Japanese saws (nokogiri) come in many shapes, sizes and for a multitude of uses, but all can be classified under two broad styles: kataba (single-edged) or ryoba (double-edged).
Pull not push
As a Westerner, you’ll immediately notice a key difference – the teeth on Japanese saws points towards you, not away. This set-up means in Japan a ‘pull-stroke’ technique is favored over the Western pushing method. Some say this evolved due to the Japanese preference for sitting or squatting whilst woodworking. Whilst seated you’re able to pull with much more force and control than by pushing away from you.
Thinner with improved accuracy
As pulling the saw towards you puts tension on the blade, the likelihood of the blade bending or snapping is reduced, hence the blades of Japanese saws can be made thin resulting in a narrow, clean, accurate kerf (slit in the wood).
Blades are made of hard steel, increasing their longevity whilst reducing the need for frequent sharpening. Though professional saw sharpeners still exist (called metate-shokunin) most Japanese craftsmen simply buy a new blade rather than have it sharpened.
TYPES OF JAPANESE SAWS
These are just a few of the many Japanese saws in use today, including some less familiar saws with specialist uses.
Summary: Arguably the most familiar Ryoba-style Japanese saw, it’s two cutting edges, top and bottom, giving it dual purpose
Direction: for crosscuts and ripcuts
Ideal for: deep, roughcuts, dimensioning wood
Tips: generally used with two hands; hold the saw at a steeper angle for an easier cut; lower the angle for more control
Blade length: between 20cm to 36cm
Summary: What distinguishes this saw is it’s very thin blade supported by a hard back of steel or brass folded over the top edge. Shallow set teeth leave a really smooth cut
Ideal for: cutting tenon shoulders, dovetails and other precision cuts
Tips: Usually held with one hand, start with small strokes and gradually lengthen.
Blade length: 20-28cm
Summary: A short blade, with curved edges and a long neck
Style: Kataba and ryoba (shown) versions
Ideal for: starting cuts at the centre of a piece; sliding dovetail joints
Tips: For long, deep grooves without causing friction use the kataba version without teeth on top edge
Blade length: short
Summary: Long blade length, used for preliminary rough work
Style: Mostly Kataba (shown) but sometimes ryoba
Ideal for: Cutting logs, large timber and beams
Tips: Sometimes called by other names: hana-maru (round-nose), saba (mackerel) and hana-magari (bent-nose)
Blade length: 31-46cm
Summary: Specialist saw, with a flexible blade and no set teeth so finished surface cut is smooth
Ideal for: Flush-cutting wood or bamboo dowels
Tips: You can partially bend the blade onto the surface of the wood to ensure a flush cut
Blade length: approx 18cm
Summary: Specialist saw, commonly referred as a ‘whaleback’ saw due to it’s with a distinct body and wide blade
Ideal for: Long, straight cuts
Tips: Designed for ripping large logs
Blade length: Large, 40-60cm and beyond
Summary: Translated as ‘turning cut’ this is a Japanese style ‘keyhole saw’ with a narrow, long blade
Ideal for: cutting curves
Tips: as the blade is made of softer steel, it’s more flexible when cutting round corners and less at risk of breaking. Another version ‘sokomawashibiki’ or ‘coopers saw’ is used to cut the bottom circular of wooden buckets
If you’re interested to learn more about the huge variety of saws, including these less familiar versions, we recommend reading Toshio Odate’s book ‘Japanese Woodworking Tools’.
Summary: An example of a tool used to make another tool; this saw cuts a specific groove in the block of a Japanese plane (kanna) to hold the plane blade
Ideal for: Specific task of cutting a plane blade groove
Blade length: 13-15cm
Summary: Shorter and stockier cousin of the dozuki with teeth set for softwood
Direction: Crosscuts and ripcuts
Ideal for: Cutting miters
Blade length: 15cm
Summary: Very similar in shape to a dozuki
Ideal for: cutting small tenon cheeks
Tips: Hold this saw with both hands.
Blade length: approx 20cm.
Do you have pictures or more information on any of these specialist saws above? We’d love to hear from you. We’re looking for contributors to help publish accurate information on this site.