What Are Bow Saws Used For?

My bow saw has a red handle and a 20″ blade.  I take good care of it and store it inside, oiling the blade from time to time to prevent rust.  I also have a pole saw, and between the two, I can take good care of branches on the trees that surround the garden, both low and high.

Chain saws are convenient and do the cutting quickly and with little effort on my part except to be smart enough to stay out of the moving blade’s way.  But it feels a little like cheating to me.  I remember, as a young kid using my father’s bow saw to clean away low branches on crab apple trees that were all over our property.  Since then, I have always had a bow saw, and probably always will, as it just seems more proper and authentic.

Bow Saws in History

It’s not known when bow saws were first used, but evidence apparently exists that they were used in ancient China, as well as about 800 years ago in the west.  Early versions of bow saws had an h-shaped wooden frame with a blade running from one end of the vertical h-shape to the end of the opposite vertical h-shape in the frame. These models were referred to as “buck” saws.

These buck saws are still made today, and you can also often pick up one at an antique store or find one in an old farm barn.  The handle was a wooden grip, and there was a line to adjust the tension on the blade to keep it taught. The h-frames would be made of a hardwood like birch or hickory, each of which we have written of in past articles, including reference to their Janka Scale rating.

Bow or Buck Saw

There is something about these old-style buck saws that appeals to the purist.  Hand-powered, aesthetically pleasing to look at and hold in your hand.  It has an authentic feel to use in trimming branches or cutting up logs into fireplace length for a fire to keep the house warm.  They hearken back to a time before power tools, lithium-ion batteries, and the noise that goes with all of that.

Bow Saws Today

Today’s bow saw models have metal “bows” shaped like a hunting bow, with the blades taking the place of the bow string, if you will.  They come in a variety of sizes, with blades running between 30 – 36 inches for the larger ones, an average of 20″ for the common ones (like mine), and as short as 12″ on the smaller end. 

On the handle end of the bow is a lever that releases and then draws taught the blade, making swapping blades out for new ones an easy task.  If a bow saw is properly maintained and stored, though, the blade should last well.  

A new bow saw will run from $12 up to $60, depending on the size and the brand.  By comparison, we found buck saws for as much as $200, depending on both the size and the wood used to make the h-frame.  Bow saws can come, also with a blade cover, and it’s not a bad idea, especially if you have kids around the shop, house, or barn. 

Bow Saw Blades

Bow saws have a cutting stroke, meaning they will cut on both the pull and the push strokes as you work your way through the wood.  With teeth angled in both directions, they are very effective in making cuts in both directions.  The teeth are jagged and with a low tooth-per-inch count.  Blades can be removed easily for sharpening if you want to prolong the life of the saw.  

Depending on the length of the bow saw blade, replacement blades can be as low as $6.  With the release lever on the handle, it’s easy and quick to remove the old blade and replace it with a new one, and in less than a minute, you can be back to cutting tasks.

Bow Saw blades are thin and narrow and come in two types:

  • Peg Tooth Blades for Bow Saws.  These blades have triangular-shaped teeth that are well-spaced between each other.  These blades will cut both live and dead trees and branches but are designed specifically to cut hard wood that has dried.
  • Peg and Raker Tooth Blades for Bow Saws.  These blades have an extra tooth from time to time along their length, the “raker” tooth.  This tooth has a different angle (out) and will chip or “rake” the wood out of the cut.  The peg and raker tooth blades for bow saws are well suited for cutting both wet wood and green wood, with the raker tooth doing its job well in removing wood from the cuts.

Bow Saw Handles

Handles on bow saws are referred to as closed pistol grip handles.  They are easy to grip and protect the hand from slipping while cutting.  

Bow Saw Frames

This is the bow part of a bow saw and is a hollow metal pipe like my red one.  The front piece of the frame, the bow, is angled like a hunting bow and provides a second grip area for the other hand if some additional oomph is needed in the cutting.

Other Bow Saw Parts

We’ve mentioned the lever that loosens the blade for removal and replacement, as well as tightening the saw into place once again.  

In addition to this feature, though, there is also a wing nut that increases the tension of the blade.  You want a taught blade for the best and easiest cutting; a loose blade can be bent during cutting, especially if you are trying to push the blade through the wood quickly.  With a taught and sharp blade, you can let the blade do the work just like a smart chef lets the knife do the work when cutting vegetables or meats.

Common Bow Saw Tasks

Bow saws are light in weight and easily portable, two of their appealing properties.  They excel at pruning smaller branches from trees and cutting those branches into fireplace or wood stove lengths for burning.  

The most common tasks you’re likely to perform with your bow saw include:

Pruning branches from a tree.  The size and gauge of the branches are up to you and your arm strength and ambition, but usually, they will be small to medium in size.  Because the bow saw is so lightweight, it is easy to carry with you up a ladder, so the branches do not necessarily need to be low on the tree.

Cutting firewood.  You’ve already cut the branches down from the tree; now is the time to cut the branches down into a size that will fit your fireplace or wood stove.  A sawhorse will aid you in this task, and you’ll grasp the log with the other hand while you cross-cut through it.

Removing old shrubs and bushes.  When they have passed or become overgrown, a bow saw is a good tool to use for their removal.  You can cut them down at or near the ground and then remove the stump and roots with a shovel to make room for their replacement shrubs.

Removing trees.  The same thing – for cutting down small trees that may be dying or need to be removed to make space for some new plantings.  

Bow saws are very versatile tools, and you don’t need an extension cord to use them.  They travel easily and well, also, and can be brought along on camping trips to help you break down wood for campfires. They are handy for making a quick cut on a branch that might be growing too close to the house or roof.  The more you use your bow saw, the more jobs you’ll end up finding for it.

I’m replacing some wooden stairs that lead down into the garden.  My bow saw has come in handy to remove posts and break down the old stairs and railings for hauling away.  I could have used power tools for the task, but again, there is something both nostalgic and authentic about using the bow saw I remember from my youth. 

Buck Saw in Action

Just in case a buck saw is new to you, we found a good video that shows a very cool buck saw in action.  As soon as you see it, you’ll recognize it but simply didn’t know what to call it.

Bow Saw In Action

You likely know what a bow saw is, but if you don’t, here is all you will ever need to know about them in a single video.

If you do any work outdoors, in your garden, or in your yard, a bow saw is a cool tool to have.  They are inexpensive, and when properly used and cared for, they will last a long time.  Replacement blades are inexpensive, also, and easy to swap out.  I really do use mine all the time with good results.

Leave a Comment