Hand Saw vs. Table Saw

Lesson Learned:

A handsaw can be just as fast as a table saw.

After I printed out my plans, and measured everything out on my plywood, I brought the plywood into the garage to cut all the panels at once. I figured, I have a table saw, I have a cross-cut sled, this is going to be faster, and more precise than cutting by hand. Turns out, it took longer, wasn’t any more accurate, and ended up creating a lot of wasted wood.

I am cheap, so I build my dollhouses from scratch. That means I either draw out the plan before hand, or improvise as I go. This time, I decided to download a dollhouse plan to follow, to help me keep an eye on scale. My next decision was, do I draw out all the panels, and cut them first, or do I cut them as I go? Like I said, I’m cheap, so I mistakenly assumed doing it all at once would end up being faster, and more efficiently use the wood I had purchased.

Here’s the thing: my table saw is an ancient Crafstman that I got from my wife’s Pappy. I’ve built some modular wings, and a cross-cut sled to make it as safe as possible, but it’s still a bit of an arm ripper. Frankly, I have what I consider to be a healthy fear of using that thing. It’s also upstairs in my garage. Which means when I want to use my table saw, I have to back the cars out, set it up, cut all the wood, lug it all downstairs, and clean all the sawdust in the garage when I’m done. My workshop, where I build the dollhouse, is downstairs, in my tiny workshop. So, if I’m going to use my table saw, I’m going to cut as much as I can at one time to save me the effort of setting it up and tearing it down multiple times.

Vintage table saw with cross-cut sled
Ye Olde Arm-Ripper

Even though my table saw is old, and requires some additional set up, it’s still gotta be faster than cutting everything by hand – right? And even if it’s not all that much faster, it’s got to be more accurate, with my cross-cut sled that guarantees perfect 90 degree cuts – right?

Wrong.

It turns out, cutting plywood by hand is easy (and there’s no extra-credit for doing things the hard way). Plywood is thin, my handsaw is sharp, and I can cut a panel using my hand saw just as quickly as I can with the table saw. But what about accuracy? I spent a lot of time dialing in my cross-cut sled so that it would guarantee 90 degree angles, so that’s got to account for something. But, as it turns out, cutting accurately with the hand saw is really pretty easy, all you have to do is know how to do it, and take a tiny bit more time.

When you are cutting with a handsaw, there are really only a few tricks to make sure it’s as accurate as that three-quarter horse power saw in the garage.

Illustration of how to cut with a hand saw
Proof that I can’t draw a decent saw with realistic foreshortening.

First: Give yourself a start

Cut a tiny notch in the wood where you want your cut to start. The hardest part about cutting accurately with a hand saw is getting the cut started. After that, the saw itself helps to keep the saw in line (that’s why hand saws are so wide.)

Second: Check the reflection

If you are looking at your saw, and you should see a reflection of the wood on the blade of the saw. If you line that reflection up so that it continues in a straight line from the wood itself, then your saw is at 90 degrees. That means you are safe to start the cut. If the reflection creates an angle between the saw and the wood, then you’re off 90 degrees, and your cut will be off. The longer the cut, the worse your error will be. Starting out at 90 degrees is really the most important part, and it only takes an extra second to do.

Third: Cut slowly

I know I said a hand saw is faster than a table saw, and it is when you consider the time it takes to transfer your work. But if you rush the hand saw, and push through the wood, you’ll end up bruising the fibers and getting a lot of tear out, which you won’t see until you flip the piece over. If instead, you take your time and let the saw do the cutting, you’ll get a much cleaner, straighter line with minimal tear out.

Taking these precautions adds about a half-second to the amount of time it takes to cut with a hand saw. And until I can get my work to a table saw in less time than that, cutting plywood by hand is almost always going to give me a better result.

I should say, this only applies to straight lines for me. I’ve found that using a hand saw to get straight lines is pretty easy. (Thanks to the genius who is Paul Sellers, Seriously I could watch that guy work all day…) But, (sorry Paul) once I’m talking about intricate, precise curves – I’ve found a scroll saw to be much more accurate, and much faster than using a coping saw. But more on that later.

Child cutting a board with a hand saw
I’m not really sure why my daughter is wearing the ear protection, but hey… safety first?

What others have to say:

Here are some more helpful tips about hand-crafting vs (what’s the opposite of hand-crafted?) wood:

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