What To Know About Choosing and Using a Handsaw

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If you think a handsaw isn't useful in a world full of power tools, think again! Learn why you still need a handsaw, plus how to choose and use one.

Handsaws, as the name suggests, are steel-toothed manual cutting tools. Though tool technology has advanced to a point where dozens of power saws of every shape and size are readily available, having at least one good handsaw in your workshop still makes sense.

One reason is convenience. It’s often faster and easier to grab your handsaw for a quick cut rather than dig out batteries or extension cords, hearing protection and safety glasses to make that same cut with a power saw. Another reason is cost. Compared to electric wood-cutting tools, handsaws are extremely economical.

Every serious DIYer should own a quality handsaw, and choosing the right one for your needs is important. Learn about the different handsaw options, plus tips for getting the most out of your handsaw.

How To Choose a Good Handsaw

Begin with a general purpose handsaw

As a DIYer, it makes sense to start your collection with a general purpose hard point handsaw. These come with teeth made of hardened steel.

Hard point saws aren’t meant to be sharpened, but simply replaced when they get dull. Choose one with medium-sized teeth to strike a balance between fast and smooth cuts. This Irwin model is the handsaw I reach for most often.

Decide which specialty handsaws you need

Besides my Irwin saw, I favor Japanese handsaws for finer work. Unlike western saws, Japanese saws feature a tooth pattern that cuts on the pull stroke rather than the push. This allows their blades to be thinner than most, leading to finer cuts. All the hand sawing I do is with my Irwin or one of several Japanese handsaws I own.

Here are the Japanese saws I like:

  • Standard Dozuki handsaw: Thin-bladed and fine-toothed, these saws are mainly for fine carpentry cuts like dovetails and tenons. The thin blades leave only a tiny kerf. To prevent buckling, the blades of Dozuki saws are reinforced with a steel spine on the back edge.
  • Double-edged flush cutting handsaw: Traditional timber framing requires cutting off dowels and joining wood together flush without damaging the workpiece. That’s what double-edge Japanese tooth flush cutting handsaws do well. The extremely thin, flexible blades make precision flush cuts easy.
  • Pruning handsaw: Coarse-toothed and rigid, these saws make quick work of bushes and tree branches that need pruning. The teeth are spaced to prevent binding when green wood chips start flying. For bigger jobs I grab my chainsaw, but smaller landscaping projects are better approached with these handsaws.

How To Use a Handsaw

Regardless of the type of handsaw you choose, the basic technique is the same. If you’ve never done it before or need a quick refresher, here are the fundamentals:

  • Mark your cuts first: Unlike miter saws, handsaws don’t have a way to keep cuts square. That’s why it’s important to mark your cuts before starting. With a pencil and carpenter square, mark lines along the top, front and back sides of your workpiece. This visual reference will help you keep the saw blade where it needs to be as you advance through the wood.
  • Start the cut at an angle: Whether your handsaw cuts on the pull or push stroke, you’ll guarantee best results by beginning the cut at an angle on the top corner of your workpiece. Don’t try to start the cut horizontally; your saw blade will probably slide on the workpiece and lead to ragged results. Once you start the cut, you can gradually angle the blade back to horizontal.
  • Don’t go back and forth at first: Though most of your cut will involve moving the handsaw back and forth, this isn’t the best way to start. For crisp cuts, begin with delicate pushes of the blade only if your saw cuts on the push, or pulls only if it cuts on the pull.
  • Use long strokes: Once establishing your cut, do the bulk of the cutting with long, straight strokes. Use the full length of the blade. This will lead to straighter, crisper cuts and more even saw wear.

How To Sharpen a Handsaw

All the handsaws I use regularly are hard point, so they’re meant to be replaced, not sharpened. But some handsaws should be sharpened. Sharpening handsaws requires specialty tools and skills. Most DIYers I know (myself included) don’t find the time and effort involved in sharpening handsaws worthwhile.

Handsaw Tips and Tricks

Protect your handsaw blades

Saw teeth will quickly become dull and useless if they’re kept unprotected in a drawer with other tools. That’s why a saw blade guard is essential. Irwin handsaws come with protective cardboard sleeves which I keep and use on all my saws.

Check your cuts partway through

When you’re new to sawing by hand, it’s easy for cuts to wander away from the lines you’ve marked. That’s why it’s wise to stop a few times as you saw through the wood and check your progress. You won’t necessarily notice if you’re straying from the line while cutting, but pausing and checking can give you the chance to adjust the cut if needed.

Use the reflection in the blade as a reference

This is a trick I’ve used for many years to avoid marking my cuts for squareness. It works particularly well with my Irwin handsaw, which has a shiny blade.

As you begin the cut, look at the side of the blade. You’ll see a reflection of the workpiece. Angle the saw blade until the reflection of the wood lines up perfectly with the actual workpiece, then keep the saw in this position as you cut. As long as the reflection appears to be a continuation of your workpiece going through the saw, your cut will be square and true.

Robert Maxwell
Robert Maxwell is a writer, videographer, photographer and online strength coach based in Northern Ontario, Canada. He grew up on a rural self-sufficient homestead property where he learned the skills to build his own home from the ground up, do all his own vehicle repairs, and work with wood, stone and metal to find practical DIY solutions to many everyday problems.