revelation, when I first tried that saw I was astounded at the improvement in western saws. Now I have the bug to move back to western saws. Thinking about Lie Nielsen, Gramercy and others. I read Christopher Schwarz blog on back saws on the Pop Woodworking site and am prone to believe in the resurgence of western saws.

I'm looking for a vibrant discussion on the topic, anybody out there gone through the same thing?

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It comes down to personal aesthetics and choice really. A sharp Western saw will perform just as well as a sharp Japanese style saw and better than a dull Japanese saw, just like a sharp Japanese saw will perform better than a dull Westen saw. The ongoing theme here is sharp. Like any other tool, saws need to be sharp or they will not work well.

Growing up, most of us likely had frustration using Western saws because they simply weren't sharp. Even when new, the cheap Western saws are not sharp in my experience. The resurgence in Western saws is occuring because we can once again buy good new saws that are actually sharp, and more and more people are learning to sharpen their own Western saws. I use a lot of older Western style saws, as well as some new Western style saws that I built myself. They work a treat when they are sharp. I can rip a 4/4 pine board at almost 2" per stroke with my rip saw when it is at peak sharpness. I sharpen my own saws, as well as saws for other people, and can tell you first hand that there is a huge difference between a sharp saw and a not so sharp one.

Even the Ramada and Freud saws you speak of can be set up to cut just as well as a new premium saw with the right tooth geometry, right set, and right sharpening. They may not stay as sharp as long as the new premium saws, but they can be made to work well until they require resharpening. The problem is that those less expensive mass produced saws don't come properly set up or sharpened, because the design and manufacturing process of these saws was left up to engineers trying to maximize profit and minimize production cost, not saw users interested in properly sharpened and set saws. Most of the teeth on these mass produced Western saws are simply punched and then packaged. They don't do any real sharpening.

The inexpensive "Japanese" style saws are different. Their teeth are typically ground in with diamond wheels, not punched. This is because the angles are much shallower, so punches would be too fragile. However, it also means that when these teeth are formed, they are sharpened at the same time. Then the saw plate is impulse hardened at the tooth line afteward, making the teeth very hard so they stay sharp for a good amount of time. However, it also means that these saws cannot be resharpened without diamond files, and also results in more fragile teeth that can snap off due to being much harder and more brittle.

True Japanese saws, as in those made by Japanese blacksmiths and not mass produced in factories in third world countries, are not made this way. The saw maker uses feather files to hand sharpen each tooth, the same way that the premium Western hand saws are hand sharpened with tapered triangular saw files. This results in an extremely sharp tool with a very smooth feel that can easily be resharpened with the proper file because they are not impulse hardened. The teeth are still fragile, but this is more a result of the much thinner plates in the blacksmith made saws compared to the thicker but harder plates of the factory made saws. The premium Westen hand saws are the same way. It's the hand work and hand sharpening that separates the premium Western and Japanese tools from the mass produced ones.

I personally prefer Western saws because that's how I learned the craft. I've tried very good quality blacksmith made Japanese saws that my buddy Wilbur brought over when he visited and they were indeed a pleasure to use, but they're just not for me. I prefer the look and feel of the Western style saws. However, it's no longer a one is better than the other scenario. When properly set and sharpened, both cut wood equally well. When you really start to look into the use and setup of the two styles of tools, I think you'll see that there are a lot more similarities than differences, eh Wilbur ;)B) .

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For me I started woodworking just at the beginning of the renaissance of the Western saw. I have used them exclusively and probably am a bit of an addict. I have LN, Wenzloff, LV, Bad Axe in my nest at the moment. In addition, I have tried just about every other saw out there from Eccentric, Medallion, Adria, Gramercy etc. I have even taken up trying to make my own saws. I have the plates punched for two dovetail and two carcase saws I am just waiting on backs from Mike Wenzloff.

That being said I have two Japanese saws in my arsenal that you would be hard pressed to make me give up. A Bridge City Dozuki and a Lee Valley flush cut saw. I love them both, but I only cut dovetails with Western saws. The Dozuki is used only when I need a fine kerf in small material.

It is exciting to see so many new saw makers on the market that are turning out some gorgeous and functional Western handsaws. I consider this a golden age of saws at the moment. I hope it lasts, but sometimes I worry that there are too many saw makers and the market may pick only a few to survive. As for me I continue to spread the funds around and make my contribution to the current plethora of makers.

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When I started going to woodwork stores, it was about the time Japanese saws were hitting the mainstream consciousness. (Locally, at any rate.) I was interested, but all the salesmen could say was that they cut on the pull stroke, instead of the push stroke.

The only handsaw I have (at the moment) is a Stanley miter saw. I've owned several others, but none of them have survived any of my moves. the one I regret losing is the Gentleman's saw, with the reversible option.

I'd like to get another Gentleman's saw, I have two dovetail saws on my wish list from Lie Nielsen, and I have two Japanese style saws on my wish list from Rockler. That said, I'm not devoted to one particular style or another. Whatever works (without my needing to sharpen it), I'll use.

I think any purchase of saws should come with at least a 15 minute instruction on sharpening, unless you can demonstrate you already have this skill down. I can't tell how many teeth I've ruined attempting to sharpen them.

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I personally prefer Western saws because that's how I learned the craft. I've tried very good quality blacksmith made Japanese saws that my buddy Wilbur brought over when he visited and they were indeed a pleasure to use, but they're just not for me. I prefer the look and feel of the Western style saws. However, it's no longer a one is better than the other scenario. When properly set and sharpened, both cut wood equally well. When you really start to look into the use and setup of the two styles of tools, I think you'll see that there are a lot more similarities than differences, eh Wilbur ;)B) .

Right on, especially the more similarities than differences. ;)

I love using Japanese saws. Having said that, at this point in time, I would suggest getting looking into western saws, for two reasons. First, because there are a lot of quality western saws available today, from Lee Valley, Lie-Nielsen, Medallion Toolworks, Wenzloff, Eccentric Toolworks, Bad Axe, and so on. There's a lot of information on sharpening and maintaining a western saw today that was lost for a while.

The second is that the Japanese saws readily available in this country may not be ideal for many of the woods used in this country. Please note, "may not be ideal" does not mean "impossible to use". And if you think that this is some sort of Asian esoterica that no rational woodworker needs to think about, noted Japanese saw hater Ron Herrman notes that historically, western saws were tuned for different species of woods as well. Japanese saws can be tuned and set up for optimal performance in hardwoods. There are a few of these saws out there. Most of them are optimized for softwoods. The other issue is the size of Japanese saws. Most likely, you'll find a 240 mm ryoba, which I think is too big for most joinery cuts in 4/4 stock and not big enough for bigger cuts, like ripping or crosscutting a long board. Much more ideal is a smaller saw and a bigger saw for small and big cuts respectively, but again, that's harder to find in this country.

On the other hand, I'm like a Bizzaro-world version of Bob, because all of my sawing experience is with Japanese saws, and the look and feel of western saws isn't for me. ;) And it's not just because I work only with softwoods. I use walnut, cherry, maple, and oak just like everyone else. My most recent project is a wall-hanging cross that I'm making out of QSWO, and I made all the joinery cuts with a 210 mm ryoba. No teeth were snapped even though this is a ring porous hardwood that you're not supposed to cut with a Japanese saw. This is due to a combination of the tooth design, as I ordered this saw from a Japanese saw maker and I asked him to set up the teeth for North American hardwoods, including oak, and technique.

I think that these are the reasons to get a western or Japanese saw:

Western: if you are used to western saws, you like the look, you are more heavy-handed when making a cut.

Japanese: if you are used to Japanese saws, you like the look, you don't like sharpening.

Please note that neither list mentions the accuracy of the cut. You can get highly accurate cuts either way, with practice.

I have some articles on my blog on Japanese saws, some excessively geeky. If you are interested, I think the key ones are here, here, here, and here.

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I think any purchase of saws should come with at least a 15 minute instruction on sharpening, unless you can demonstrate you already have this skill down. I can't tell how many teeth I've ruined attempting to sharpen them.

It would be nice if they came with sharpening instructions, but I fear that the abbridged and watered down versions would likely cause folks to do more harm than good. However, with that said, I've yet to see a Western saw with teeth that could not be repaired. The only real way to completely ruin the saw would be to burn it or use it completely up. Old teeth can always be filed off and new ones filed in, so don't let messing up a few teeth keep you from trying again. Simply rejoint and try again. It's one of those skills that takes a few tries to really get, but once you get it, it's a wonderful thing, and you feel like there is no saw that can't work well in your hands.

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Thanks all for the replies. It makes the situation much clearer. Also I now understand why I remember successfully using my grandfather's saws yet flailing with my own newer western saws. His were much older and, no doubt as a professional carpenter, he had learned to sharpen them himself.

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