Wood Cutting 101: How to Saw Straight Lines

Sawing Straight Lines

Your ability to properly cut wood can make or break a project’s success. It is worth investing time and patience in cutting carefully and accurately. There are a number of ways to cutting wood, but this step by step guide is for cutting the wood in straight lines by sawing

If you're not confident in your abilities just yet, you can also cut wood at almost all lumberyards for a small fee. Finding out which lumberyards in your area offer this service and at what cost can really pay off, especially when you have a 4′ by 8′ sheet of plywood to cart home and cut up. If you ask the dealer to make cuts, plan your cutting diagrams so he makes the longest ones. Be sure to specify whether or not the measurements must be exact.

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Don’t forget to support both halves of the piece you’re cutting. Otherwise, the saw will bind and, as you near the end of the cut, the unsupported piece will break away. If the saw binds anyway, stick a screwdriver in the end of the cut to spread it open.

Sawing straight lines

Hand saw
  • To cut wood, the simplest and least expensive tool for sawing straight lines is the handsaw. Two basic types are available: the ripsaw and the crosscut saw. The ripsaw is made to cut only in line with wood grain. Crosscut saws are better for general cutting. 
  • Other saws designed for cutting straight lines include the back saw, power circular saw, radial-arm saw, table saw, and miter saw. The saber saw (also called a “portable jigsaw”) is versatile enough to cut both straight and curved lines accurately.
saber saw

The crosscut saw can do almost any straight woodcutting job. If you don’t have a power saw, it will be the most important saw in your tool collection for your cabinet or bookshelf projects.

Crosscut saw

The length of crosscut blades varies from about 20″ to 26″. A 26″ blade is a good choice to cut wood. Crosscut saws do about 75% of their cutting on the down stroke and 25 percent on the upstroke. Start a cut by slowly drawing the saw up a few times to make a notch or kerf. If you make a full kerf about half inch into the far edge of the board, it will help guide the blade straight for the remainder of the cut.

For clean, straight cuts with a minimum of effort, grasp the handle firmly with your forearm in line with the teeth.

Back saw

A back saw, for finish work, cuts straight lines precisely. If you won’t be doing much critical finish cutting, you can probably get along without one. Rectangular in shape, the fine-cutting back saw derives its name from a metal reinforcing strip that runs the length of the spine to keep it from bowing.

Back saws are available in lengths from 12″ to 28″, but for the home workshop a 12″ or 14″ saw is a fine choice. Twelve teeth per inch are enough unless you are doing very fine work, in which case a dovetail back saw works best. Dovetail saws have shorter, thinner blades with finer teeth, and their handles are straight shaped, much like the handles of screwdrivers. Unlike the crosscut saw, the blade of a back saw is held parallel to the cutting surface when you are sawing.

The power portable circular saw can probably cut about five times faster than a handsaw, but it is a dangerous tool that requires extreme caution. Unless you plan to do a lot of cutting in the future and have learned how to handle one of these saws, don’t rush out and buy one.

As a general rule, power tools produce faster and more precise work than hand tools, after you’ve learned to use them properly. But a tool such as the power circular saw feels heavy, bulky and hard to handle at first. To assist in cutting long, straight lines with one you can make a guide to follow.

Remember that the blade of a circular saw cuts upward. To avoid splintering away the best side of materials, cut them best-side down. Set the blade so the teeth just protrude through the wood’s surface.

Circular saws range from 6 to 10 inch-diameter sizes and there are dozens of blade types. A 7 to 7-1/2 inch saw with a combination blade (designed to do both crosscutting and rip sawing) works best for most home woodworking and cabinetmaking jobs.

Saber saw

Although chiefly used for cutting curves, the saber saw cuts surprisingly straight lines. A guide is usually furnished with the tool for making parallel cuts a short distance from a board’s edge. For cutting across panels or wide surfaces, you can make your own guide just as you do for a circular saw. An alternative is to guide the saw’s base plate against a straightedge that’s clamped a measured distance from the cutting line.

Two other large power saws that are excellent for cabinetmaking are the table saw and the radial-arm saw. These tools perform very accurately and can be a blessing for the woodworker who does a lot of cutting. The table saw is a power circular saw that is permanently mounted in a table.

Instead of moving the blade through the wood, the wood is fed to the blade. Locking rip fences (bars that clamp across the table) and miter gauges (braces that run in slots in the table) make the table saw the most accurate saw for ripping or for crosscutting short pieces of wood. Blades can be changed to fit the job or a combination blade can be used for general-purpose work.

radial-arm saw

The radial-arm saw is another circular saw that uses the same blade types as the portable circular saw and table saw. The wood is positioned on a table; the motor and blade, mounted on an arm above the table, are drawn across. The saw can be raised, lowered, tilted, and even swiveled for miter cuts or rip cuts. Its greatest advantage over the table saw is its ability to crosscut long pieces.

To cut wood for any of your home workshop projects, these tools would be a good investment and you can guarantee that your cabinets or bookshelves will have a good finish.

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