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JOEL Joel's Blog

How To Saw Straight


How To Saw Straight 4The trick in doing just about anything that requires consistent repetitive actions is finding a method that your body naturally follows, and training your body so a more efficient method seems natural. That's why coaches help ball players with their swing and shots, and then the players practice all day long. The final movement needs to feel natural and relaxed - so you easily can repeat the motion and know instinctively when you are doing it right. The reason we have coaches is so we can learn efficient technique. By feeling natural I mean your entire body has to feel natural. That's why follow through, posture, and your whole body being relaxed is so important in sports. The same applies to hand work in woodworking, sawing being pretty much at the top of the list.

Grab your nearest backsaw. If you are lucky you have one of our Gramercy Tools saws. If you are even luckier you have your granddad's backsaws that has been lovingly cared for and kept sharp since 1937.

Find a piece of wood and square up the ends. With a marking gauge, scribe a line about the thickness of the wood away from the end you plan to cut. See this blog on how to use a marking gauge. Clamp the wood so you feel comfortable sawing uphill with it (see my blog on sawing uphill if you don't know what I am talking about). (A Moxon vise is great for this but it's far from a requirement). Make a few small marks on the wood where you want to saw. The goal in sawing is to just graze the line, so arbitrarily decide on the "waste" side of the mark.

Put the saw on the wood on one of the marks in such a way that your hand feels comfortable. Your arm should be relaxed, your wrist should be at rest. Your whole body should be at ease. Now, look at where the saw will cut. Is it still on the mark? Does it look like it will cut on the waste side mark? Look at the reflection of the wood in the saw blade, does it look like the saw is held vertically square to the wood? If all of these checks are okay then we are home free. If it doesn't, move your whole body, not just your arm or wrist, so that when you put the saw on the wood at the right mark, you naturally hold the saw in the right place and square. This is the key: finding a comfortable position for your entire body that results in a square cut.

Start the cut. Relax, your arm and wrist should not tense up or twist. After cutting take the saw out of the cut and see if it's square left to right. The reason we are doing the cut then checking is that we also want to train ourselves to see square without layout marks. If your square: great! If not draw, a square reference line on the wood and see when you lay the blade naturally on the wood how far off you are. Try to see the out of square condition by eye. It's a lot easier to see if you are square by eyeballing the angle formed by the wood and the entire saw, than just seeing if you are on a small mark on the wood.

Repeat the steps until you can comfortably start a cut square and continue sawing square. Practice every day for a few days. There are two things that need to become automatic: Recognizing if you are cutting square without measuring with a square, and sawing square using a position and posture that feels natural and keeps you cutting square. If you don't feel natural in the correct position, practice until the correct position feels natural.

Like sports, or any activity that requires hand eye coordination, instruction and coaching only go so far, the real key is using practice, and feedback to re-enforce the instruction and make the skill automatic.

With practice you will find it hard NOT to saw square. Chances are also pretty good that if you find sawing square a natural experience, the natural control of the saw will make it much easier to consistently saw at an angle for dovetail tails.

In the photo above I am relearning how to saw square using my new Moxon vise. It's at the right height but I seem to pull a bit to the left. The solution for me is to find out where I feel comfortable and then move my entire body a bit to the left. My goal with this practice is to become comfortable with the new position, so I don't have to compensate. I used to be totally consistent when sawing using my face vise but I find it easier to see with the Moxon vise. As it turns out, now that I am sawing at a higher position it find I need to stand further away from the bench and the more I practice the less scared I am of screwing up, and then I don't screw up.

Join the conversation
03/15/2011 Gary Roberts
I'm sort of clumsy so I mounted my brand new SawStrait on my backsaw. It combines a Laser Site, GPS and Gyroscope. The laser tells me precisely where to cut, the GPS tells me when the saw reaches the end of a stroke and the Gyroscope keeps the blade exactly vertical.

You should get one and make your life easier.

03/15/2011 Stewie Simpson
Hi Joel. A significant aid to sawing straight is grip pressure. If the grip pressure is too tight it can make it more difficult to control the saw blade due to the muscles within the forearm tightening up. Just keep the grip pressure light enough to maintain a smooth but full stroke of the saw blade till completion.

03/16/2011 Paul Korman
Joel, Your entry brought back lots of memories. For a long time in my youth I was a competition rifle shooter. What you describe as a comfortable body position is what we would call "natural point of aim". We would find it by getting into position and on target and closing our eyes for 10 seconds. Then we look for the drift off target. We would make body and equipment changes so we would stay on target. I think I'll try sawing a bit with my eyes closed. BTW your tip on sawing uphill made a large improvement in my sawing
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