What type of Japanese saw do you need?
Japan excels at carpentry. Throughout history, Japanese craftsmen have been praised for their remarkable talents. Japan is known for its fine wood joinery, and the Japanese saw has been essential to this accomplishment.
Japanese carpenters often avoid using nails and glue. They cut wood to fit together perfectly like puzzle pieces. Intricate joinery requires exceptionally high-quality and well-designed tools. The Japanese saw is one tool western woodworkers need to know about.
Japanese saws cut on the pull motion. Because of this, they require less weight on the blade while cutting, so they’re more precise and don’t need to be as thick and robust as western saws. As they're much thinner than western saws, they're sharper and far more versatile. If you’re in the market for a hand saw for wood, a pull saw may be just what you need.
As in western woodworking, different Japanese saws are used for different purposes. So, searching for one can be challenging if you need help understanding the foreign names and terminology. If you’re new to Japanese tools, you may not know how to choose the perfect pull saw for your needs. Do you need a hand saw for wood, or for plastics, or plaster? Do you need a dozuki double-edged hand saw, or a kugihiki flush cut saw?
The purpose of this article is to serve as a guide and glossary for anyone thinking of purchasing a top-quality pull saw.
What are the different types of Japanese saws?
There are six main types of saw in Japan. Some are all-rounders, while others serve specific purposes in the workshop. In addition to these, there are some others that we haven't listed. If there’s a saw we haven’t mentioned, it’s likely either rarely used in modern times or used for specific purposes that most people won't need.
Some of the saws you're about to learn about are similar to western saws, and others will be new to you. Maybe one or two will become top-drawer tools in your toolbox. You've just entered the world of versatile, super-sharp, and inexpensive Japanese saws.
Ryoba (double-edged saw)
One key thing differentiates ryoba saws from any saw in the west. As a result, they're the most versatile handsaw on the market and the most essential tool for most carpenters in Japan. What sets ryoba saws apart from other handsaws is that they're double-sided. It’s possible to cut with either edge of the saw blade. It has one side for crosscutting (cutting across the grain) and one for ripping (cutting with the grain).
These saws are well suited to cutting large boards in construction. As no spines or frames are holding you back, you can cut to any depth. You can rip the board to the appropriate width, flip your saw over, and trim it to your desired length.
It’s possible to cut hardwood and softwood with most ryoba saws. You can also use them in joinery when you need to cut horizontally and vertically, such as when making dovetail joints. These are genuinely universal saws.
These 2-in-1 tools save space in your toolbox or workshop and save you time changing tools. Most western woodworkers choose the ryoba as their first Japanese saw, and it’s at the right hand of every Japanese carpenter and tradesman.
Dozuki saws are Japanese pull saw alternatives to western backsaws. Reinforcing metal runs down the back of the blade, stiffening it. Due to the stiffness combined with the pull motion, dozuki saws allow for much more precise control while cutting - making them ideal for fine woodworking.
They typically have crosscutting teeth. But they can handle short rip cuts. Some modern saw brands have designed dozuki blades with hybrid crosscutting and ripping teeth - the perfect tool for cutting dovetail joints.
Just like their western counterparts, like gent's saws and tenon saws, dozuki are most typically used for joinery, to cut dovetails, miters, or tenons by hand.
The Japanese pull saw has a thinner blade than the western push saw, and dozuki saws are no exception. Their blades tend only to be 0.2mm or 0.3mm thick. With such a thin blade, they can cut a much narrower kerf than a conventional backsaw, ensuring each cut is accurate and true.
Kataba (single-edged saw)
Kataba are single-edged saws that can come in crosscut or ripping blade configurations. They're similar to dozuki but without that stiffening spine at the back. In other words, you can cut as deep as you want.
You're probably wondering why you need a kataba saw when you have a ryoba (double-edged) saw. Perhaps you don't. It all depends on how you intend to use it. If you're working in construction, cutting and ripping boards and panels that don't need to be pretty, then a ryoba is the saw for you. Using a ryoba saves you time and eliminates the need for multiple saws. There is only one minor flaw: crosscut teeth are thicker and broader than ripping teeth. When you rip a board with a ryoba, the crosscut teeth must also pass through the kerf. The edges and surface of the board around the cut can be scratched as a result.
Kataba blades have nothing on the back. As a result, your boards are not damaged. Their thin blades produce a smooth, clean cut with a razor-thin kerf. For fine carpentry, they are the saw of choice.
Azebiki (surface-cutting saw)
Azebiki saws are perfect if you don't have space for circular or plunge saws, don't want to disturb your neighbors with noisy power tools, or just prefer hand tools.
Azebiki are small saws with short, curved blades. You may not even realize they're saws if you see them in a shop. We're not used to seeing saws like these.
Azebiki are the only option when cutting into a board's surface without using power tools. Press the curved blade against the flat surface, apply a little pressure, and rock it back and forth until the teeth sink in. Then: pull - it’s a Japanese saw after all. There's nothing like them in western carpentry, but they're handy and versatile. For western carpenters just trying out Japanese tools for the first time, these quickly become their favorites.
Not only can they plunge directly into the surface of a board, but they are also double-edged. Similarly to ryoba saws, they have crosscutting teeth on one side and ripping teeth on the other. In addition, they can be tiny, allowing you to cut in tight and awkward spaces.
Kugihiki (flush cut saw)
This type of Japanese saw isn’t difficult to find in some bigger western tool shops. They’ve been totally accepted by furniture makers and carpenters worldwide because they’re a straightforward solution to a problem that carpenters have had for decades.
In the past, if you were trying to cut doweling flush against the board, it would be a long process:
- Cut the dowel with a hacksaw.
- Chisel it as flat as possible.
- Sand it smooth.
The result? Good enough.
How does a kugihiki solve that problem? All you need to do is bend the flexible blade to cut the dowel flush, then sand it. The result? Perfect. The flush cut saw is genius in its simplicity.
Kugihiki saws are by far the best way to cut dowel flush. The process is the easiest, and the result is the best. This is why any carpenter who dowels frequently has at least one kugihiki flush cut saw in their toolbox.
Mawashibiki (keyhole saw)
Finally, the least unique Japanese saw is the mawashibiki. If you know western saws well, this looks like a typical keyhole saw. So, what makes mawashibiki saws better than western keyhole saws?
They’re pull saws. Keyhole saws of all varieties have extremely narrow blades. Narrow blades break easily. How do you reduce the risk of breaking your blade? By putting less pressure and weight on it. A pull saw, by nature, requires far less force to be exerted when cutting; this means your chances of breaking your blade are significantly reduced, and your mawashibiki will last a lot longer than your western keyhole saw.
There are some mawashibiki with extra features that make them even better than keyhole saws. Some have replaceable blades, so if you do happen to break or bend one, there’s an easy and cheap solution. Others are even double-edged, like ryoba saws, giving different tooth configurations for different purposes.
Aside from that, they’re almost the same as a typical keyhole saw and used for all the same tasks. You can use them to cut curves, to cut holes in walls or other panels (started with a drill), and to cut in tight and awkward places.