On Choosing Saws

This article is our view of which saw type and general specifications to choose.

Choosing or selecting what saws

It will pay to have a different saw for different kinds of work, both in wear and tear of patience, and in excellence of workmanship. Those who attempt to do allkinds of work with the same tool, will find most of the time that they have not the right kind of tool for any work.

Saw Type Recommendation Chart

(1) Saws Without Backs

Length of Blade in InchesRIP PPICC PPI
1Rip Saw28″ to 30″3 1/2 to 4 1/24 1/2
2Half Rip Saw26″ to 28″4 to 5 1/25 to 6
3Hand Saw22″ to 26″6 – 87 to 8
Broken Space or fine handsaw
4Panel Saw20″ to 24″7 to 9Ditto
5Fine Panel Saw20″ to 24″10 to 12Ditto
6Chest Saw (for tool chests)10″ to 20″10 to 14Ditto
7Table Saw18″ to 26″7 to 8Ditto
8Compass or Lock Saw8″ to 18″8 to 12
9Keyhole or Fret saw6″ to 12″9 to 14

(2) Parallel Saws With Backs

10Tenon Saw16″ to 20″8 to 10
11Sash Saw14″ to 16″10 to 1210 to 14
12Carcass Saw10″ to 14″12 to 16Ditto
13Dovetail Saw6″ to 10″15 to 20

From Art of Saw Filing, H.W. Holly.

Based upon the table in Charles Holtzapffel, Construction, Actionand Application of Cutting Tools.

Saws Without Backs

(1) Rip Saw

As defined by Holtzapffel, This is a saw of 28” to 30” and 3 ½ ppi, filed rip. I have also added a 4 ½ ppi cross cut in the table. As a rip, this is a saw for stock 6/4” or thicker. Below that thickness, one will fight the saw a bit. This saw can be used fine on softwoods such as Pine, hardwoods as soft as Poplar, White/Red Oak and the Maples. The harder the woods, the slower going they are to rip due to excertion. This is one time that for me, a slightly finer toothed saw used on the harder woods takes less effort.

As a cross cut with 4 ½ ppi, 6/4 and thicker woods can be cut to rough lengths quickly. I use mine on woods as hard as Jatoba and Bubinga. Mostly I use this size of saw to saw rough lengths of woods 8/4 and thicker that later will be sawn to closer lengths as needed.

(2) Half Rip

This is a saw of 26” to 28” in length and 4-5 ppi when configured as a rip saw. 5 ppi and 26” in length is what the half rip from the Seaton chest is. Great for ripping less than 6/4 stuff. For hardwoods I tend to use the 5 ppi and for softwoods, as coarse as I can and still saw easily.

A saw of these lengths configured as a cross cut, the table shows 5-6 ppi. Below 6/4 and above 4/4 I tend to use a 6 ppi cross cut saw unless it is really hard stock or the cut needs to be a cleaner cut than a 6 ppi saw will produce.

(3) Hand Saw

The hand saw and panel saw tend to over lap more on ppi in Holtzapffel’s table than mere length. When used for ripping of 4/4 or less softwood stuff, the suggested ppi range is 6-8 in the 22” to 26” lengths. This is one designation I am less enthralled with Holtzapffel’s table.

For a rip in this hand saw category, the saw I use most is a 24” 7 ppi saw. I find this a good balance between speed of cut and quality of resultant cut. However, as I do not use a rip hand saw as much as the half-rip, it sits on the till more often than not.

Broken Space or Fine Hand Saw

You will note the missing number and length/ppi designations in the chart. I believe this to be a mostly redundant category in Holtzapffel’s table. It is left in its setting for congruence with the Holtzapffel table. My saws that I consider “fine hand saws” would more align with makers from the end of the 19th century who made 24” to 26” 11 to 12 ppi hand saws. This is a size I do not personally use. For this ppi toothing, please see below under the “Fine Panel Saw” heading.

(4) Panel Saw

I tend to drop clear down to 20” saw lengths once the coarser saws of 26” and greater are not appropriate for the work I do. In taking into consideration one’s stroke length, a 22” to 24” saw may be more appropriate even with the coarseness—or coarser— of this category’s toothing. The prime reason I choose to drop in length when using saws in this ppi range is because the saw plates are thinner, requiring less effort in sawing.

Panel saws of the 20” length I use are tools for near final cuts to width or length. As such, mine are toothed at 7 ppi rip and 10 ppi cross cut. I find the usage of these saws great on softwood stuff up to 4/4 and for harder woods ¾” and thinner. As mentioned above, the saw plates being thinner allows this size of saw to work swiftly in the size of stuff indicated.

(5) Fine Panel Saw

This category in the chart above is where I tend to use the finer toothed saws. These lengths and toothing I use on ½” or so stuff to swiftly and accurate dimension. The two saws I own in this category are only used on hardwoods that are on the thinner side. These saws are of an appropriate length for my stroke considering the toothing, 20” for the rip and 18” for the cross cut, 11 ppi rip and 12 ppi cross cut. For these saws, the saw plate is yet still a bit thinner than the Panel Saws. This is due to the great points per inch on the saws.

A quick note about the relationship between ppi, thickness of a given saw’s plate, and length. The coarser the saw the more work it is for the saw plate. A saw that is say 5 ppi has a far greater stress placed upon the saw plate than one that is 10 ppi. The greater the stress upon an unbacked saw, the thicker the plate required in order to avoid kinking the saw. The relationship of length to ppi is that I believe the finer the saw to be used, one is working on refining coarse parts. Therefore, one should be taking more deliberate, careful strokes, the elbow not crossing to the back of the body: i.e., using shorter strokes.

(6) Chest Saw

I consider “Chest saws” simply shorter fine panel saws. I have two such saws that in furniture making see occasional use. For saw making, I use the rip saw frequently (nearly every day). Both mine were probably made by Disston for another retailer. The rip is similar to a Disston #16, is 18” in length and is 12 ppi. The other, a cross cut, is similar to a Disston #12, is 16” in length and is 14 ppi. The cross cut sees little use due to finding other saws more appropriate for the stuff I make.

(7) Table Saw

A table saw is used for large, sweeping curves. This saw can be used to great effect on the curves commonly found on the head and foot boards of beds, table ends (both dining and smaller tables) and the gentle curves of some chair slats. The usable depth of the saw plate is such that it limits the tightness of arc that can be produced, but is “self-jigging” on the larger arcs they are used on.

(8) Compass, or Lock Saw

I use a compass saw a fair bit. I use them on larger pierced work and on curved cut-outs. On these, the usable depth again limits the tightness of the radii able to be cut just as the table saw. This saw for the arcs able to be cut is faster then using a bow saw. Mine is toothed at 10 ppi and is what I call a strong cross cut type of filing. Because the arcs cut are often changing grain direction, the strong cross cut when the grain is oriented in-line with the cut (ripping) it is a touch slower than a true rip, but the cross-grained cuts are swifter and cleaner requiring less clean-up with other tools.

(9) Keyhole or Fret Saw

This category is what we actually call a “pad saw.” These saws cut on the pull stroke and can cut a much tighter radii than the compass saw. The blades are thinner and of less height than the compass saw and so require the toothing to be oriented with the face of each tooth towards the handle lest they bend in use. They are of use in larger fret work. I have a vintage one I use occasionally when I have had pierced carvings. The Domineys used them to great effect on the scroll and fret work for the clocks they made. Benjamin Seaton as well had both a keyhole and pad saw. The inventory list in Benjamin’s hand writing identifies them as separate listings (same line), however, the text in the chapter about the saws fails to make much distinction and can be confusing.

Parallel Saws With Backs

These saws are ones we are all familiar with, even if the one category of saw, called the sash saw, is an unfamiliar term.

(10) Tenon Saw

This is a very specific category. Holtzapffel allows for a cross cut saw in this category. I have left it out and do not generally recommend such a size of cross cut for furniture making. The one exception would be for user-made miter boxes where the length and depth of the saw plate is ideal for such use.

The greater length and usable depth of this saw when configured as a rip tenon saw, is a very efficient means of ripping tenon cheeks. I have new and vintage tenon saws fitting this category (8 and 10 ppi and 22” to 19” respectively). Some people use this size of saw for relatively small tenons. I use mine on tenons of roughly 3” and wider widths. The length of blade and coarseness of toothing for such tenons allow one to saw with fewer strokes. I firmly believe that using a saw of too short of length and or too fine of toothing is conducive to user fatigue. User fatigue I believe is the greatest cause of miss-cuts than other sawing errors.

(11) Sash

For the scale of furniture I have made, this sized saw is the one I use the most amongst the back saws. I have two rips and one cross cut sash saw. The rip versions are 14” and 16”, 13 ppi and 12 ppi respectively. My cross cut is a 14” 12 ppi. I find the balance of this saw wonderful in use. The stuff I tend to make furniture from is harder woods such as Black Walnut, Maple, Bubinga and Jatoba. If I used more US domestic softwoods to make furniture from, I would in all likelihood use a slightly coarser toothed saw such as a 10 ppi sash.

In general, I sue the rip sash saws for most tenon work I do. The cross cut version is used for nearly all cutting of rails and stiles to length that will be shot. I typically use a bench hook to hold the work.

(12) Carcass

I believe that the carcass and following dovetail saws are the most widely used saws among the greater woodworking community. Even woodworkers who use a heavily “blended” use of power and hand tools often do enough joinery by hand as to elevate this category of saw to the most used (along with the dovetail saw).

I own a variety of carcass saws. I use 3 different rip versions that are toothed and filed different from one another, and a cross cut. The rips are from 10” to 12” in length and the coarsest is 12 ppi, the two finest are 14 ppi but filed a bit different. The cross cut carcass saw is 14 ppi and is used on tenon sholders and smaller rails and stiles to cut them to length.

(13) Dovetail

I typically recommend lower ppi dovetail saws. I love to saw, I also love to finish. I equally recommend 15 and 16 ppi dovetail saws. I regularly use 16 ppi saws for stuff as thin as 8 mm, both for softer and very hard woods. I typically use a 16 ppi saw for work to ¾” or less and 15 ppi for ¾” stuff and thicker—unless the extra stroke length of a carcass saw is advantages.

For work thinner than a ½” or with very hard woods, finer toothed saws may be more appropriate for you. Currently the only contemporary saw maker I can recommend producing saws finer toothed than 16 ppi at a retail level is the dovetail saw available from Tools for Working Wood. The current English-made saws that have higher than 16 ppi are clunky things with thicker saw plate.

Saw File Recommendations

The table below shows our file recommendations for the files we sell. A little different than some recommendations. While we show these sizes as recommendations, the reality is we strongly recommend using the smallest file that completely covers the face of one tooth and the back of its neighbor.

For those who like to measure things, we have provided the nominal widths of one face of a given file. The recommendations largely overlap. Purchase as few files as you need to cover the saws you own or otherwise will be sharpening. No sense in buying every size file made to adhere expressly to our recommendations.

Please note that the Grobet needle file listed can be used down to about 15 ppi. I do not feel the extra expense is worth the tooth size gain below a PPI of 18. While the Grobet needle file has a face width equal to the Grobet 4 xx-slim, the face edges are a little bit smaller. This is what enables one to file smaller teeth than the 4 xx-slim and still maintain the largest tooth possible.

An example concerning no purchasing more than you may need. If I had two hand saws, a cross cut with 8 ppi and a rip with 5 ppi, I would buy only a 6″ slim. If I adhered to the stated goal above of using the smallest file I could use so the teeth would be the largest they can be, I would purchase two, a 6″ slim and a 6″ xx-slim.

By the way, the Xs refer to the “x” in extra. So a 6″ xx-slim would be a 6″ extra extra slim.

FileRec. PPIsNominal Face Width
Grobet Needle18 ppi and up5/32″
4 xx-slim12 – 18 ppi5/32″
5 xx-slim11 – 15 ppi3/16″
6 xx-slim8 – 12 ppi7/32″
6 x-slim7 – 10 ppi17/64″ (~1/4″ + 1/64″)
6 slim5 – 7 ppi21/64″ (~5/16″ + 1/64″)
7 x-slim5 – 7 ppi5/16″
7 slim4 – 6 ppi25/64″ (~3/8″ + 1/64″)
8 slim3 1/2 to 5 ppi15/32″ (1/32″ shy of 1/2″)