Japanese Saw Versus Western Saw

Although most of the heavy duty cutting is done using power saws, the hand saw still has its place, especially for precision woodworking tasks such as cutting dovetails. The two main hand saw choices are the conventional Western-style saw and the Japanese saw. Here's how they compare in terms of cutting technique, blade design, etc.

Japanese Saw

A Japanese saw or nokogiri is a thin-bladed hand saw that cuts on the pull stroke. Two commonly used Japanese saws are the Dozuki and the Ryoba.

The Dozuki saw has the thinnest blades of all Japanese saws. One side of the blade contains the teeth and the other end has a reinforcing steel backer strip that provides rigidity during the cut. It is an ideal choice for cutting dovetails, tenons and other fine joinery.

The Ryoba saw is two-sided: one side for ripping and the other for cross-cutting. It works well for surface cuts such as sawing off wooden plugs for screw holes as well as for general purpose cutting.

The blade of a Japanese saw is designed so each tooth has three cutting edges (except the rip tooth, which has two). This allows the saw to cut straighter, faster, smoother, and cleaner and yet still be able to rip and crosscut. A typical Japanese saw has a long, straight handle wrapped with rattan.



Western Saw

A Western style saw has a wide, tapering blade and a distinctively shaped wood or plastic handle that comfortably fits the hand. Whereas a Japanese saw cuts on the pull stroke, a Western saw is designed to cut on the push stroke.

The two main types of Western saw are the crosscut saw and the rip or ripping saw. A ripping saw, which cuts in the direction of the grain, has a zero to positive rake, fewer teeth per inch, a wider set, and a deep gullet behind each tooth for transporting sawdust out of the cut. A crosscut saw, designed for cutting across the grain, has more teeth per inch, a zero to negative rake, narrower set, and a beveled cutting edge.

General Cutting

Japanese saws have thinner, more flexible blades than their Western counterparts. This results in a thinner kerf, less effort to remove material, and often finer control over the cut. In short, one can cut longer, more accurately, and with less fatigue.

The thicker blade on a Western saw translates to a thicker saw kerf, more material to remove, and hence more energy to complete a cut. However, a properly tuned and sharpened Western hand saw can cut extremely well. Note that a Western saw is less steerable than a Japanese saw. This is usually a good thing because once you start the cut, it will stay in a straight line.

Detailed Work

Many woodworkers find a Japanese saw easier to use than a push saw for fine detailed work due to the extra control afforded by pulling the blade towards the body. An apt comparison is pulling rather than pushing a wrench to loosen a nut.

However, some prefer the Western saw for cutting dovetails because sawdust is pushed out the other side of the cut so that the markings are not obscured. With a Japanese saw, the pull cut pulls sawdust toward you, obscuring the markings.

Blade Sharpening

It is easier to sharpen a Western saw than a Japanese saw. Also, there is a lot more information and support available for Western saws - especially if you live in the West.

Japanese saws rarely need to be sharpened because the blade is very hard. Except for very expensive saws, it is more practical to replace a Japanese blade rather than attempting to hone it yourself.

Cost

Western saws, as a group, are less expensive than Japanese saws. For this reason, some woodworkers prefer to keep around several "throw-away" saws; if the blade hits a nail or is otherwise damaged, it's no great loss to toss the saw.