How To: Teach Sawing to a Young Student

I have a perfect record in the woodshop.  No fatalities.

I have had two injuries though this year (I average about one a quarter or semester).  Both happened due to good sawing habits gone bad.

This picture shows my basic hand-saw set up when I cut a board to size.  I’m right-handed and for south-pawed students, I mirror the set up.
I would saw about an inch from the edge of the table.  Notice I use a bench hook to keep slips/movement to a minimum and pinch my thumb in so I don’t catch it on a saw (though I’m lazy with that index finger!).  I have the kids put their weight into their left hand to steady the workpiece.  I generally build the workbenches 30″-32″ high to accommodate younger statures.  I’ve never had a student cut themselves after setting themselves up like this, righty or lefty.

Trouble is, sometimes that’s not the most accessible way to hand-saw a board.  Small pieces for example, or a face-vise set-up in the left side of a bench like this necessitate a different technique:

Now pretend you’re a student.  You go to make this cut (a rip down the pencil mark) and the board naturally wiggles.  Remember how I teach to use the left hand to steady the work?  Well, my student’s see my “good” habits and this is their solution:

And so, midway through the cut, this happens:

And there goes the finger! Nurse! Nurse! We got a bleeder!

Both finger injuries have happened in this manner – a cut at the end of wood when the lumber is chucked/clamped down on the student’s strong-hand side.  I researched a bit and I’ve seen two ways to avoid this from happening.  One hand behind the back,

or the two-handed approach.

The one-handed technique is great for students to gain a “feel” for cutting the wood correctly.  A saw should glide through the wood with minimal downward pressure for the user – the saw does the work.  Long strokes produce cleaner and faster cuts than short strokes.  Move your body so your arm swings in a straight line in the direction of the cut (similar to a proper stroke of a pool cue actually).  I will (once I re-teach the safe way to saw during this cut!) ask the kids to try a one-handed approach to reinforce proper technique.  Then the students will  switch to a two-handed approach to gain speed.  Also, remember to teach how to re-adjust the placing of wood in the vise to minimize board movement, the original reason the second hand got involved in the first place.

So, a few things to remember when teaching woodworking to young students:

  • Different cuts, different set-ups must be taught as separate units.  Young people don’t gain adult-like abstraction skills until fifteen or so.  Young people’s brains haven’t developed those brain cells yet.  If you change the pattern, you must re-teach the technique.
  • Watch yourself first because monkey see, monkey do.  In this case, my habits in one environment (and the habits I ingrained in my students) did not translate to a successful skill when the situation changed.  Look at your habits and think about how those habits might affect the students’ thought patterns.
  • Re-evaluate and research your own skills – this is why I blog here, why I’m working on a Master’s in Ed, why I play in the woodshop on the weekends.  I can’t expect my students to be satisfied with the projects and level of production I see now.  I must plan for the future and improve my teaching toolkit.

Two sites which enlightened me on my quest to solve the sawed finger mystery: & Doug Stowe’s Wisdom of the Hands.

36 thoughts on “How To: Teach Sawing to a Young Student

      1. Totally agreed…such a powerful piece, and it has remained my “favorite” poem since reading it in senior year English class.

        Of course, it’s also the inspiration for one of my “all-time-worst-mom-moments” … my son, at the tender age of 8, asked me about my favorite poem.

        I shared. He cried. I still don’t think I’m forgiven! 😦

  1. Just reading about the finger made my blood run cold so I just stopped reading. What I wanted to share with you is a short story written by Dave Barry titled “How to cut (or make…I forget the exact title..but you may google it) a board” and it is so amazingly funny that it will literally bring the tears to your eyes laughing.

  2. i have nearly lost more digits from wood working than i can count on both hands (:o).
    We would make quick circular saw cuts with our knees stabilizing the boards, I would hand hold metal corregate while my boss would come at me with another saw (and shower me with flying molten sparks, some of which I’m sure are still embedded in my forearms), and, lol, use two latters plus a plank of wood for a scaffold, where once atop we would hand crimp siding to float out about three floors up onto the side of a house.
    Your student has learned a valuable lesson from his/her injury – use common sense! (I never could get the hang of it myself)

    1. Don’t worry – I had my students take a picture of me sawing.

      Another note I should add to this post – because hand saws have such a low speed, very rarely are these cuts deep. Usually it’s just a nick or scrape, like when you bust your knuckles wrenching on a car. Power tools on the other hand have a much greater chance for major injuries. My students use hand tools almost exclusively for this reason.

      1. Hand tools also give the student who does pursue woodworking a good foundation for better detail work, planing, mortising… the fun stuff 🙂 I wish my junior high shop had taught us using them, but c’est la vie!

  3. It seems like hand sawing a board is pretty instinctive. I’ve done that since I was a kid, with no injuries to myself. If you have a very long board you can mess up the board if you don’t support the far end – the wood may split when you get close to finishing the sawcut. Anyway, I’m way older now, and I’m learning to use power tools! Cut Trex decking with a circular saw 2 weeks ago – and I still have all my fingers, didn’t get anything in my eyes and the deck looks good! Last summer I learned how to use a table saw. That is fraught with danger, and I always am careful. I would like to die at about age 100, with all my fingers and 2 eyes still functioning!

  4. Heh, reminds me of an old Boudreaux and Thibodeaux joke.

    Boudreaux is working at a pallet company and operates a band saw. One day he amputates a thumb and is off of work for several weeks recovering. When he returns to work, his friend Thibodeaux stops by the shop to see how his friend is doing and ask him how the accident happened. So, Boudreaux is cutting wood on the bandsaw while talking to Thibodeaux and says, “Well, see, I was holding de wood like dis’ an’ talkin’ to my frien’ jus’ like we is now and shomp, I cut my thumb off.” And he proceeds to cut his other thumb off!

  5. Interesting. As someone who’s done a lot of damage to myself, it’s nice to see people bothering to demonstrate that there is a way to manage home tasks without the injuries – just watch Real Stories from the ER. Yikes. A guy actually cut off his finger in a snowblower. And it was on the other hand. He had done the same thing before to his dominant hand. Really?

  6. OR…you could just go to Lowe’s and have them cut it for you! 😉
    Actually, I only had them cut the main pieces of a project I worked on for my son’s closet. I had to do all the little cuts myself. The sawing was the hardest part for me. Only because I was scared I would cut myself.
    Great tips!

  7. This is such a smart and thoughtful post. I like your emphasis on monitoring your own work and on adapting or re-teaching a lesson when you teach different cuts, different set-ups. All the best for that MA.

    Russell Burck, Scribbler’s Travels.

  8. This is a great look at sawing. My father and grandfather spent a lot of time teaching me the correct way to saw things. In general knowing how to use shop equipment is important, because you never know when you are going to use a saw or a hammer.

  9. You reminded me of my Engineerng days. There was a time when any Engineering Student would have to undergo carpentry, wood turning, smithy and general workshop.

    We used to not only cut wood but also metal – Mild Steel as they put it. It was never mild. It used to 4mm thick and we would have to cut through it with a hack saw blade. I have never had any injuries in the entire 3 – 4 semesters.

    1. My weekend posts usually review the happenings of my workshop throughout the week – my students actually got to do a little metalworking. They used this technique to cut down some inch-wide pipe to 30″ lengths with a hacksaw.

      My freshmen year of engineering had no practical engineering labs or workshops. It’s not to say there weren’t any, just not freshman year. I learned a life lesson that year as I struggled with my frustration as a student (the only time I’ve ever dreaded going to class, including ones I teach) – I need to keep my hands active. That’s what’s missing from a lot of student’s lives right now. I’m just glad I get to put tools in the hands of my students every day.

  10. Reading your post reminded me of a time as a boy when I was struggling to get a saw through a piece of wood. My Grandfather was watching me and he said, “Don’t force it, let the saw do the work.” I think of that every time I use a handsaw; woodworking is now my favorite pastime. Thanks for teaching skills to the next generation, and congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  11. I came to your site from Makezine. I didn’t see the age of the kids you’re teaching, but your post reminded me of the first time I was able to use a handsaw – when I was in kindergarten. This was in the late ’50’s. I made a boat with “bumpers. ”

    I can’t imagine kindergarteners being allowed to do that now. Back then, my school environment allowed my creativity to grow and my experience at that age has stayed with me all my life.

    It’s great that you’re helping kids have that same creative experience.

    It’s great that you’re helping kids gain that experience.
    It’s nice to see you helping kids that way.

  12. I remember when my wood-work teacher taught us to handle a saw. I had never been able to saw in a straight line. He explained that, rather than grip the handle with our fist, we should place our index finger along the side of the blade. I find it keeps your arm in line with the saw and much straighter cuts as a result. Amazing and simple!
    This technique, described as “three, one, thumb”, was a favourite of his for many things, and was echoed by my grandfather. Applicable for sawing, holding a set square, a pen for writing and a good many things besides.

    1. I tend to favor that technique using the pull saw and western carpenter saw. My smaller students feel as if they “lose” control when they try it. Usually it’s the fist for them.

  13. Wow, when I read the title I thought it would be about teaching a young child how to saw with a table saw, or even a skill saw, but when I seen that it was about hand sawing, I said “you must be joking”, how can you get hurt using a hand saw. When I was as young as 11 years old, I was already using a skill saw, then by 14, I began using a table saw, and that is when I had something go wrong. I was cutting a 4′ x 2′ piece of 1″ thick pine to have a 2′ square piece, so I made my measurements, drew the line, turned on the table saw, and holding the wood firmly, by both hands on either side, I started my cut. I must not have been holding firmly enough, because the board jumped up, spun around, and hit me right below my gut on the left side, producing a smash gash that bled heavily, and left a scar. The instructor hurried to my side. I told him I was O.K. then went to bandage it up. 15 minutes later, I was back, and ready to make my cut again. I was frightened and startled by the incident, but I knew that I had to get back in the game, or I may never want to use it again. Courage after a mishap is vital to the prevention of lifelong trauma.

    1. Skaleti –

      I understand the sentiment. I was also a kid that was used to tools when I was a youngster. I count myself and you lucking in that regard. Many of my students haven’t had that exposure before – if you live in an apartment building in the middle of a city, when will you get to handle tools in the shop? Hand sawing becomes a low-cost ticket to woodworking. Also, many of my students are young – five to ten years old. They have yet to gain the physical size necessary to handle a skillsaw or table saw without a risk of injury.
      This post is less about the student than the teacher. Many spur-of-the-moment-and-inspirational teachers, such as a parent on Saturday, or a church volunteer on Sunday, may know how to do an act but not teach an act. I think there’s a big difference between the two. I hope the those would-be-teachers that read this feel more confidence in passing along their knowledge because they’ve set the act up safely.
      It sounds like your experience mirrors what happened to in my shop, although to a more dramatic end. From the way you describe the cut and the saw’s kickback, it sounds like the fence wasn’t square to the sawblade. And if you were a smaller 14 yr old like I was (got cut from the football team that year, never got over it), a 4’x2′ is an unwieldy load. A crosscut sled, feather boards/hold downs/those-push-down-things-with-handles and a square fence would have greatly minimized the chance of your injury. Pushing the wood from one side minimizes the risks of a kickback like yours causing your hands to hit the sawblade. Or better yet, change the technique for the cut itself. Use a skill saw and a saw guide to cut the panel.
      My point is that as a learner on the table saw, you couldn’t have known about all the ways to safely set up the cut….that’s the teacher’s job: to teach you to cut safely. If you were my student, I would feel your injury was because of my negligence, not the cost of woodworking nor a necessary formative experience. Yes, failure is a part of learning. But I don’t think safety, even in smallest act such as hand-sawing a board, is something I can cut corners on.

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