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What is a Tenon Saw?

By Kris Roudebush
Updated: May 16, 2024

A tenon saw is a hand tool designed to cut wood “tenons,” which are a type of interlocking hinge or joint. This tool is a member of the backsaw family and is usually made of a stiffened metal edge with rip-filed or crosscut-filed teeth. It can come in a number of different sizes and a number of styles are usually available, too. Some are cheaply made while others are handcrafted and designed to last for generations. This type of saw has been around for centuries, and while the styling and efficiencies have changes somewhat, the tool is generally considered to be something of a timeless staple for furniture makers and general woodcrafters alike.

Basic Appearance

Most tenon saws consist of a rectangular metal blade mounted on a wooden or other stylized handle. The blade itself is usually anywhere from 10 to 16 inches (25 to 41 cm) long and tends to be about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) wide. The bottom edge typically contains small teeth as well, and most models have between 10 and 13 teeth per inch (2.54 cm) of blade. Most have closed handles, although some smaller ones may have open or "pistol grip" handles that allow for different sorts of leverage.

Some types of tenon saw are designed to cut primarily with the grain. In these cases the teeth are rip-filed. Others, which have crosscut-filed teeth, can be used to cut against the grain. Carpenters usually make their selection based on the sort of wood they typically cut as well as what it is exactly they’re intending to create. Smooth, rounded joints often require slightly different specifications than corners that are sharp and angular, for instance, and having tools specialized for the job at hand often makes things easier.

Main Uses

As their name implies, the main job of these tools is cutting and fitting tenons. A tenon is a small piece of wood that fits inside the matching mortise slot — the original tab A and slot B style of construction. This sort of joint has been used since ancient times, and some basic types include the open, tusk, joint, and top tenon styles.

While the basic style of the joint is the same, there are some subtle differences between the types. The joints can be simple, with just a small piece of shaped wood extending from the larger piece to fit inside the mortise, but they can also be complex, with a mortise joint cut into both sides of the joint. The cut can be circular, square, or a groove; in these cases tenon then acts like a key, filling in the hole to keep the two pieces together.

Importance of Tenon Joints Generally

One of the main reasons tenon joints are so popular is that they are very sturdy without requiring any hardware. Many builders elect to anchor the joints with screws, bolts, or glue, but this isn’t usually required. Careful craftsmanship — paired with the right tools — can create solid structures and stable furniture with little more than wood and sweat.

These sorts of fixtures are just as popular in modern times as they were in the ancient world, though how they are used tends to be a bit different. Today, they are most common in furniture accent pieces, like handcrafted baseboards, mirrors, and frames. In days past, the joints were actually used to construct buildings and shelters. While the technique certainly works in these scenarios, most modern craftsmen rely on more advanced methods of structural construction that are both more efficient and more cost and time-effective. Still, precisely cut tenons are in many cases something of a hallmark of woodworking and fine craftsmanship.

Variations and Similar Options

The tenon saw is just one of many different saws used in furniture joinery. The mitre saw, the dovetail saw, the razor saw, and the sash saw all have related goals and properties. While they are intended for different specialties, very experienced craftsmen can sometimes use them interchangeably in a pinch.

Where to Buy

People can usually buy these tools in a couple of different places. Standard versions are often available in hardware and home improvement stores, for instance, and woodworking specialists usually stock them in a few sizes and styles, too. Carpenters who spend a lot of time creating furniture joints might also want to order something custom made. A number of craftsmen will make these and other saws “to order,” adding blade specifications and handle materials according to the customer’s preferences. These tend to be quite expensive, but can be a good investment for someone who will be spending a lot of time with the tool.

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Discussion Comments
By anon352503 — On Oct 23, 2013

I'm at college doing a project on an Irwin Expert 3055 Ultra Fine Saw. Does anyone have any comments on the handle, blade, teeth, weight, materials, purpose or function? (or anything else) Any help is much appreciated.

By anon351899 — On Oct 17, 2013

Because they could have cross cut filed teeth, made for cutting against the grain.

By anon348247 — On Sep 15, 2013

Tenon saws are meant to cut straight which is why the teeth are as they are. The teeth are used to make a "pathway" down the wood so the saw can cut straight.

By anon330676 — On Apr 18, 2013

A tenon saw is specifically used for making mortise and tenon joints, which are common in furniture making. A tenon is a small piece of wood that fits inside the matching mortise slot — the original tab A and slot B style of construction. This sort of joint has been used since ancient times, and some basic types include the open tenon, tusk tenon, joint tenon, and top tenon.

By anon115225 — On Oct 01, 2010

A tenon saw is a saw that can cut curved edges in a piece of wood.

By anon108548 — On Sep 03, 2010

If a tenon saw is meant to cut across the grain, which it isn't, why are the teeth rip filed (which they are)?

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