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.