Sawing Lumber – An Overview Part 1

First of all notice that I said “lumber” and not “wood”. What is the difference you may ask? Well for the purposes of this discussion wood is what trees are made of and lumber is when someone takes that wood and cuts it to a standard size and dries it to a stable moisture content. In years past the hand saw was king and doing everything from carpentry to building fine furniture used a hand saw. Later as the industrial revolution came about factories had powered saws, but small shops did not have a power source and likewise carpenters could not take a steam engine or water wheel to the job site with them, so they still used a hand saw.

Stanley Saw Set


Hand Saws
Back in the very early 80’s Mr. Kruger taught me about saws in shop class. In the cabinet there were rip saws, cross-cut saws and back saws and only the teacher got to use the table saw. A good idea for 7th & 8th graders. However hand saws take maintenance just like any other edged tool and I’m sorry to say it is not common to find someone who can “tune up” and sharpen a hand saw. This requires some special files that are not too hard to find and a saw tooth set which is harder to find one in good shape. Plus you need the skills to file the teeth properly and “set” the teeth. While I have a love for traditional woodworking and tools, I have not been able to get this to work for me. I haven’t found a saw tooth set that I was will to pay the asking price for and therefore haven’t invested the money in hand saws. Except for those hand saws lovingly maintained by my old shop teacher I haven’t found any that made trying to cut a board anything other than an exercise in frustration.

Japanese Style Pull SawThe one exception to this is a Japanese style pull saw that I got for about $20. This saw cuts on the pull stroke so the blade can be much thinner and it has a cross-cut tooth pattern on one side and a rip pattern on the other. However to be fair I really only use it to finish the cut on an inside corner that I can’t get with my circular saw. The way this saws are made the teeth are hardened and really cannot be sharpened, the blades are almost always replaceable and disposable. The price is low enough that I would recommend everyone have one of these. There are much more expensive Japanese style saws that can be sharpened, but they are not someplace I’ve chosen to spend my money. My skill level isn’t high enough to benefit from that level of tool.


Circular Saw
Circular Saw
This is a power saw that as the name suggest has a circular saw blade and it is hand-held, that is the lumber is held down and you move the saw over it. You will hear some refer to it as a SkilSaw as that was one of the first manufactures and the name became synonymous with this type of saw. They start at $50 and good ones can be had for $100 and great ones cost $200 or more. For the average home owner the $50 ones are good enough if you are on a budget and I haven’t found anything that disappointed me about my $100 Craftsman saw. One thing I will recommend is buy a better blade with carbide teeth and use the one that came with the saw if you have to cut questionable wood or are not concerned about good the cut looks. If you are working with plywood you should consider getting a blade designed for cutting plywood, it will have a lot more teeth per inch and produce a better cut in that material.


Miter Saw
This is a very convenient way to cut material to length with either a square or metered end for corners. It is most frequently used to cut trim but I have used and abused mine and cut a lot of 2×4 studs and even PVC pipe. For the $100 I paid for it I have more than got my money out of it. I want to build a miter saw station for it so it is always ready to go.

Ryobi Miter Saw

Reciprocating Saw AKA Sawzall
Reciprocating Saw
This saw is mainly used in demolition or other rough applications as it does not product a particularly straight or smooth cut. But when something is in your way there are a variety of blades that can cut through just about anything. Again one of the “nice to haves” until you really need it, then it is a “must have”. There are some situations where almost nothing else will do. “Sawzall” was the first maker and it has become the name by which this tool is known.


This concludes part one and I feel I should mention that all of these, with the exception of the sawzall are really designed to make straight cuts. While you can make crooked cuts, that is more a user error then the design of the saw. Also all of these are designed for you to move the saw with the lumber staying in place, clamped if a small piece or just held with its own weight if it is a large piece. In the future we will provide overviews of other saws.