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HomeNL-2009-08 Bow Saw

The Bow Saw - A Handy River Tool
August 2009
by John Rich

The bow saw
A bow saw is a very handy tool to have along with you in your canoe during trips on the water. Most of the time you will probably not even need it. And many times I've hesitated to even bother bringing it along, because it seemed unnecessary. But you never know when it's going to come in mighty handy on the water. And it's better to have it and not need it, then to need it and not have it. So even when the chances of the bow saw being required seem low, I've gotten into the habit of bringing it along anyway. And every once in a while, it really pays off.

Ken Anderson cuts
through a downed tree
It can be used to clear brush out of the way to allow passage of boats to go unimpeded. This not only allows passage of your own boats, but is also good community trail maintenance for paddlers which may follow at a later date. Cutting a limb or two can also be much easier than a portage around an obstacle. And instead of having to give up on a path, it allows you to penetrate beyond where you would otherwise have been able to travel. In this photo, Ken clears a path on Lake Pass, between Lake Charlotte and the Trinity River, through trees blown down by hurricane Ike.

Ken McDowell
cuts firewood
For overnight campouts on the riverbank, the bow saw is used to cut firewood, to provide warmth in cold weather, heat for cooking, or just for a pleasant outdoor atmosphere for chatting with your friends at night. I find that a bow saw is much quicker than an axe, and it's also lighter to carry in the boat. Here you see a different Ken cutting firewood for the evening campout on Ratcliff Lake.

But most importantly, the bow saw can be a vital tool for rescue. I've only used mine for that purpose one time, so far, but the bow saw in that situation was critical in saving a trapped boat. A tandem canoe pair went riding around a blind curve in a creek on fast current, only to bump sideways into a log strainer, spilling both paddlers into the water. The canoe then played submarine and went completely underwater, and became trapped underwater in the branches of the log. After getting the paddlers safely to shore, we worked on freeing the boat, but pulling on the bow and stern lines was not working. I paddled up next to the log, pulled out my bow saw, leaned over the side, and sawed off a limb underwater. It felt very strange to be sawing underwater - that's something I had never done before. But this freed the boat and allowed it to pop back up to the surface again, where it was retrieved. Without the bow saw, this boat rescue would have been much more difficult.

Bow saws come in various sizes, measured by the length of the blade. The large ones run 30 to 36 inches, the medium ones about 20 inches, and the small ones as little as 12 inches. The cost varies from $15 to $30. It's cheap insurance for a rescue situation, and a cheap tool for brush clearing and firewood. The one I use, pictured at the beginning of this article, is 21" in length. I have a larger one in my garage which I use for yard work, but I found it a bit too cumbersome in the canoe. The small ones can be a bit too slow to cut, as the length of the cutting stroke is reduced. So, like Little Red Riding Hood's porridge, the medium-sized one is "just right" for me. It fits nicely in the canoe, and also cuts efficiently.

Rivet replaced with
nut and bolt
Some of these hardware store bow saws are rather cheap in construction. The main failure point is the rivets used to attach the saw blade to the bow handle. Before that rivet has a chance to fail on me, I drill or punch them out, and replace them with a sturdy nut & bolt. You can use a product like Loctite to glue the nut in place so it won't come loose on you and get lost, at an inopportune time.

The next problem I had in adapting my bow saw to canoe use was the blade guard. The blade guard is designed to protect the blade in storage, and to protect the user from being cut by the sharp teeth when you're not actively using it. The saw comes with a cheap plastic strip which is difficult to remove and install, and which degrades quickly. I've tried several things to improve upon the factory blade guard. The first was to take a foam swimming pool noodle, slit it lengthwise half way through, and slip that over the blade. That actually works okay, but it's bulky, and the blade teeth catch on the foam when you try and install it, and that shaves off lots of little bits of colored foam which end up all over the place. My second attempt was to take a length of old garden hose, slit it lengthwise, and slip that over the blade. This is less bulky, but it's still difficult to install over the blade, and you can end up drawing blood trying to get the blade inside that small slit in the hose.

Now we come to my latest bright idea for a blade guard. The blade is about ¾" wide, so I purchased a piece of 1" inside-diameter PVC pipe at the hardware store, for $2.50. I cut that to the length of my blade, and then ran that section across my table saw to cut a lengthwise slot in it, from end to end. If the kerf (cutting width) of the saw blade isn't wide enough, you may want to make several passes just slightly apart to widen the channel in the pipe. You want the pipe to slip easily over the teeth of the saw blade, and since the teeth are bent alternating slightly left and right for cutting, you need a groove that is wider than the actual thickness of the steel blade.

The blade can now be easily slipped through the open slot on the plastic pipe. Then all you have to do to keep it in Blade guard installed place is to rotate the pipe 90°. Since the blade is wider than the slot, in this orientation it cannot come off. To remove the blade guard, rotate the pipe to align the slot with the backside of the blade, and slip it off. This guard protects the blade from damage, and more importantly, protects you and your gear in the canoe from being accidentally sliced up by the blade.
Blade guard        Blade guard installed

The humble bow saw - consider making it a useful and important part of your river tool kit.

The author, John Rich