first time I got my hands on a proper rip saw was,
unfortunately, a bitter-sweet experience.
It was sweet because it was the first moment of the rest of
my woodworking life….like a door had been opened to a place
that was fun, fulfilling, and free from the threat of lung
cancer and systematic dismemberment. But it was bitter
because I was frustrated with the performance of the
saw… and just so you know, the saw wasn’t from Home Depot or
Ace Hardware. The saw was a vintage Disston D-8 with a
thumbhole from the classic 1896 to 1917 era…we’re talking
about the greatest rip saw ever made by human hands. And it
was professionally sharpened by a well-respected saw guru.
So what was the problem?
Well, the saw was gorgeous, perfectly tuned, sharp as
English wit, but to my inexperienced hands, every time I
stroked the saw through wood, it was not a pleasant
experience. The teeth felt like they were sticking in the
wood…and like I had to push really hard to get them to cut.
I could feel the moment each tooth sheared a chunk of fibers
from the board, and that feeling reverberated from the
teeth, to the saw plate, to the tote, to my palm, and up my
arm to my shoulder. It was jittery and rough and un-nerving.
And I was pissed.
What the hell?!?!? This was not the zen like experience I
had read about in the pages of books and magazines…this was
a hands on demonstration of why people started the asinine
folk art craze of painting on hand saws instead of using
Well, like most things in life, it turns out knowledge
really is power. And in this case, the knowledge I didn’t
have about rip saws was disempowering me to use them. What I
quickly learned was that hand saws, much UNLIKE powered
saws, require an intimate knowledge of their form and
function to use properly.
Any toothless caveman can go to Home Despot, buy a $99 table
saw, plug it in, and be ripping white oak all day long like
he was Norm Abrams. But to do so with a hand rip saw
requires knowledge of the physiology of wood, body
mechanics, and saw tooth geometry.
So which one was I missing?…..the one about saw tooth
geometry, and in this case, that was the most critical
absence. You see, what I did not yet understand about rip
saw teeth was the fundamentals of tooth rake. And the rake
was what was making this saw cut like a jack hammer.
Rake, or “pitch” as it also is traditionally called, (not to
be confused with the common, modern designation of pitch
meaning tooth spacing) is the measure in degrees that the
face of each cutting tooth is rotated back from 90 degrees
relative to the tooth line. The illustration below (from
Disston and Sons “Lumberman Handbook”, 1907) demonstrates
two different rakes.
In the first image is shown a
saw with 0 (zero) degrees of rake. The face of each tooth is
90 degrees to the tooth line, and in effect not raked
forward (like Japanese saws) and not raked backward.
In the second image is shown a
saw with 12 (twelve) degrees of rake, meaning that the face
of each tooth is rotated back 12 degrees from vertical (90
degrees from the tooth line).
So, what’s this have to do with
how a saw cuts? Lots. And lots. And….well, you get the idea.
Which is this: the greater the teeth are raked back from
vertical, the less resistance the teeth encounter as they
cut the wood. So teeth with zero rake–meaning the cutting
faces of each tooth are 90 degrees from the tooth line–will
cut more aggressively and meet with more resistance than
teeth that are raked 5 degrees back from vertical (relative
to the toothline). Make sense? Good.
I should also point out that
the more teeth are raked back, the less aggressively they
cut. So before you go and file 25 degrees of rake into all
your rip saws, you should know that by doing so, you’re
effectively turning them into giant bread knives. Not good
So, can you guess how much rake
was on the teeth on that fortuitous first D-8?
Zero degrees. And if you’re
paying attention at home, you now know that means that the
face of each cutting tooth was 90 degrees from the tooth
line…just like in the first illustration above.
And that’s why my first nice
rip saw–though perfectly tuned and filed with a precision
that would make even ole Henry Disston proud–made me want to
call the guy I sold my table saw to and beg him to sell it
back to me!!!!! But I didn’t give up. In stead, I started
filing my own saws and here’s what I figured out…