The trick in doing just about anything that requires consistent repetitive actions is finding a method that your body naturally follows, and training your body so a more efficient method seems natural. That's why coaches help ball players with their swing and shots, and then the players practice all day long. The final movement needs to feel natural and relaxed—so you easily can repeat the motion and know instinctively when you are doing it right. The reason we have coaches is so we can learn efficient technique.
By feeling natural I mean your entire body has to feel natural. That's why follow through, posture and your whole body being relaxed is so important in sports. The same applies to hand work in woodworking, sawing being pretty much at the top of the list.
Grab your nearest backsaw. If you are lucky you have one of our Gramercy Tools models. (Don't know what a backsaw is? Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see a video of our sash saw.) If you are even luckier you have your granddad's backsaws that has been lovingly cared for and kept sharp since 1937.
Find a piece of wood and square up the ends. With a marking gauge, scribe a line about the thickness of the wood away from the end you plan to cut. See on how to use a marking gauge. Clamp the wood so you feel comfortable sawing uphill with it (see here if you don't know what I am talking about. Also, a Moxon Vise is great for this but it's far from a requirement). Make a few small marks on the wood where you want to saw. The goal in sawing is to just graze the line, so arbitrarily decide on the "waste" side of the mark.
Put the saw on the wood on one of the marks in such a way that your hand feels comfortable. Your arm should be relaxed, your wrist should be at rest. Your whole body should be at ease. Now, look at where the saw will cut. Is it still on the mark? Does it look like it will cut on the waste side mark? Look at the reflection of the wood in the saw blade, does it look like the saw is held vertically square to the wood? If all of these checks are okay then we are home free. If it doesn't, move your whole body, not just your arm or wrist, so that when you put the saw on the wood at the right mark, you naturally hold the saw in the right place and square. This is the key: finding a comfortable position for your entire body that results in a square cut.
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Start the cut. Relax, your arm and wrist should not tense up or twist. After cutting take the saw out of the cut and see if it's square left to right. The reason we are doing the cut then checking is that we also want to train ourselves to see square without layout marks. If you're square, great! If not draw, a square reference line on the wood and see when you lay the blade naturally on the wood how far off you are. Try to see the out of square condition by eye. It's a lot easier to see if you are square by eyeballing the angle formed by the wood and the entire saw, than just seeing if you are on a small mark on the wood.
Repeat the steps until you can comfortably start a cut square and continue sawing square. Practice every day for a few days. There are two things that need to become automatic: Recognizing if you are cutting square without measuring with a square, and sawing square using a position and posture that feels natural and keeps you cutting square. If you don't feel natural in the correct position, practice until the correct position feels natural.
Like sports, or any activity that requires hand eye coordination, instruction and coaching only go so far, the real key is using practice, and feedback to re-enforce the instruction and make the skill automatic.
With practice you will find it hard NOT to saw square. Chances are also pretty good that if you find sawing square a natural experience, the natural control of the saw will make it much easier to consistently saw at an angle for dovetail tails.
In the photo above I am relearning how to saw square using my new Moxon Vise. It's at the right height but I seem to pull a bit to the left. The solution for me is to find out where I feel comfortable and then move my entire body a bit to the left. My goal with this practice is to become comfortable with the new position, so I don't have to compensate. I used to be totally consistent when sawing using my face vise but I find it easier to see with the bench-on-bench. As it turns out, now that I am sawing at a higher position it find I need to stand further away from the bench and the more I practice the less scared I am of screwing up, and then I don't screw up.
Okay, time for my plug. Here's the aforementioned video of our sash saw:
This new "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.