Choosing a Back Saw: Everything You Really Need to Know

So let’s say you’re just starting to get into woodworking, and you realize that you really need a small saw.  The ones with the spines look nice.  They’re called “back saws,” right? They seem like they might be easier to saw with than the big handsaws because that spine keeps the blade stiff and straight.  (You would be right about that.)  You start reading online, maybe watching some YouTube videos, and you soon realize that THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF BACKSAWS!

For example, here are just some of the backsaws I’ve acquired over the years:

Backsaws 2018

So which ones do you really need?  Should you start with a dovetail saw?  How is that different from a gent’s saw?  What about a tenon saw?  Is that like a sash saw?  And what on earth is a carcass saw?  And OH MY GOODNESS WHAT IS THAT GINORMOUS BACKSAW IN THE BOTTOM OF THAT PICTURE?!?

There Are Really Only Two Kinds of Saw

When it comes down to function, there are essentially only two types of saws: saws that cut smoothly across the grain (called “crosscut” saws) and ones that cut smoothly along or with the grain (called “rip” saws).

The only difference is in how the saw teeth are shaped–any size saw can be sharpened for either rip or crosscut.  However, many of us find that backsaws, which have relatively small teeth, can often be used for general cuts across or with the grain–though any given saw will cut more easily in one direction than the other.  In my experience, a crosscut saw can be used for ripping, though the saw will cut slowly.  But using a rip saw for crosscuts is more difficult and leaves a more ragged surface.

So if I had only one backsaw, I would choose one configured for crosscutting.  If I could have only two, I would choose one of each.

Now, with the rip/crosscut distinction in mind, here are some of the usual kinds of backsaws you will run across:

The Dovetail Saw

Sharpened for ripping, the dovetail saw is optimized for making shallow cuts in end-grain, such as when cutting dovetails.  A dovetail saw is often 8″-10″ long.  Because of the fine teeth, however, a dovetail saw can also be used for small crosscuts–for example, cutting small dowels to length.  Dovetail saws typically have a fairly thin blade so as to leave a narrow kerf.  Thus, they are not suitable for crosscutting stock more than about 3/4″ square.

Backsaws 2018 Dovetail Saws

Dovetail saws are available with either a “broomstick” handle or a “pistol” grip, as you see above.  The broomstick handles are cheaper but a little more difficult to learn to use.

The “Gent’s” Saw

A small, general-purpose backsaw.  It is similar to the dovetail saw, but often sharpened for crosscutting.  It usually has a pistol-grip and can be anywhere from 6″ to 10″ long.  It can be used for dovetailing, small crosscuts, etc.  It’s often an essential part of a small, specialized toolkit, like for model making, but most woodworkers can get along fine without it.  It’s the one kind of backsaw I don’t own, so I have no picture of a gent’s saw to show you.

The Carcass (or Carcase) Saw

A medium-sized crosscut backsaw, often 12″-14″ long.  This is a workshop workhorse, ideal for all manner of small crosscutting jobs–from cutting tenon shoulders to small miters to pretty much any small sawing jobs you can think of.

Backsaws 2018 Carcass Saws

The top carcass saw in the above picture was my first backsaw, which I procured from my parents’ barnyard toolkit when I moved out.  It’s taken a lot of abuse but has served me well.  The one below is my trusty Disston #4, which is now my go-to carcass saw.  If I had only one backsaw, it would be this one.

The Tenon Saw

A medium-to-large backsaw sharpened for ripping, anywhere from 12″-16″ long.  As the name implies, this saw is designed especially for sawing the cheeks of tenons, so it’s designed to make deep cuts with the grain.  While it can sometimes do double-duty as a carcass saw, it excels at ripping cuts.

Backsaws 2018 Tenon Saws

Notice that, compared to a carcass saw, the tenon saw has a deeper blade under the spine.  Unless you cut a lot of tenons by hand, you really don’t need a tenon saw.  But if you do, then it’s practically essential.

So How Do I Know Which One to Buy?

Names and specifications will vary a little from manufacturer to manufacturer.  You’ll also see the size of the teeth listed on a lot of saws, but don’t worry much about that right now.  Any good saw manufacturer is going to match the size of the teeth to the kind of work that the saw is best for.

When in doubt, ignore the name and look at the product description.  How long is the saw?  Is it optimized for crosscutting or ripping?  That will tell you all you really need to know.

Should I Buy New or Vintage?

If you have it in your budget, you will be very pleased with one of the many backsaws available from small toolmakers such as Bad-Axe. and Grammercy.  In addition to a traditional lineup of backsaws, both companies offer what they call a “sash saw,” which is essentially a larger carcass saw with teeth that the makers claim is sharpened for either ripping or crosscutting. Both makers are very reputable, so I have no reason to doubt the claims they make for their “hybrid” or “combination” filing, though I have not personally tested them.  The saws offered by these makers are heirloom-quality tools that, with care, will last several lifetimes.  But they come at a premium, often $150-$300 per saw.

If you prefer old tools like I do, I highly recommend an old Disston #4, which is the carcass saw I use most frequently. They came in different lengths, but 12″ seems to have been the most popular. There are other excellent vintage saws, however. Spear & Jackson, Simonds, and Atkins all manufactured excellent backsaws, and any of them would serve you well.

If you find a vintage backsaw in the wild, often the teeth will be dull and need sharpening before the saw is usable. (Saw sharpening can be learned, but that’s another whole issue. It’s best to begin by sending them out to a sharpener.) With some patience, you may be able to find vintage backsaws available online from people who refurbish and sharpen them, which is ideal.

Two other new options are worth mentioning.  Veritas and Lie-Nielsen both make very good backsaws.  The handles are comfortable, and the teeth come perfectly sharp.  The Veritas is somewhat cheaper but lacks the “classic” look of the Lie-Nielsen.

I’ve tried out some of the backsaws from both Veritas and Lie-Nielsen, and they work very well.  Yet I don’t really like them as much as I like my vintage saws–or the two backsaws I made for myself.  The Lie-Nielsen’s handle is just a little too blocky, and the Veritas’s molded plastic spine feels weird.

More importantly, both the Veritas and Lie-Nielsen saws have relatively thin blades.  Vintage backsaws have thicker blades, and while that makes them a little heavier than some modern backsaws, it also makes them a lot less likely to kink if you accidentally twist them mid-cut. Yeah, I know the spine of the saw is supposed to prevent that. It does, usually. But believe me, it’s possible to kink the blade of a backsaw if you wrench it hard enough. (Yeah, I was a sawing novice once myself….) In my experience, the vintage backsaws stand up to harder use.

So Let’s Say I Can Buy Only One (or Two [or Three]) Backsaws Right Now…

It depends somewhat on the kind of woodworking you intend to do, but for general-purpose hand-tool work, such as joinery, here is my recommendation:

If I had only one backsaw, it would be a carcass saw sharpened for crosscutting.

If I had only two backsaws, I would add a dovetail saw.

If I had three, I would add a tenon saw.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to grip a handsaw.  This is the right way:

Backsaws 2018 Three Finger Grip

We call it a three-finger grip.  Extend your index finger along the handle like so.  You will find that this grip helps you saw straight as your arm swings to follow your index finger.  (It’s the right way to grip the handle of a handplane, too.)

If you use older vintage handsaws, you will quickly notice that the openings in the handles are quite small.  It’s not because men’s hands used to be smaller way-back-when.  It’s because saw manufacturers assumed that people knew how to hold a saw correctly.   They optimized their handles for this three-finger grip.  Newer handsaws have bigger openings in the handle to accommodate a four-finger grip, but don’t give in to that temptation.  Always use a three-finger grip on a handsaw!

Oh, and one more thing: that really long backsaw at the very bottom of the first picture belongs to a miter box, which is a device that allows you to saw repeatedly at a pre-set angle.  The spine slides through two guides, which both direct and support the saw.  This saw is not designed to use “freehand.”  It’s far too heavy for that.  You will sometimes find long backsaws like this in antique shops, but unless you own a vintage miter box, there is no reason to have one.

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3 Responses to Choosing a Back Saw: Everything You Really Need to Know

  1. I have been wanting to get a back saw but have yet to pull the trigger on one, I appreciate the info, it will definitely be useful when I get one in the near future.

  2. Matt Rae says:

    Hi! I want to build my own tenon saw but am nervous about getting the hang right. How do I know what hang I want on a backsaw?

  3. andymckenzie617 says:

    I love reading other people’s views, just to remind myself there are a lot of ways to approach anything.

    If I could only keep one of my backsaws, it would be the 12ppi rip-filed carcase saw from Veritas. I use it for everything: crosscutting small (and occasionally not-so-small) parts on a bench hook, cutting tenons, defining the walls for a dado, and cutting dovetails. It rips wonderfully, and if I remember to use a knife to make a cut at the “exit” side of the piece, crosscutting is fast and not too messy.

    I entirely agree with you on sawplate thickness, though. The only thing I don’t like about the Veritas is how thin the blade is. It’s something like half the thickness of my tenon saw, which feels much more solid.

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