For replacing a deck board, building a treehouse, or fixing a piece of rotted trim, it’s essential to have a handsaw. We had three carpenters test seven saws, and the one chosen unanimously as the best is the Shark 15-inch Carpentry Saw (about $29).
When it comes to cutting, this saw has no equal. It sliced through wood at least twice as fast as most of the other saws. On a single-blade stroke through a piece of pine, the Shark went 30 percent deeper than the second-place saw. In addition to being fast and aggressive, the Shark was the most precise saw we tested, cutting along a marked line with easy accuracy. It also left the cleanest cut, with very little shredding of the wood fibers and almost no blow-out at the edges, even when we sent it through the delicate face of veneered plywood. Lastly, the Shark cuts on the pull stroke, so it won’t wear out the arm like a traditional western saw. You could get a basic wood saw for $10 or $11, but the Shark far exceeds those and is well worth the $30 price tag.
If the Shark is not available, we also like the Irwin 15-inch Carpentry Pull Saw (about $25). The Irwin is similar in that it’s a pull saw, but it doesn’t have the raw speed of the Shark. It was still faster than the rest of the saws though, and we liked its comfortable handle.
Between a ten-year construction career and eight years spent writing about and reviewing tools, I’ve been using saws for a long time. As a carpenter, I made a living based on my ability to cut material accurately, and that has given me a real appreciation of what a good saw can do. They make work, faster, easier, and more efficient. I’ve also devoted a lot of words to cutting tools with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, This Old House, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor.
To go deeper into handsaws, we spoke with three tool experts: Mark Clement, licensed contractor and co-host of the MyFixitUpLife radio show; Rob Robillard, licensed contractor and editor of A Concord Carpenter; and Harry Sawyers, Sweethome editor and former editor at This Old House and Popular Mechanics.
There are a lot of opinions on handsaws. In fact, each one of the experts we spoke with prefers a different style. Clement highly recommends the Japanese Kataba single-bladed pull saws, Robillard likes the traditional western saws, and Sawyers opts for the more compact folding pruning saws, known for their portability and pull-stroke cutting.
With this variety of opinion, we decided to test two saws from each category. We also looked at a saw in the style of a Japanese Ryoba saw (double-bladed pull saw), which are very popular with working carpenters (I’ve used one for years).
We narrowed the field by researching the ideal teeth-per-inch (tpi) for a general use saw. Because the recommended saw would have to cleanly cross-cut (cut across the grain) and rip-cut (cut with the grain), we found a detailed piece at Norse Woodsmith that concludes, “the ‘universal’ rip saw would be in the 6 to 8 point range, and the ‘universal’ crosscut saw would have 8 to 10 point per inch.” So really, anything that hovers around the 8-point range looks to be the sweet spot.
With this info, we chose the test saws based on the specific recommendations of our experts, manufacturer reputation, customer feedback, and our own knowledge of what makes a good saw. We also set a price limit of around $30. High-end Japanese saws can get very expensive, but at a certain point, unless you’re a professional woodworker or have a serious furniture-building hobby, a $30 saw will work just fine.
The seven tested saws were the Shark 15-inch Carpentry Saw (about $30), the Irwin 15-inch Carpentry Pull Saw (about $25), the Irwin Universal Hand Saw ($15), the Stanley Fat Max Handsaw ($11), the Vaughn Bear Saw ($30), the Silky Pocketboy 130 medium teeth ($30), and the Shark 2440 ($30).
To get a general feel of the tools, I spent an evening sawing things with two other carpenters: Aaron Goff (12 years of experience in high-end remodeling); and Mark Piersma (14 years’ experience). Over the course of a few hours, we cut everything from finish grade birch plywood to nasty chemical-laden pressure treated 2x4s. We also timed a cut with each saw through a pressure-treated 2×6. We ran the test three times and took the best time for each saw. Additionally, we had each saw take a single blade stroke on a piece of ¾-inch-thick pine to see how deep each would cut.
|Saw||Length of blade (in inches)||Depth of single stroke through ¾-inch pine (in inches)||Timed cut through pressure-treated 2×6 (in seconds)|
|Shark Carpentry Saw||15||1¾||8|
|Irwin Carpenter’s Saw||15||1¼||12|
|Vaughan Bear Saw||13||1¼||14|
|Irwin Universal Hand Saw||15||¾||29|
No other saw in our testing cut quite like the Shark 15-inch Carpentry Saw (about $30). In fact, no other saw I’ve ever encountered has cut anything even close to how the Shark cuts. The saw is designed in the style of a Japanese Kataba saw, meaning that it’s a single-bladed saw that cuts on the pull stroke rather than the push stroke (like a traditional western saw). In addition to being the fastest saw we tested, it was also the most precise, keeping to a straight cut line better than any of the others. It also left behind the cleanest cut, with very little shredding of the wood fibers and no blow-out at the edges even while cutting through delicate finish-grade birch plywood. Beyond this stellar cutting ability, the Shark has a comfortable handle and a removable blade that can be replaced if damaged. It also comes with a plastic blade guard to protect the cutting edge (and your knuckles) when it’s not being used.
The cutting speed of the Shark stunned everyone. None of the testers (me included) have ever seen a handsaw blow through wood the way this one does. It topped every single timed test we did, making cuts in less than half the time of some of the other saws. When I pulled the Shark on a single stroke through a piece of ¾-inch-thick pine, it cut a line 1¾ inches deep, almost 30 percent more than the second-place saw.
Because the Shark cuts on the pull, rather than the push, this aggressive cutting takes very little effort. With a western saw you’re basically jamming the blade into the wood in order to cut, which is exhausting. But with the Shark, you’re only drawing the blade through the wood.
The Shark is also extremely precise. Once it is properly lined up with with a cutline, the tall blade prevents it from wavering at all. “If you’re looking for accuracy, this is the one,” said one of our testers after cutting a perfect 45-degree angle on a four-inch piece of poplar.
Because the saw doesn’t undergo an aggressive pushing strain, the width of the blade (the kerf) is thinner than on a western saw, which further adds to the subtlety and accuracy of the cuts. The blade on a push saw needs to be strong and rigid to work against the tendency to buckle on the cutting stroke. Not so with a pull saw.
The Shark cuts easily both with the grain (rip-cut) or across the grain (cross-cut). It has 10 teeth per inch (tpi), which is ideal for cross-cutting and slightly high for rip-cutting. But we had no problems with either one. The handle is comfortable and the blade is removable, so it can be easily replaced with a new one ($20) if it is ever damaged or if you just want to take the saw apart for more compact storage.
Coming in right behind the Shark is the Irwin 15-inch Carpentry Pull Saw (about $25). Like the Shark, it’s a 10-tpi Kataba pull saw with a replaceable blade. Our testers found that the handle of the Irwin was slightly more comfortable than the Shark, but it was just slower. When we cut the pressure-treated 2×6, the Irwin took 12 seconds while the Shark took eight. Other western saws took as much as 29 seconds, so it would be a mistake to call the Irwin a “slow” saw. It’s just slower than the Shark. The Irwin also got snagged a little bit as it cut when we used it at a 45-degree angle, which the Shark never did.
On the whole, it placed second in every test. Even though it doesn’t have the enormous cutting ability of the Shark, the cut quality and ease of accuracy are in the same ballpark. Like the Shark, it comes with a plastic blade guard and has a blade hole for hanging storage. We feel it is a very worthy saw that won’t disappoint anyone who owns it.
For the traditional western saws, we tested the $15 Irwin Universal Hand Saw (Robillard’s recommendation) and the Stanley FatMax Handsaw ($11). We found that neither cut anywhere near as fast or accurately as the Shark. And because they cut on the push stroke, they were much more tiring to use and the blades bound up in the wood far more than they did with the pull saws. There is really just no comparison between these saws and the pull saws.
Representing the pruning saws was The Vaughn Bear Saw ($26) and, Sawyers’s favorite, the Silky Pocketboy 130 medium teeth ($26). The main benefit of the Silky is that it is very small and folds up to a teeny-tiny seven inches by 2½ inches and fits nicely in a compact plastic case for storage. The downside is that the blade is about ⅓ the length of the others, so comparatively, it takes a long time to make a cut which gets exhausting. Still, due to how small it is, particularly when folded, the Silky would be a perfect option for an apartment-dweller who wants something that doesn’t take up any storage room and can be tossed in a toolbox without worrying about the teeth being damaged. During testing, the Vaughn Bear Saw consistently came in third place overall and is a good cutter. Because the blade isn’t as tall as the Shark or the Irwin, it was harder to keep a straight cut line. The Vaughan also doesn’t come with any kind of blade guard other than the cardboard wrapper it came in.
Finally, the double-bladed Ryoba saw we tested, the Shark 2440 ($29) has one edge with 9 tpi for cutting with the grain, and the other with 17 for cutting against the grain. On this saw, the handle is oriented in-line with the blade, making it a trickier saw to use. Given that the blade is shorter than most of the other tested saws, the cutting ability of this saw is solid. All of the carpenter/testers agreed that for most people, the single-bladed Shark would be a better fit. Robillard considers this style of Japanese saw to be “slightly above a DIYer,” but did follow up by saying that they can do “amazing things for a user.”
The Shark 15-inch Carpentry Saw (about $30) is the best saw for the money. It cuts lightning fast and with very little effort. It is easy to keep in a straight line and there is minimal tear out of the wood fibers. If it’s not available, the Irwin 15-inch Carpentry Pull Saw (about $25) is a solid replacement. It doesn’t cut as fast, but it has the same general design and a comfortable handle.
Tip: To get a cut started accurately and cleanly, draw the blade through the edge of the wood two or three times against the grain of the teeth, opposite of the way they cut. In the case of the Shark, this means pushing it. This plows a small groove for the blade and makes for a more stable start. If you start without the groove, the blade tends to jump around.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)