Tools to Get Started in Woodworking: Bow Saw and Coping Saw

Right from the start, woodworking is more enjoyable if you include curves in your project designs. Therefore, a bow saw and a coping saw should be basic tools of the nascent woodworking kit.

bow saw

Saws as variations on a basic idea

The principle of these tools is a thin blade held in tension by a rigid frame. This makes the blade functionally stiff and thus resistant to flutter and deviation, which in turn allows the cutting force to be transmitted to the teeth and into the wood.

Because the tension on the blade is quite high, the design and quality of the frame is very important. This is true for a bow saw and coping saw but no less so for their big, motorized relative, the bandsaw. Since these articles are about assembling a basic woodworking tool kit to get started in the craft, the bandsaw is only mentioned here. However, keep in mind that the bandsaw will be one of the first, if not the first, major machine you will want to put in your shop. Yet its hand tool cousins will never become obsolete in your work.

What is a bow saw?

A woodworking bow saw is a versatile tool with ancient origins. The wooden frame consists of two vertical members connected by a stretcher with loose joints. At the top of the frame is a cord that is twisted with a toggle stick to create tension on the blade at the bottom of the frame. How elegantly simple and effective! The cord tension system produces tension far easier and better than the system on some bow saws using a steel rod and wing nut.

bow saw

The medium size classic bow saw with a nominal 16″ blade, (about 14″ of actual cutting length), pictured above, gets plenty of use in my shop and is my recommendation for your tool kit. The installed blade is about 5/16″ wide, which allows sawing fairly tight curves, and has 14 teeth per inch (tpi) that both crosscut and rip. This type of saw can be used to rough shape table legs in 8/4 stock, make curved table aprons in 3/4″ wood, saw chair parts, and countless other jobs limited only by your imagination.

A bow saw, however, is not just for curves. Fitted with a blade about 1 1/2″ wide, it becomes an excellent all around saw for straight cuts. For this role, you may want to later acquire a larger model in the same style with a blade in the 18″ – 24″ range.

I’ve had the Danish bow saw shown below for 33 years and have used it effectively with a 10-tpi, rip-tooth, 19″-long blade for ripping and crosscutting large boards, sawing tenons, resawing boards and all sorts of general shop work. By the way, longtime woodworkers may recognize this model saw as that favored by the late, great woodworking teacher, Tage Frid, who used it for everything from dovetails to heavy ripping.

bow saw

In use, a bow saw is blade is tensioned by first sliding the toggle away from the stretcher, then turning it so the string twists and thus is shortened, and finally sliding the toggle back to rest against the stretcher. The model pictured in the first two photos has a “tensioner” piece in which the toggle slides to make this adjustment much easier. It is best to align the tooth line with the frame when the blade is under only light tension.

I suggest setting up your bow saw to cut on the push stroke, which seems to give more overall control of the tool and greater accuracy in following layout lines. That said, some woodworkers have success using it on the pull-cut stroke, so you may want to experiment to find what suits you.

Consider building your own bow saw with specialized hardware and handles. It’s a fun project and a good way to build your tool kit at low cost.

What is a coping saw?

No, this is not a saw that helps you deal with stressful events in the shop, but it is an inexpensive, versatile tool that should be an early part of your tool kit. With this tool, you can cut fine curves, clear dovetail waste, and, of course, perform its namesake task of clearing waste in coped molding joints. This is a lightweight saw that is comfortable to use for small-scale cuts in thicknesses up to about 3/4″.

coping saw

Virtually all coping saws use 6 1/2″ long blades that come in a wide variety of tooth configurations. Blades are exchanged by loosening the handle, pushing the ends of the frame toward each other, and releasing the pin at each end of the blade from the slots in the frame. I usually set up the coping saw to cut on the pull stroke but it can work both ways.

Olson makes a very nice coping saw sold for less than $14, and blades are also very inexpensive. A good all around blade size is .0125″ wide with 15 tpi, while blades .094″ wide with 18 tpi in a skip tooth pattern are good for finer work.

Three more saws

In the context of saws for curves, three more saws, in addition to the bandsaw, deserve mention, though I would not consider them part of the basic tool kit for general woodworking and furniture making. Consider them later as the need arises.

fret saw

The fret saw looks much like a coping saw but uses very fine, thin blades generally used for intricate cuts in thin material such as in marquetry work. The compass or keyhole saw lacks the stiffness of a frame but has the advantage of being able to start cuts in a drilled hole anywhere in a panel. The electric jigsaw is another option for curves but only very high quality versions will produce the accuracy needed for furniture making.

compass saw

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