25

Whenever I use a hand saw, I find I keep subconsciously curving the cut, no matter how much I consciously try to compensate.

In this example in photos, to get this cut straight I kept rotating the pole, but from the messy spiral shape, you can see what was happening.

What am I doing wrong?

pole1

15
  • 2
    what kind of saw do you have?
    – njzk2
    Jul 28 at 21:07
  • 5
    Why did you keep rotating the workpiece?
    – mmathis
    Jul 28 at 23:49
  • 2
    Seems to me like you're rushing the cut, among other things. Don't expect to be able to cut straight with a bendy blade free hand without a lot of practice.
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 29 at 1:32
  • 2
    @mmathis Can you see what would have happened if I hadn't ?
    – Stewart
    Jul 29 at 11:11
  • 5
    Stewart I think @mmathis' point is that since you rotated the wood when you were cutting, you had to start 4 times. When you started, you started in 4 slightly different planes leaving that nice chess-board pattern on the end of your wood. It's possible that had you started at the top and cut until you were through, you would have had a much flatter, straighter cut. Of course, without a square on it, it's hard for us to tell if any of your 4 starts were square or not.
    – FreeMan
    Jul 29 at 18:30

11 Answers 11

40

The same way you get to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice!

Of course, there are some tricks that you can use to make it easier.

  • Draw lines on 3 surfaces. The first line is on the top surface where you begin your cut, the other two lines are on the adjacent surfaces. Assuming these 3 lines all line up, you can stop every half-dozen strokes or so to check that the saw is tracking along the two lines on opposite faces and make adjustments before you get far off track. You'll also have lines to follow as you go through the wood to help you stay on track.

    • I tend to start my cut on a corner, then once I've got a bit of a groove, I'll slowly cut at a lower (flatter) the angle until I've cut all the way across the top surface of the wood and made a groove all the way across. This way, the saw will tend to want to stay in that groove when I go back to cutting at a steeper angle. It's still possible to wander off, though, if you're not paying enough attention.
  • Ensure that you have correct positioning when you're cutting. You want your cutting arm to be able to move freely past your body - that means the cut line should be to the side of where you're standing, not in front of you.

    • Your arm doesn't move toward/away from you very smoothly when your hand is in front of your belly button. It makes that motion much more smoothly when your hand is to the side.
    • Additionally, you want your body to be pretty square to your work so your elbow is moving past your ribs and your forearm is moving away from you. You don't want to swing your arm in front of your body (left to right) as you won't get much power that way (though you want the saw to do the work) and it's also more difficult to swing your arm straight in that direction.
  • Use a guide to help you stay on track. Something like a Speed Square™ (or one of the many knock-offs of that brand name). You can line it up on the top face of your cut and use it as a very visual line to follow if you're having issues following a simple pencil line.

    • To start the cut, you could use the Speed Square on the top surface to ensure you're keeping the blade vertical to the top as you get started. This is probably the most important part since once the cut has started, the saw will want to follow in the groove that's already been cut - it will bind and be difficult to move when you attempt to change angles.
  • Make sure your saw is in good condition. If there is any damage to the saw, it will make it difficult for it to track straight. Obvious bends or kinks are one thing, but there may be a subtle bow in it, for example if it was stored laying flat with something under it (laid flat in a drawer). Or, even a single tooth being knocked out of proper alignment could be causing it to wander off track - this could be caused by the saw being dropped, or something dropping onto the saw, and hitting a tooth.

    • I usually store my saws by hanging them (either by the handle or through a factory-made hole in the end of the blade). If there is a shorter saw on the hook against the wall, and a longer saw away from the wall, the weight of the handle of the longer saw could cause it, over time, to bow around the handle of the shorter saw.

Finally, while you're getting the practice and you aren't getting the results you really desire, cut your boards just a bit longer than you really need them with the knowledge that you'll need to do a bit of sanding to get them squared up and to their final length. This way you can cut and be productive without wasting material because you've cut a piece too short.

7
  • 4
    Sanding end grain to square a board is an exercise in frustration. End grain doesn't sand well and you usually end up with a rounded-off crooked board.
    – isherwood
    Jul 28 at 18:53
  • If I had to sand a bit off the end of a board, I'd pull out a belt sander. Jul 29 at 2:17
  • 2
    How to sand end grain sounds like the basis for another good question. There's probably already something on that at Woodworking, though.
    – FreeMan
    Jul 29 at 12:07
  • 1
    Don't forget about clamping the piece so it doesn't move around. A simple bar clamp, or three, can do wonders to help make a straight cut. From decades of experience, I know that I can use my hand or a knee to hold a piece in place, but I'll get a much better cut if it's clamped to a workspace that doesn't move at all. Also, a pull saw tends to cut straighter than a push saw. Jul 29 at 16:06
  • 1
    That's the other way, @Vikki, but these days, the MTA frowns on you taking a saw on the train.
    – FreeMan
    Aug 16 at 12:09
40

This is why miter boxes exist. They keep your workpiece and saw in reasonably stable alignment. Some clamps to keep things still make nice cuts almost effortless.

Remember: Let the saw do the cutting. Long, light strokes. Don't force it.

enter image description here

You can make your own fairly easily with a few boards (ideally hardwood) in a U configuration and a square cut. To facilitate that, clamp some temporary guides to the miter box for the initial cut--a miter box for the miter box, if you will.

5
  • 2
    These things also get pretty chewed up over time, so always using one where the grooves haven't gone tear-drop shaped is key.
    – coblr
    Jul 29 at 21:02
  • 1
    To suggest making a mitre box when the OP is struggling to cut square is a moot point...
    – handyman
    Aug 3 at 19:52
  • @handyman, I believe I addressed that issue nicely in my answer. I disagree.
    – isherwood
    Aug 4 at 21:25
  • I agree but it is a funny answer. How do I make straight cuts? Build a box that requires at least 3 straight cuts!
    – DMoore
    Aug 16 at 16:24
  • It only requires one straight cut. Makes no difference whatsoever with the ends of the miter box look like.
    – isherwood
    Aug 22 at 0:57
19

A properly sharpened saw.

A clear line.

Practice. Less than 20 years, but actually practicing with scrap lumber is very beneficial.

For 90 degree cuts, it also helps if your saw is clean and shiny enough to reflect the wood so you can see if the reflection is straight, or crooked - crooked indicates that the saw is not perpendicular to the wood.

2
  • Yes, a saw that's dirty with a sap and sawdust mix, or even "just" rust, is basically a recipe for the saw binding and causing a crooked cut. And a sharp saw makes "let the saw do the work" much easier to remember and practice. Jul 29 at 16:09
  • 1
    Just FYI - you can practice at big orange for free until they kick you out of the trim aisle! When my kids were younger I would let them cut a couple pieces if they were good. They were noticeably better after the 10th time.
    – DMoore
    Jul 30 at 3:43
10

The issue with this sort of cut is that the bevel and the miter are not perpendicular to the workpiece and not perpendicular to each other.

  1. Use a jig. You can build one, and place the workpiece in it, or you can build a jig around your workpiece by clamping or screwing on some guiding lumber. The jig separates two key steps in sawing straight: a) the patience and precision required for alignment, and b) the steady perseverance required for the sawing.

  2. Alternatively, clearly mark the cutting outline. Wrap the workpiece with painters' tape along the desired cut line. Careful though: all tape has elasticity, so while wrapping don't pull the tape hard, as it will warp. You need a colour that clearly stands out.

In cases like this I use a piece of newspaper to wrap it first, and mark the edge of the paper for where the tape should go. Mathematically, if the paper edge is tight and aligned at the seam where it wraps around, it is perpendicular to the axis of the workpiece.

This also means that the miter and bevel are perpendicular, and they are both zero.

Depending on which side you are cutting into, the marker is a bevel for one side and a miter for another side. Keep a sharp eye on both markers at the same time, to get a straight and perpendicular cut.

enter image description here

10

One thing I've found immensely helpful is a speed square (this one is metal, but there's some PVC models that are really cheap)

Speed square

They have a "T" top, so you can set it parallel to the side of your board and draw a straight perpendicular line against it. On a 4x4, I'd draw one on the top and two sides. Then do your best to take the line with your saw.

6

Here's what I've learned over the years:

  1. Use a sharp saw (and learn how to sharpen a saw - look for Paul Sellers on youtube, he explains it well and shows how to do)
  2. Relax and let the saw do the work. When you apply too much pressure, you naturally tend to twist your wrist, which means you curve your cut. So, use a light touch; it will take a bit longer, but that is why you want a sharp blade. You can cut straight with a blunt saw, but ...
  3. And as others have said, draw guide lines to help your eye. In most cases you will be cutting straight, square (-ish) timber, so it is easy to draw the lines using an engineer's square; if the timber is awkward, I believe a laser guide of some sort might help - I don't have one, so I don't know.

It takes some time to master, but if you follow these three principles, you should see improvements straight-away

2
  • 1
    Been a long time since I've even seen a saw for sale which could be sharpened... (all hardened teeth/throw away when blunt saws in the UK/Norway).
    – handyman
    Aug 3 at 19:54
  • 1
    @handyman Really? I distinctly remember sharpening my cross-cust saws that I bought in Screwfix, but TBH, I tend to use the old, beautiful saws I find in car boot sales, that were made back when even manufacturers had a bit of pride.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Aug 4 at 10:08
5

The technique I use was taught me by an old craftsman in the 1960s. It has served me well. There are several tricks to it.

  1. Mark out the cut on all four sides with a set square and soft pencil. The fourth line closes the marking and gives you a cross-check that you have been accurate and not let the set square slip.

  2. Get your shoulder, elbow, wrist and saw blade all aligned in a vertical plane. Never let your arm twist out of the plane of the saw.

  3. Keep your shoulder still while you saw. Make light cuts; let the saw do the work, not you. Take your time, don't try to rush the job.

  4. Start at one end, usually the far one, work the cut gently back along the line. When you reach the other end, flatten the saw out so it runs parallel to the top face.

Don't expect miracles, it comes with practice. But it does come.

2
  • Excellent tips. Thank you for sharing and welcome aboard!
    – bishop
    Jul 30 at 18:00
  • Spot on. Grab a metre of '2x4' and cut it like a bread loaf. You'll be an expert by the time you're done, and ready for a sandwich...
    – handyman
    Aug 3 at 19:56
5

For general purpose use like this you should be using a standard crosscut handsaw, with 8 to 12 teeth per inch.

It looks like your saw has a bent tooth or has hit a nail. The saw's teeth have a "set" to them, and sometimes the teeth on one side can be damaged, making a saw cut a curve. The picture above shows a lot of wander for such a small distance. If your saw is damaged, you'll have to repair or replace it to get a good straight cut. Damage is:

  1. The set of the teeth is uneven,
  2. the saw is bent,
  3. the teeth on one side of the saw are duller than the other.

+1 on all speed square advice. mark the top of the board, then mark an adjacent side, then, from the top again, mark the other side.

Start on the far corner. Keep you elbow, wrist, and saw in a line. don't let your elbow wander around.

It won't take long before you can split a pencil line.

3
  • I'm pretty sure you mean "8 to 12 teeth per inch", not total, right? ;-) Jul 30 at 19:47
  • 2
    No, I use a really short saw.
    – Tony Ennis
    Jul 30 at 20:10
  • @TonyEnnis Pro tip.
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 31 at 0:07
3

Existing answers have great tips. Here are two more small ones that can make a big difference.

  1. When starting your cut, place your "off" hand (the one not holding the saw), palm down to the side of the cutting line. Then place the saw blade up against the pad (or knuckle depending how you like) of your thumb so that your thumb can move minutely to guide the saw to the right spot to start. You can keep that hand there to guide the blade until well down into the cut. Be careful to go slow and steady so that the blade does not jump up and cut your hand!
  2. Place the index finger of your saw hand along the side of the handle instead of around the group with the rest of your fingers. This can help to keep things aiming the right direction.
1
  • Will also echo two points from other answers - light strokes , but with a sharp saw!
    – Toby
    Aug 10 at 10:40
2

A couple of things I didn't see mentioned. Keep one eye on the saw blade - it's easy to line up back to front of a cut, but unless the blade is vertical, your problems start. So watch the blade stays vertical.

A tenon (back) saw has a more rigid blade, so will wander less. But they're usually short, and a crosscut (ripcut) saw will be used. Once into the cut, keep as much blade depth as possible. The narrow end will tend to wander more than the deep end closest to the handle.

1

Cut outside the line and then use a belt power sander to square it back to the line, that way you won't have to worry about it being straight.

I do it regularly.

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