Much has been written about saws in the wood shop. Usually the articles go into detail about one particular kind of saw and all that it can do. I don’t see as much written which compares the relative merits of different kinds of saws.
My experience in woodworking over the years has taught me that you need more than one kind of saw. My first electrically powered saw was a radial arm saw. The manual suggested that it could be used for many different purposes. I soon found out, however, that what it was really good for was crosscutting lumber that was smooth on two sides. From there on it was down hill. I also learned that it was very difficult to keep tuned so that it cut precisely.
So from there I went to a table saw. My shop was just in the garage so I selected a saw with a small footprint. It was a Swiss made Inca saw and still serves me well after thirty years. However, I learned that metric saw blades can be hard to find in the United States, and that the real purpose of the table saw is to rip previously milled lumber. Since the table is small I found it difficult to rip large things like sheets of plywood or to cross cut long boards. The bigger the table the greater the support.
Everywhere around me I saw wood that was abandoned. Trees cut on construction sites usually made it to land fill dumps or were burned on the site. Power companies are always cutting trees and leaving the wood where it falls. Neighbors are always losing a tree and have to pay to have it hauled off. Winter wind and ice storms are constantly bringing down trees. I got my first taste of this in my own back yard. I wanted to raise a garden and needed to take some trees out to have sunlight. Some of the wood was so pretty that I could not bear to cut it up for firewood so I saved some and this is how I got my start with working with found wood.
So if one is alert, the opportunities for acquiring found wood are almost limitless. Metropolitan areas are particularly good foraging areas. Lumber people will not fool with just one tree. It is not worth their time. Yet one tree can fuel many woodworking projects. Just offer the person a finished product from part of the wood and you will be given the whole tree and make a good friend in the process is what my experience has been.
That brings us to the next saw. To handle found wood you need a chainsaw. I had a patient when I was in medical practice who told me if they had had those things when he was growing up, he might have stayed on the farm. It is a great labor saver. I soon found that I could cut enough found wood in a day to pay for my saw. If you have not noticed, wood is expensive to buy. I started out with a light weight saw from Sears but soon had worn it out. Now I use a Sthil and am on my fourth one. I like the fact that they are solidly built and generally reliable. I found that having a longer bar on the saw made it easier for me to cut larger longs but shorter bars will work as well. They are the choice of professional lumber men and tree services. I even purchased a small Alaska Mini Mill that clamps to the bar. With this I could mill flat lumber of various thickness right on the spot. This had the great advantage that you could cut up and haul out wood one board at a time. This is great if you don’t have heavy equipment or are some distance from a road.
A word of caution is in order here. I have learned some hard lessons and will share my experiences. Several years ago I cut a chunk out of my knee using a chain saw. I just got the bar too close to my knee and it bit me. I was in the woods and by myself. Fortunately it was not so serious a wound and it healed but it took a couple of weeks. The point here is that I should have been wearing chaps. These are sold where they sell chain saws. They are made of some sort of very tough synthetic fabric and would have stopped the saw teeth that cut my knee. So, now I am careful to don my chaps when using the saw. You will see the professionals using them, too.
Now with a chain saw all kinds of found wood became fair game. There are many, very attractive, non-commercial species awaiting the unbounded wood worker. Species such as osage orange, mulberry, apple, pear, spalted woods of all kinds, just to name a few. With the chain saw, the log can be bucked into manageable bolts and worked while green or allowed to air dry for several years. The picture above shows a small part of my collection of found wood. You can even leave some outdoors for a season to make your own spalted wood. We can talk about techniques to avoid checking of the end grain in another episode but I want to keep the thread of saws first at hand.
Now, let’s suppose you have a large block of air dried wood and you want to turn a bowl. It is much too thick to saw with a radial arm saw or table saw. You can cut it with the chain saw but if you are trying to make it round, it gets tricky and dangerous with the chain saw as there is no way to keep the piece from moving as the chain engages the wood. You really don’t want any metal holding devices abound a moving saw chain. So, what to do?
Here is where one of the most important saws in the shop comes in. This is the bandsaw. The beauty of this saw is that it does not require milled lumber to cut safely and efficiently. You can crosscut a large log and then rip it and produce fairly flat pieces of wood that you can mount on the lathe or run through the jointer and planer preparing them for cutting on the table saw. You can go from the log to the milled lumber all in your shop. The savings on wood are tremendous and you will soon pay for your equipment. There is also something pleasing to my independent nature to be so self-sufficient.
My advice is to get the largest band saw you can afford. Watch for used equipment and explore the Asian imports. I have owned a large Powermatic saw with a 24 inch throat (distance from the saw blade over to the upright arm that supports the upper wheel on which the blade travels). I have owned a 14 inch Delta. They both have given me good service. Now I have a Grizzly 21 inch saw. I was surprised that I could replace my old Powermatic for the Grizzly for about the same price even though I bought the Powermatic back in 1979. While the throat measurement in the Grizzly is 3 inches smaller that the Powermatic, the Grizzly will cut wood that is 14 inches thick (as measured from the tabletop up to the arm) compared to the 12 inch cut of the Powermatic. I find this a big help as I am always wanting to cut thicker and thicker stock. For pieces thicker than 14 inches I use the chain saw. These large saws are heavy and weigh upwards of 500 or more pounds. However, one can purchase a metal base with wheels that allow for some mobility within your shop.
A band saw this large is great for resawing wood but for cutting out curves on smaller stock I use my 14 inch Delta saw. It does not have the power of the big saw but I can keep narrower blades on the smaller saw which will turn a smaller radius and this keeps me from having to stop and change blades so frequently. Time is very precious and this dual set up with band saws has been very valuable to me.
So, if you ask me which is the most important saw in my shop, I would have to say the band saw. It is what allows me to go from found wood to blanks I can mount on the lathe to turn into a beautiful bowl. I use it more frequently than the other saws. Yet each of the other saws serves an important function and I really need them all. I guess that I would consider a band saw and a table saw as first purchases and then add the other saws as I was able.
Above are some examples of found wood in my shop.
Saws are very dangerous. Keep them tuned, sharp and in good working order and wear proper face and eye protection. It may sound silly to tell woodworkers to avoid power saws when they are tired, in a hurry, emotionally upset or under the influence of alcohol or drugs but this is how accidents happen. Cut off a finger in haste and repent in leisure.
Yet, used with care, these saws can make wood working a joy. They allow you to take advantage of unused wood, a precious natural resource that would otherwise be wasted, and turn it into a objects that will bring pleasure for decades, if not centuries.
Do you have any experience with saws? I’d love to hear your thoughts.