Japan has always inspired me because of its rich history of craftsmanship; both professional and enthusiastic woodworkers highly appreciate its hand tools. Japanese saws have massive popularity for their exceptional performances; they are exact and accurate in the cut and are considered easier to master compared to western saws. I'm going to guide you through a complete exploration of the world of Japanese saws, examining the various types, the way they are designed and constructed, how to use them correctly, and, finally, I will give you a few simple tips to maintain them and make them last for a long time. Whether you're a woodworking enthusiast or simply curious about Japanese tools, this guide will provide valuable insights and tips for working with Japanese saws.
Here are the topics we are going to discuss in this article
Have you ever wondered why Japanese saws differ significantly from their Western counterparts? Well, a specific historical reason caused this remarkable shift in terms of distinction, and we need to make a quick jump back in time.
For more than 200 years, Japan had a period of self-imposed isolation known as the Edo period. During this time, from 1603 to 1868, Japan had a strong economy and dedicated many resources to developing arts and crafts. Their culture and way of life were unique, including the development of tools and techniques for woodworking. That's why, when you look at a Japanese saw, you immediately notice its unique and distinguished features; they are a product of this period of isolation and innovation.
If you have some familiarity with these saws, you know that there are several reasons why they differ from Western saws. The most important and known is that the Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke, which allows for better control and precision. This also allows for thinner blades because, with the pull movement, the blade goes immediately in tension.
There is also an interesting philosophy behind the construction of the tools, the so-called "less is more" with which you may be familiar. Japanese saws are simple, functional and durable. And in woodworking, this is all you need.
When we talk about Japanese saws, we refer to a broad term that includes several variants, each designed with in mind a specific purpose. If you are not Japanese or don't have a deep interest in knowing and understanding the culture, I believe you can only scratch the surface in understanding what stays behind these products in terms of culture.
But I don't want to get too philosophical about the topic, so I will limit myself to introducing the essential saws and leave it to you, the reader, to dig more into more research if you wish.
So...let's start! Ryoba, Dozuki, Kataba, and Azebiki...do these names sound familiar to you? Ryoba and Dozuki, probably yes, if you read my previous posts about the exceptional qualities of the Ryoba and the Dozuki. But let's quickly look again and then introduce some other models.
The Ryoba saw
This is my favourite saw, and for a good reason. Ryoba saw is the most versatile among the Japanese saws because of its double edge that features a rip and a crosscut side. The unique advantage is that you can perform two different tasks with a single saw, and if you are starting low budget, it is a real saver. Of course, this saw is for a general purpose and, even if it's a fantastic product, is not designed for specific tasks. For example, on the crosscut edge, the TPI is not as high as you could find in a Dozuki, and the blade is quite flexible, resulting in less cut precision.
The Dozuki saw
The Dozuki saw it is absolute excellence when it comes to fine cuts! You can see it in action on fine joineries, like dovetails. It's a speciality saw available in different sizes; the smaller the size, the higher the TPI. This means that, for very clean cuts, a smaller Dozuki has the best performance. One of the characteristics of this saw is the rigid back that supports the thin saw during the cut. This has also the advantage of adding rigidity to the blade, making the cut very accurate. Conversely, the Dozuki can be more challenging than the Ryoba to master, and it is more subject to damage the teeth. So, it may take some time to learn, but the effort is worth the result.
The Kataba saw
Kataba means "single edge" in Japanese; this saw is a sought-after product in every workshop. The first reason is that it is pretty inexpensive and then is also very practical to use. Even though it is not used for particular tasks, the Kataba allows for deep fast cuts, as it has no back to limit the depth of the cut. The blade is thicker than the Dozuki and is available in two versions: rip and crosscut. Now, you might wonder why the Kataba is a complement of the Ryoba and cannot be replaced by it. Well, the reason is that being the Ryoba a double edge saw, when the depth of the cut is more than the width of the blade, the teeth on the opposite edge can scratch the surface and leave an unfinished surface that the Kataba would avoid.
The Azebiki saw
I'm fascinated by the Azebiki Saw...not because I can see regular use of it but because of how it is engineered. It's such a clever and functional design! The Azebiki saw is that speciality saw you want in your workshop. You might rarely reach for it, but the day you need it, it might save you a lot of time. This saw has a long, narrow blade with a pointed tip, and it is used to make cuts in the middle of a piece of wood. It is often used for making plunge cuts, for example, when you start a cut for a mortise or other joinery.
The Noko Giri saw
In ancient Japan, Nokogiri saws were used to roughly rip logs into boards for carpenters and cabinetmakers. Unlike in Europe, where two men typically used a ripsaw for similar purposes, these saws were operated by one man. The blades of Nokogiri were wider than those of other saws to help guide them in very long cuts. These saws were roughly made, with the smith's forge marks sometimes still visible. To prevent jamming, blades were laboriously hand-tapered from teeth to back.
With the advent of the industrial revolution, these saws gradually disappeared. However, Nokogiri saws are still available, although they are not as wide or stable. They are mainly used to cut standing timber and thick branches.
The Kugihiki saw
I love this saw, and, despite the compact size, its performance is truly remarkable; it is highly functional and has an excellent balance when used.
Known as a Kugihiki, this small saw is flush-cutting and has numerous uses. It can be used for trimming wedges or pins that secure a tenon or cutting the excess from a plug that conceals a screw, among other things. With a long flexible blade and 17 teeth per inch, it cuts quickly while leaving a smooth finish. Moreover, the teeth are not set, allowing users to approach work from either direction in restricted spaces.
The Mawashibiki Saw
This is a keyhole saw with a narrow blade that tapers towards the tip until it reaches about 4-5 mm. Although initially may seem a purchase with little use, it can be advantageous in replacing a coping saw. For joinery work such as dovetails, finger joints, or mortises, a 6mm hole is drilled into the waste part after sawing the sides with a Dozuki saw. The Mawashibiki saw is used on both sides of the hole, cutting as close to the line as possible. This makes it easier to clean and straighten the edge with a chisel.
As we discussed the historical reason behind the evolution of the Japanese saws, I will introduce some basic concepts about their construction. We know these saws have exceptional cutting ability and can produce precise results.
Looking at the market, we can find two different types of Japanese saws; they can be handmade or produced at the industrial level; the difference is mainly reflected in the quality of the tool, which ultimately affects the retail price.
Ok, now let's take a closer look at the design and construction of Japanese saws.
Japanese blacksmiths handcraft forged saws that are the product of inherited generations of knowledge and experience. These are beautiful saws, and many passionate woodworkers prefer them to the production versions. But, as I said, the price tag can be pretty substantial, so be prepared to spend 200-300 USD to get one. Therefore, if you want to buy your first Japanese saw, a production saw is a good choice, as it will guarantee a satisfying performance for a long time. Differently from handmade saws, these cannot be resharpened, and the blade must be replaced. But considering how affordable they are and that you can quickly transform the dull old blades into card scrapers, it is worth the value.
A Japanese saw blade is crafted from premium steel, often laminated with softer steel to increase durability and reduce brittleness. Compared to Western saw blades, Japanese saw blades are thinner, providing greater precision and minimizing waste.
As the teeth of a Japanese saw are designed to cut on the pull stroke, they have a negative rake angle. This feature significantly reduces the force required to cut, and the smaller and more numerous teeth allow for a smoother cut with less tear-out. Additionally, Japanese saw teeth are often set at a slight angle, which reduces friction and facilitates sawdust removal.
Industrial Japanese saws are typically made using modern manufacturing techniques, such as stamping or laser cutting. This allows for greater consistency in the production process, resulting in a lower cost for the saw. However, the quality of the saw can vary depending on the manufacturer and the specific production methods used.
A Japanese saw is considered more straightforward to use than a Western saw, so it is recommended for beginners. Below, I will summarize some tips that will help you get started. You will notice that the pull stroke will help to start the cut, and once you are on track, move slowly and try to concentrate on the direction.
First, you know how many types of saws are available, so it's essential to know the cut you will do. Don't get too obsessed initially; know if you are doing a rip or a crosscut. A Ryoba will solve all your doubts, and as you progress and refine your technique, you will then move to other saws.
Then, you must dedicate attention to preparing the material you will cut. Remember that this is essential to a good result. A properly marked stock will help you start the cut at the right position, and a well-visible line will make it easier to follow
with the blade. Also, make sure that the piece is stable in position; you only want the movement of the blade on a steady piece.
You may have seen pictures of woodworkers holding the saw with two hands. While this is typical of the sawing technique, it is not always the case, and you should feel free to hold the saw how you feel comfortable. The important here is that you have a firm grip and try to control your movement in a back-and-forth direction, avoiding lateral movements; this would affect the quality of the cut and put the blade under stress, with the risk of breaking it.
When you start the cut, the first movement should be on the pull side to guide the teeth into the wood. It should be a gentle pressure; remember that the teeth are extremely sharp, and there's no need to force the blade. Of course, once the kerf is established and the blade is eating the fibres, you can apply more pressure and increase the speed, but light pressure and moderate speed are key to a controlled cut.
Proper maintenance is crucial to ensure that your Japanese saws perform optimally and last for years. The maintenance is quite straightforward and doesn't require particular attention other than a few small tips
After each use, make sure to clean the blade thoroughly. You can use an old toothbrush to remove sawdust and debris from the teeth of the saw and, to keep the blade clean, simply pass and wipe down with a damp cloth.
Regularly oiling your Japanese saw's blade is essential to prevent rust and corrosion. You can use light machine oil or a specialized saw oil for this purpose.
Proper storage is critical when your Japanese saw is not in use. Keep the saw in a dry place, away from moisture and humidity; if it came with a sleeve at the time of your purchase, don't throw it and use it to cover the blade.
If the blade of your Japanese saw becomes severely damaged or worn, it may be necessary to replace the blade. Fortunately, you can purchase replacement blades for most Japanese saws, and installing a new blade is relatively simple.
In summary, Japanese saws are highly-regarded tools with exceptional cutting ability and precision. They're designed and constructed using high-quality materials, precise teeth design, and the pull-stroke cutting technique, setting them apart from Western saws. There are various types of Japanese saws, each designed for specific purposes, from general-purpose to precision cutting, so be sure you know which saw is specific for the task. If you are new to Japanese saws, start with a Ryoba, it will give you a good kick start, and you will be impressed by the results.
Proper maintenance is also crucial to keep Japanese saws in top condition and ensure optimal cutting performance. Follow the easy tips for a long-lasting product that will return great satisfaction!