Essential Tools (to Me), part 1: The Stair Saw

A few years ago, I realized I had stopped acquiring tools. Well, more or less. There are always one or two additional tools on my wish-list, and I pick up a new tool (or replace an inadequate one) every so often. But after spending the last 15+ years learning to work wood primarily with hand tools, I have built up what I have found to be an essential set of tools for doing the kind of things I like/want/need to make.

Everyone’s “essentials” list is different. In this and the next few posts, I want to highlight a few of my own “essential” tools, in no particular order. They may be everyday tools that help me do a wide variety of jobs, or they may be fairly specialized tools that are designed to do one job efficiently and precisely.

Today’s tool is one of the latter. This is a stair saw I built from a kit about 10 years ago, and while I don’t use it often, it is absolutely best tool for one very specific job.

First, some details about the tool itself. The blade is 8 1/4″ long, with 13 PPI (points per inch). I made the body from spalted pecan wood, and it matches a number of other tools in my shop that have components made out of wood from the same tree.

This saw is a specialty tool that allows me to make precise cuts across the grain to a particular, repeatable depth. The body itself acts as a depth-stop. Just set the blade to the desired depth, and start sawing. The blade is secured in place by two split nuts, which are counter-sunk into the body, allowing unobstructed visibility on both sides of the saw.

As the name implies, this kind of saw was probably used a lot in making staircases once upon a time.

I have never made a staircase, but whenever I build casework, I often use a lot of dado joints for the shelves. Once I have the thickness of the shelf marked out on the upright, I use the stair saw to make two cuts, one on each side, to the correct depth. Then I remove the waste with a chisel and router plane. (As you can see, this kind of joint could easily be used in constructing stairs.)

Once I build up a rhythm, the work goes very quickly, and it doesn’t take me long to make a set of dado joints from start to finish. Thanks to my stair saw, the dado is the fastest joint I can cut.

I used it, for example, on a dresser I built not long ago for one of my daughters. Thanks to the stair saw, the drawer blades and runners (the pieces that separate the drawers from each other) fit together perfectly:

I don’t need my stair saw very often, and it usually sits behind my other saws in the saw till. But when I’m building casework furniture, I wouldn’t want to be without it.

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2 Responses to Essential Tools (to Me), part 1: The Stair Saw

  1. Dave Germeroth says:

    To me, it looks like the blade is installed so that the saw cuts on the pull stroke. Am I seeing this correctly?

    • Yes, that’s right. The saw can be set up to cut in either direction. (Should have mentioned that in the original post!) Last time I used it, I must have had it set up that way. Cutting on the pull stroke is especially helpful for cutting stopped dados.

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