Looking to Improve you Hand Sawing Game?

Recently I kind of stumbled onto something that I think will help me become a better hand tool woodworker and I really want to pass the idea along to others out there who enjoy living shop life that's unplugged, even if it's only some of the time.

First a little explanation. With my mom's side of the family, no matter what else is going on, there is one universal language that you can always speak. The language of golf. I wouldn't call it an obsession, mostly just a shared passion and past time. As a young pre-teenager I remember one specific summer day spent at my Uncle Rod's and Aunt Jill's. A fantastic place located on an old tree farm in Northern Minnesota, I have many great memories of being allowed to run the woods until my legs nearly fell off. It has to be one of my top ten favorite places on the planet. On this day I was around for a summer vacation visit and my grandparents and probably several other family members were over as well. Of course the subject of golf came up and someone related how they heard that watching your golf swing on videotape can help you analyze it and see where you may want to make changes.

My Aunt Jill went and hauled out the video camera. I know technology has changed dramatically since then and these days I can even take reasonably good video on my cell phone, but we are talking about the old videocameras here. The ones that weight more than a bowling ball and can swallow up VCR tapes whole. She set it up and we all took turns recording 5 or 6 swings. Even my cousin Tyler who had to be around 3 or 4 years old took his turn. Then we went inside to look at the tape.

I don't remember what that tape told me about my golf swing. My current golf game would certainly be evidence that I probably learned nothing. But the other day I had a experience that brought that afternoon back from the dust of my memories.

I take a lot of pictures when I'm in the shop. I don't know how many you would consider a lot but on a full eight to ten hour day with a lot of work getting done I can push it to almost 150 pictures. SOme are test pics and some are just plain mistakes, but I do like to take a lot of pics. I figure the more pictures I have the better it is to find the best ones to include in a blog article later, but I don't just take the pictures for the blog. They are kind of a personal documentation, a pictorial diary if you will, of the day in the shop, the steps I took in building a piece, and the techniques I used.

Recently I added an ingenious piece of technology to my arsenal, a tripod. Laugh if you want at the fact that it took me so long to come around to using one, but this has revolutionized the way I take pics in the shop. Before if I wanted a shot of myself working I had to find the right surface to balance the camera on and spend minutes trying to set the framing to fit everything into the shot. The tripod has sped up my work considerably and this added convenience has made it easier to take more pictures of me at work.It also makes it easier to set the timer on the camera and get some shots of me working.

Recently I took a series of pics of myself ripping a length of white oak by hand. I set the timer on the camera to take a series of multiple shots and went to work. Later on while I was going over the pics, cropping and editing them for myself and the blog, I noticed that in some pics my technique was less than spectacular. The end result of the piece I ripped was not bad at all, but the pictures don't lie and I think that maybe it could get better.
Here's a picture of my standard sawing stance. Yes I know that purists will point out that with sawing you should have only one hand on the saw after you get it started. A long time ago I suffered a pretty bad injury to my right shoulder that it has never completely recovered from. It pops and clicks and makes all kinds of fun noises which are fun when it comes to grossing out my wife and children, but basically translate into not being able to generate enough strength to manipulate a full length saw effectively. So I compensate with a two handed grip.
I completely realize that the need for my two handed technique is probably where most of my personal sawing issues come from, but that's what this exercise is all about, finding what you are doing and discovering what you could be doing different to put it right. Here I think I'm looking pretty good.  My body position is set at a good angle to give me success and I'm setting my force directly over the handle and into the blade. This is easy to see with the saw driving straight.
Here you can see I've made an adjustment to my body position, not a big change but I've moved my hips over, and probably changed the angle of my shoulders too. This means I'm also changing the applied pressure to the saw handle. This is very evident in the bow of the saw to my right.
Here's a shot with a longer exposure, showing the blur of my hands as the move the saw through the wood. Here it would seem I've again corrected my hips and have straightened out the saw as I'm picking up speed and gumption to work my way through the board. The handle is listing a slight bit to the right though so that would demonstrate to me that I am probably getting some additional twisting from the waist due to the two hand technique.
Up until now when I saw I pay attention to the drive of my right shoulder as I try to maintain a straight cut. Though it makes sense I haven't paid complete attention to the rest of what I'm doing with my body. Just like you can change a golf swing with the minor details of where you place your feet, to how you hold your hands, to how you rotate your hips, you can make similar adjustments in how you saw. I would assume that this study of body mechanics relates to other hand tool practices like planing and drilling with a brace as well.

For those of us learning hand tool techniques I think this photo documentation, or even video documentation, could be an invaluable tool to seeing what you could improve on. Years ago when hand tools were still King, you would spend years working under a master, when we talk about this relationship we often talk about the instruction side of learning, and certainly a master would be a fountain of knowledge for effective skills and techniques. But the other side of instuction is evaluation. As an apprentice, the master would have opportunity to watch you work. He could see if you were tilting the saw towards your body on the uptake. He could see if your weight distribution over the joiner plane was flawed. He could see what you were doing that pushed your dovetail lines off square. And when he saw these slight mistakes, he could step in and help correct them.

I make a joke that I am "Nobody's" apprentice, as if my master carried the actual name "Nobody." In truth I consider myself Everybody's apprentice. I learn by watching and reading everything I can from everyone I can. Video from Roy Underhill, The Schwarz, Shannon Rodgers, or Bob Rozaieski and many others. Words from Peter Follansbee, Rob Pocolo, or any of several dozen others whose blogs I follow. But now I realize the part of the master / apprentice relationship I'm missing is the evaluation part and I think it's possible to fill in that missing piece by closely observing myself and my technique using pictures or video and evaluating myself. I've seen the master's do it a lot, now I need to take some time to watch myself do it to see how I stack up.

Just like the perfect golf swing, the search for the perfect saw stroke may be elusive, but it's out there.




  1. Great post Derek. I like the idea and the photo process for analysis.

    Don't be so hard on yourself about the two-hand sawing. It is not as taboo as you think. Get a hold of a Disston rip saw with the Thumbhole tote and you will understand that some saws were made for that approach.


  2. Derek,
    I just found your blog and really enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for being so detailed in your analysis of your work and I too enjoy the pictures. Like you I'm without a master to learn from so I'm basically learning from reading articles and blogs online. I've only been at it for a year or so now so I'm really a newbie, and only have a few tools. I look forward to reading more of your journey, and hope to be able to glean from your experinces. Keep up the great work!


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