Ever wondered how to cut wood without a saw? My best guess is no, at least until now. Usually, there is no practical use in cutting wood with anything besides tools that are specifically designed for the job.
But I am well aware of life’s unpredictable nature and can imagine a situation when one found themself in a situation like this.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to cut wood without a saw. Just think of times before saws even existed.
Ultimately, any sharp object that is harder than wood has the potential to cut it. But it will require a lot more time and effort. Let’s take a look at some options for different wood cutting tools you have in other hand tools, power tools, and beyond.
Tip. You can read my guide about Types of power saws.
- 1 Main features of cutting wood without a saw
- 2 How to cut wood without a saw but with an axe
- 3 Chisels as wood-cutting tools
- 4 Drilling instead of cutting
- 5 Sharp-edge tools for cutting wood
- 6 Wire cutting
- 7 Alternative power tools for cutting wood without a saw blade
- 8 Primitive technologies for cutting wood without a saw
- 9 Determining the best method for the job
- 10 Q&A bit
- 11 Conclusion
Main features of cutting wood without a saw
Saws were designed to cut wood straight and fast. So, by using one of the methods from below, you’ll lose in:
Cutting wood without a saw is always longer, harder, and messier. But it is far from being impossible.
Usually, the procedure requires the removal of a lot more material, than while using a saw. And the wood surface on the edges of cuts will be much uglier, hence requiring more work on cleaning them up.
But you can use a lot of different wood-cutting tools and techniques other than a simple saw. Just make sure it is worth the effort, or it is really easier and faster to buy or lend a respective saw.
How to cut wood without a saw but with an axe
Similar to saws, axes are made to deal with wood but in a different way. The process of cutting wood with an axe even has its own name, chopping. Technically, it is more than suitable for dividing big pieces of wood into smaller chunks.
Pro-tip: The sharper your axe, the better it cuts. Dedicate some effort to additional sharpening before cutting wood with an axe.
The basic principle of cutting wood with an axe
To cut wood across the grain, you will have to chop away pieces of wood coming at an angle, alternating the sides with each strike.
Essentially, it will be a “V”-shaped cut. To decrease the amount of material to take out, it is better to chop through half of the thickness from each side.
Cutting along the grain is actually splitting. You just strike the end of a log, board, or piece of stock, and hope it will split the way you need. Axe will also help clean splits a bit.
The methods will do for firewood, structure wood, or any other pieces of considerable size.
Axe head types
There are different kinds of axes with various profiles of the head. Some are better for cross-cutting, while others shine in splitting wood along the grain.
Let’s take a look at the most widespread types and their use.
Info: Axe head classification includes hundreds if not thousands of types of tools. I’ll simplify it to a reasonable extent to take a look at the most distinctive features in the context of saw substitution.
Hatchet. Hatchet is a smaller axe designed for carving. It has a short handle (around 14″) and a broad, sharp blade on its beard. Great for cutting smaller branches, boards, two-by-fours, or similar structural wood. Not the best choice for splitting.
Hunting/bushcraft axe. Bushcraft axes have longer handles (18-22″) and heavier heads. Their beards are narrower, and their blade profile is thicker. Used mainly for splitting firewood while camping, but quite capable of cutting too up to falling smaller trees.
Maul splitter. Maul splitting axe is the big one. It has a long handle (around 31″), a heavy head, a narrow beard, and a thick blade profile. Designed exclusively for splitting big chunks of tree trunks. Virtually any other axe will be better as a saw substitute.
Double-bladed head. Double-bladed axe heads were originally developed to save time on sharpening while cutting down trees.
They also have long handles and heavy heads. But their blade profile is thinner than that of a maul splitter. The double-bladed axe is more than suitable for cutting thick logs.
Fire axe. In terms of design and handling, fire axes are similar to maul splitters. But fire axes have thinner blades, too. They proved to be handy for falling trees, even with significant trunks. Good for cutting firewood too.
Battle axes. Decorative battle axes are not meant to cut anything, they are decorations.
Functional replicas of the actual battleaxe (Vikings’, tomahawks, etc.) have some capabilities in actual cutting; however, they won’t hold on for too long as were meant for cutting other things. Too fragile and too thin for handling wood.
Additional axe-cutting tips
- try to hit the back of the axe head with a mallet or another suitable object to drive it deeper while splitting wood;
- mind your head, legs, and non-dominant hand while swinging the axe around;
- put your axe into the edge of the chopping platform and drag the piece of wood against the blade for more control;
- if the weight of the axe head is not enough, use the weight of the log by rotating the axe with the log and hitting its back on the chopping platform.
Chisels as wood-cutting tools
If you happen to have a chisel at hand but have no saw, consider yourself saved. Chisel and mallet in right hands are capable of producing quite clean and precise cuts. It will take a lot more time than sawing, but is completely possible.
Pro-tip: The mallet can be easily fashioned out of a thick branch. Basically, any heavy and hard enough object that fits in your hand will do.
Chisel cutting is the best way for cutting square or rectangular stock.
You just need to make a groove that equals the width of your chisel and deepen it enough to be able to cut it with straight downward cuts.
Alternatively, you can make two grooves from the opposite sides of the stock, then break the hinge in the middle. All that’s after that is a bit of clean-up. Or even leave a smaller hinge by making grooves from all four sides.
Pro-tip: Hinge in the middle of the thickness of the piece is better, as it has less potential for chipping. Significant chipping may also occur if you try to cut thin material through in one go.
Drilling instead of cutting
Actual cutting with a drill is possible only with a side-cutting bit. But regular bits can be really handy too.
All it takes is to drill holes in a straight line along the intended cut. Just try to leave as little material as possible between holes. After that, you’ll be able to just break off the excessive part of the wood.
Pro-tip: Drill holes on the excessive side of the marked line, do not remove the material from the piece you want to receive.
Both power and hand-cranked drills will do the trick. Cleaning up the cut line will take a lot more time.
But you are not restricted to a straight line with this method. In fact, the drill bits’ radius is your tightest possible curve.
Sharp-edge tools for cutting wood
Knives, machetes, and other sharp-edge tools are great for removing wood. With some effort and dedication, you will be able to cut every type of wood, be it square or rectangular stock or round branches. Many kinds of knives are suitable for cutting wood:
- bushcraft knives;
- whittling and carving knives;
- even serrated bread knives are somewhat effective on softwood.
Just keep your blade as sharp as possible. It seems counterintuitive, but sharper blades are actually safer to work than dull ones.
And way more pleasant to work with. Now, let’s take a look at some available techniques.
Notch. This method in its core is very similar to chopping wood with an axe. You’ll need to make a “V”-shaped notch by the alternating angle of each other cut.
The deeper you’ll go, the broader your “V” will become. It is a rough cut, but it does the job.
The size of the preferred knife depends on the size of the piece you need to cut. The bigger the stock, the bigger the blade needed to comfortably cut wood.
After cutting almost all the way through the thickness of your piece, you can just snap it by hand, and clean up the edges.
Knife and baton method. Hitting the back of the sharp knife to make deeper cuts is another great way to speed cutting up.
But it will do only if your knife has a decent, hardened blade. Otherwise, instead of cutting something, you’ll just break the blade.
This method enables cutting in one go if the blade is longer than the width of a piece. You’ll just need to hit the tip of the knife when its back drowns in the material.
Ringing. Ringing in its core is just a notch. But it is circular. It is the perfect method for cutting thick and round cross-section pieces of wood.
You need to start with a shallow circular notch and then just gradually deepen it. At some point, the thin wood hinge inside becomes fragile enough to snap by hand.
Serrated knives. Serrations on the back of some knives are meant exclusively for cutting stuff. They are almost like saw teeth. It is especially effective for cutting softwood. Even serrated bread knives are capable to produce a rough cut in softwood.
Machete. A sharp machete is technically a knife. But it is balanced to be blade-heavy. So, you can use both, like an axe or a sharp knife.
Chop through thinner pieces of wood, split wood for a fire, or even use the knife and baton cutting method. Just make sure that your blade is sharp and strong enough to withstand all of those activities.
The wire is capable of cutting both greenwood and well-dried wood on par with a saw in terms of the cut line quality.
It only takes a lot more time and strength. And you can’t just grab a piece of wire and start rubbing it against the wood.
To be able to cut wood, the wire needs some relief. The coarser it is, the better. When pressure is applied, the high spots of relief will bite into the wood and take fibers away with every motion. It can cut straight after some practice.
Now, how to make a wire saw blade on your own?
A piece of thick metal guitar or piano string with attached handles makes a perfect wire saw. Every string with winding will do.
But if there is no string around, you can just fold around two feet of wire once and twist it on itself. Then put on some handles, and you are ready to go. This will create the relief needed to bite into the wood.
Try to use the thickest and strongest wire available. If there’s nothing except some thin telephone wires, wind them into two threads and twist them together. It will make the resulting wire even stronger.
After figuring out all of the above, let’s take a look at how to wire-cut wood with what we have.
To begin cutting, just wrap the wire around the branch or piece of stock you need to cut. Then grab the handles and pull them one by one, maintaining general pressure on the wood.
Once you’ll find the rhythm, the sawing motion will become much easier.
Pro-tip: When using the wire saw, remember to take at least a 15-second break after every 30 seconds of cutting. This will keep the wire cool and prevent breaking.
Alternative power tools for cutting wood without a saw blade
There is always a possibility to end up surrounded by power tools with no saw within the reach. And if in such circumstances you’ll need to cut some wood, then it’s OK. No need to rush to the closest hardware store and spend any money on a hacksaw.
A lot of power tools intended for other purposes have an inherent ability to cut wood, since usually softer than the material they intended to work with. In some instances, the quality and the speed of the cut are even comparable to regular saws.
Wood router. Router bits are sharp enough to trim wooden angles. They are quite capable of cutting it too if it has at least one flat wood surface.
Handheld and bench routers will both do the trick. The bench once will just need some guide railings that are easy to fashion out of a straight board and a couple of clamps.
The maximum cut thickness equals twice the maximum bit extension. You’ll just need to flip the piece to the opposite side after the first pass.
The rest is similar to usual working with the router. It is capable of making both straight and curved freehand cuts. On par with a circular saw, actually. Of course, you’ll need some skills and respective guides.
Pro-tip: Always keep an eye on whatever is beneath the piece that is being cut. Routers’ bit will go through and damage it. Mind depth adjustment at all times.
Lathe. Woodworking and metalworking lathes have the potential in cutting wood apart. Just clamp your piece between the headstock spindle and tailstock centering tool. Then turn on the lathe and cut in the needed place using a hand chisel or lathes cutter.
Make sure not to cut all the way through or else the piece will fall apart and end up flying away from the lathe. Related injuries can be pretty severe. Leave a hinge strong enough to hold rotating pieces of wood, but small enough to break.
Angle grinder. An angle grinder with a cutting or abrasive disk is capable of cutting wood, too. If it has a wood-cutting disk installed, then it is basically a ready circular saw. It lacks precision but cuts wood like butter.
But you should never use abrasive or metal cutting discs on wood. Every angle grinder has insane RPM. At this rate, abrasive surfaces meant for metal will get clogged with sawdust on a whim. A clogged blade is prone to kickback and getting stuck. I don’t think you have fingers to spare.
Drill press. Drill presses are the right tools to implement the drill-cutting technique. They will increase the speed by a lot. Don’t forget to set depth adjustment to cut all the way through the wood.
And the router will help to tidy up the cut in no time. There is even a chance of having a side-cutting drill, a bit at hand.
Tip. Also, you can read more about How to join two pieces of wood at 90 degrees.
Primitive technologies for cutting wood without a saw
Your hands and mind are actually very versatile tools on their own. The following cutting methods are rather breaking, but they allow the dividing of bigger pieces of wood into smaller ones. Perfect for preparing firewood in a pinch.
Hands and knees
Dry and thin wood is completely breakable by hand only. Put it against your knee for some additional leverage to make it a bit easier on your hands.
Putting a branch between two closely growing tree trunks is another great way to break it. In fact, any two poles that are close enough and strong enough will do.
Just be careful when the wood is breaking, try not to lose balance and not to get in the way of pieces of wood flying away from the breakpoint.
This method relies on gravity. Lean one side of a branch on a rock while leaving the other one on the ground. Make sure it sits firmly.
Grab the heaviest rock you can lift safely and throw it against the center of the branch.
Alternatively, you can kick in the middle with your leg. Just make sure not to get hurt.
Determining the best method for the job
Picking the best tool for the job can be confusing, even when having all of them at hand. But there are some ideas that will make it easier.
First of all, remember that using a tool that was intended for other purposes is always more time-consuming.
Then, remember that you can’t get everything from one tool. You’ll easier have some degree of precision or will be able to remove large chunks of material faster.
Points to consider
- What is more important, precision or speed?
- Do I need a straight cut or can get away with a rough edge?
- What will be the workflow? Can I sacrifice precision in the initial stage to save some time at the initial stage of cutting?
- Do I need a rip cut or a straight cut along the grain?
- Am I going to cut soft or hardwood?
- What is the desired surface quality of a cut?
- Can I keep my tools sharp throughout the whole project?
- What kind of cut do I need? A straight one or shaped and curved?
- How much wood can I remove for the cut? On one side or on both?
Answers to all of the questions above will help to narrow down possible options. But. In a situation like the discussed one, you’ll most likely have to work with what you have.
Now, with the majority of stuff figured out, let me try to give an answer to some of the relevant questions.
Can you cut wood without power tools?
Of course. There are hundreds of types of hand saws out there. Knives, hand drills, axes, chisels, and a lot of other tools are completely capable of cutting wood aside from power tools. It will just take a bit more time than with a hand saw.
Tip. Furthermore, you can read more about Types of power saws and how to tell them apart.
Can I cut wood with scissors?
Yes, but only if it is a veneer sheet or another really thin wood. In some instances, scissors are even more comfortable than any other tool.
Alternatively, you can try to tear your pair of scissors apart and try to use one of the halves as a knife. It will be painful, as the cutting edges of scissors are made to work together, pressing against each other. It’s not a sharp hunting knife, but it is an option when there are no others.
Are there any other tools to cut wood without a saw?
A lot of them range from sharpened pieces of rock and up to a shard of glass. Basically, every object that is harder than wood has the potential to cut it. It is just a matter of efficiency and limitations.
Now you know how to cut wood without a saw, but with a sharp knife or chisel. Hopefully, these cutting methods will help you this time or the next time you’ll find yourself in such a situation.
You can use numerous hand tools or power tools, try to fashion a cutting tool of sorts, or just use your natural resources. Just don’t hesitate to try every possible option to find the solution.
My name is Alex Mashinsky
I am an enthusiastic woodworking hobbyist who created topwoodworkingtools.com to provide helpful information and advice to fellow woodworkers.
The goal of the website is to help readers make informed decisions about woodworking tools and materials, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that they achieve the best possible results from their projects.
My main focus is on offering accurate, honest, and well-reasoned opinions and advice to help readers choose the most suitable tools and materials for their particular needs.