Sometimes the fastest method is the oldest
On most jobsites today, the sight of a hand tool brings stares, questions, and, more frequently than not, a shaking of heads that some poor fool couldn’t afford a tool with a cord or a lithium-ion battery attached to it. Yes, many times a battery-powered tool is exactly the right tool for the job. But not always.
There are times when a power saw is just too big to get into a tight spot. And there are times when the power saw is in the basement and you’re working on the third floor. Besides, a power saw will also leave marks on the edge of a board, which need to be removed, and that can just pose a whole new problem.
I think it is a shame—actually, a detriment to the craft, and to craftsmen—that the occasional use of hand tools is not more common on jobsites. Unfortunately, all of us tend to use the tools and techniques we have been exposed to, and, over the last several decades, exposure to hand tools has been reduced to the point where they are all but on the endangered species list. But they shouldn’t be. In the situation I’m about to tackle, I’ll demonstrate how hand tools can sometimes be the most efficient solution to the problem.
In a recent post on the JLC Finish Carpentry forum, a contributor asked how to cut back a tread that was already installed and couldn’t be removed or cut on a miter saw. The tread material was Jatoba, commonly known as Brazilian Cherry. The carpenter tried a Multimaster on a scrap of material but the blade dulled quickly and overheated, burning rather than cutting the wood. Besides, even if the tool could have cut the Jatoba, it is tough to cut a perfectly straight line with a blade that’s vibrating at a few thousand rpm.
Another contributor suggested using a circular saw, but the saw table would hit the riser before the saw could make much headway.
And another contributor suggested using a reciprocating saw, but I suspect that was a tongue-in-cheek response—at least I hope so!
Identify the problem
Solving the problem required a different approach, a new way of thinking, at least for many contemporary carpenters. And yet, the solution would have been obvious to our grandfathers: hand tools. In fact, the solution to the problem is nearly identical to the procedure used years ago to produce housed stringers—a perfectly straight groove needed to be cut, one that terminated before the edge of the board. In this case, the job was going to be somewhat easier because a constant depth of cut would not be required, plus the cut would be a simple right angle and not on a pitch.
Hand tools do what power tools can’t
But before cutting with the saw, I first drilled holes so that the saw dust would have somewhere to go, rather than building up at the end of the cut. Some of you may not know it, but that’s one reason a saw might jump out of a kerf; and besides, if the sawdust builds up at the end of the cut, the saw won’t cut clean all the way to the edge of the board.
I couldn’t drill those holes with a power drill. I needed more reach to clear the riser. But an old brace and bit worked perfectly.
By striking the center line with a knife, I define the precise location to place the leading point of my drill bit, which means I can “feel” that spot as well as see it. This technique ensures that the edge of the hole will land right on the line of the cut.
I use a chisel to clean the cut—it’s easy to remove the small pieces between the holes with a sharp chisel.
Ensuring a perfect cut
Now this is the most important part! Before taking a saw to the tread and cutting along the first line, I cut a shallow groove on the waste side of the line using a skewed carving knife. I held the knife at about a 20 degree angle, 1/16″ away from the cutline on the waste side. The small wedged sliver of wood I removed along the cut line provided a positive location to begin cutting below the surface of the wood, while the chamfered edge forced the face of the saw tightly against the cutline. This is a trusted technique used by craftsmen for centuries. As long as the saw does not jump out of the track, a straight cut is all but assured. Trust me, that’s a technique lost to a lot of contemporary carpenters.
While making the cut, I tilted the saw blade just a bit, too. It is helpful to undercut a slight amount. Otherwise, a shoulder plane can be used to square the edge of the cut, and a chisel or joinery float can be used for the very corner where the shoulder plane can’t reach.
From start to finish, I spent fifteen minutes making that perfectly straight cut. And most of that time was spent taking the photos!
Keith Mathewson started working in the construction industry in the late 1970s as a summer job during college. He stayed in construction for another five years, then took a different career path for ten years.
In the early 1990s, Keith got back into construction in a much bigger way. He opened a shop, and taught furniture-making after-hours. In 2004, he transitioned out of furniture-making and teaching back to finish carpentry, where he specialized in high-end custom homes. Since 2007, he has focused on stair-building.