Dead Expensive Dovetail Saws…

24

… and why you need one.

Most of you will know that the vast majority of my tools are what I would call good quality ‘workman like’ tools.

I have a few modern posh things, but they’re not in daily use.
It’s nothing against them, but my old friends are like comfy old work boots. They let in a bit of water, but I just avoid the deep puddles.

My most expensive daily user could be yours for about thirty five quid.
And that’s my Stanley No 5.

Expensive will mean a different thing to us all, but what I mean here, is you should allocate a good chunk of your tool budget to getting a decent saw for your joinery. Mine is by Pax, but there are many brands available.

There is one exception to this though, and that’s my dovetail saw. It’s my one tool where I really find that quality counts.

If you watched my naff rant the other day, then you’ll know that I connect good dovetails, cut with good pace (that’s the important bit) with a good saw.

So I thought I’d give you some of my thoughts on buying a good dovetail saw.

Buying Your Dovetail Saw – New or Old?

Almost always go new.

Unless you’re very proficient at setting and sharping, then an old dovetail saw will do you no favours.
Cost wise, a good old saw seems to cost close to some of the new ones. If you do see a nice one at a bargain, then buy it. But don’t learn with it.

What Size for a Dovetail Saw?

Don’t buy a ‘dovetail saw’ for your dovetails.
They’re too small.

Instead go with a small tenon or carcase saw.

These will still cut your dead small joints but will be much, much more versatile. Particularly if you’ll be jointing a lot of carcases and the like.
It will also cut your small tenons and shoulders.

Even if you’ll use your saw mostly for run of the mill drawer dovetails, the longer length will give much straighter cuts, and be much faster. It will also help you to see square.

Go for around the 10″ (250mm) mark. Maybe a little longer if you work thicker stuff.
What’s important is that you don’t go for one of these deep cutting saws. So the shallower the depth of plate, the nicer the saw will feel.

The versatility of this allows you to put your money in to one great saw, rather than splitting it up between several.
Plus it fits well with a minimal tool kit. This part is personal, but I prefer to look after a few familiar tools, rather than have the pick of many.

A small tenon saw is versatile and will be used for most of your small joinery.

How Many Teeth on your saw?

Just because your joints want to be fine, doesn’t mean you need super fine teeth on your saw.
Quite the opposite in fact.

Fine teeth, like a short length, will lead to inacuracies.
They also clog quickly and are a pain in the arse to sharpen.

At 20 teeth per inch (tpi), my Pax saw came with too many teeth.

It makes it impossible to cut accurately. So I filed them straight off and set it up with about 14 tpi.

The difference was day and night, and I haven’t found another saw that I prefer to use (except for a Skelton).

Try to pick a saw out the box that has no more than 15 tpi. Go for slightly less if you work thicker or softer woods.

Do You Need Rip Cut, Cross Cut Or Both?

Only rip.

I find cross cut teeth a waste of time for anything other than very coarse saws. They come in  useful below around 8 tpi.

When you’re dovetailing, most of the cutting is rip anyway, and even for others things finer rip teeth crosscut just fine.
If you are worried then just create a knife line prior to sawing.

Rip teeth can be used successfully for any crosscuts in your small joinery. I like the simplicity of looking after one saw, and it prevents your budget spreading too thinly.

Blade Thickness for your Dovetail Saw.

You want a saw with a nice thin plate (which all good saws will have).
A thin blade makes for a very precise feeling saw.

Do avoid going for the ‘super thin kerf’ though.
These can be so thin that if you rush the saw (and who doesn’t), they tend to drift.
If you’re buying a tenon or carcase saw then you shouldn’t need to worry, as these are all a little thicker anyway.

The big factor to consier is that you can get a coping saw blade down the kerf. And I mean a proper coping saw. I don’t like fret saws, particularly when you’re jointing at full thickness.
This is another good reason to avoid a dovetail saw and instead opt for a small tenon. Nice and thin, but not too thin.

Another note, and this is most certainly personal preference, go for a nice heavy saw.
A saw that can plough on its own steam is always more accurate, and a lot less prone to doing that bouncing thing when you’re trying to start your cut.

Anyway, there’s a bit for you to go at there. I’ll go into a lot more detail on individual elements another time.

I like to use a coping saw for dovetail waste removal, so I ensure my joinery saw kerf is thick enough to allow access.

Some Notes on Our Tool Buying Advice:

We often hear it. I provide some thoughts on buying tools and it gives an excuse for people who dislike the advice to jump on the ever faithful ‘he’s in all the tool makers’ pockets’ thing.

My thoughts aren’t the only solution for buying a good dovetail saw, but when we provide tool advice we want you to be certain of two things:

1) The solution works for me. I use hand tools solely and aim for speed as well as precision. My tool kit is minimal and workmanlike, so a tool can’t be naff, nor will it be posh for the sake of it.
If this sounds like your kind of woodworking, then I hope you’ll find the advice useful.

2) The advice is always impartial. We’ve never had any kind of sponsorship or payment for anything we’ve published, and don’t plan to do so in the future. Stating this means it would be illegal for us to do any other.

Interested In More Thoughts For Setting up Your Tool Kit?

– Chisels For Most Needs
– The Best Marking Knife
– ECE Hand Plane Review
– Choosing Your First Hand Plane

Plane Build Video Series

24 Responses

  1. Ken Haygarth

    Thanks Richard, nice post mate. Yes I have the pax 1776 15 tpi, its a great saw. love it. 😉

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      I bought mine years ago and I don’t recall them offering the 15 tpi, it was 20 tpi only then, hence me filing off the teeth. It’s a great saw, I’m pleased that they’re offering the range of teeth, and it’s nice to hear you get on with it!

      Reply
  2. jim

    your advice on thesmall tennon saw is great except without an example most have no idea what your talking about. most know a hand saw or a back saw but have never seen a good tennon saw especially here in the colonies what would be a good modelfor people to look at

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Thanks Jim,
      In terms of appearance, any tenon saw will look similar to the Pax saw seen in the top photo. Most brands offer a choice of length, teeth type and tpi, so you should be able to take the general advice and match it closely with your preferred brand. Name wise the saws may be referred to as a tenon saw, dovetail or carcase saw but it’s the specs you want to keep your eye on.
      Cheers, Richard

      Reply
  3. Jeffery Oliver

    I actually have 2 dedicated dovetail saws – a Gramercy tools (9 inch) and a Bad Axe Stilleto (12 inch). The Gramercy is has a .018 in plate, set to 19 PPI; the Bad Axe has a .015 in plate, set to 16 PPI. I am really considering replacing the Gramercy at some time with another Bad Axe, with a thicker plate and 15 PPI – it seems to work better and more efficiently.

    Reply
  4. mario giotta

    Nice post and very well written (at least for a complete rookie like myself). I found your stories simple and “object-oriented” with no extra fancy poetry. Plain and simple, pros and cons explained. A real pleasure to read and a great, great help for me. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Joosep

    Hey! Great advice! I have been considering between Veritas’s dovetail and carcass saw (rip). The carcass saw has 12 tpi, is that a little too few for dovetails?
    Loving your work!
    Thanks!

    Reply
  6. TPR

    Wow, all we need is another super high end saw maker to oogle over (Skelton). Lots of pounds for those tho, will have to wait a bit or hit the lottery. Thanks for this saw info, will have to check out my tenon saws and see which one i can dovetail.

    Reply
  7. Peter Armstrong

    Hi Richard
    I started woodworking this year and when I looked at dovetail saws they do cost but with new saws it’s back and handles that cost. I like the look of the saws made in the 1800’s so what I did was find a few saws in bad shape and have the plates replaced and I have saws for about a 1/4 of the price of say a new Bad Axe saw.

    The dovetail saw I like to use is 12” with a I Hill late Howel (1830’s) brass back the back cost £10 and a near perfect Drabble and Sanderson open handle that cost £15 with the new plate is like having a new 1830’s saw and with the extra weight and length, for a learner it’s easier cut on the line.

    Peter

    Reply
  8. Michael Ballinger

    Your suggestion of buying a new saw over an old one for beginners is sound. I opted to buy a lovely looking tennon saw and after spending a lot of time trying to set it up I’ve resided to the fact that I just don’t know enough and need a good saw to compare against. I will get it working but I would prefer to be focussed primarily on cutting joints not getting a saw in working order.

    Reply
  9. John Walker

    I boght a Wenzlof dovetail saw 16 ppi. It has a deep plate for a dovetail saw and a walnut handle to die for. I still use my Lie Nielsen carcass saw for every day dovetails (is there any other joint for drawers?) My Wenzlof is better on hardwoods anyhow. I will check out the Skelton though!

    Reply
  10. Tony Williams

    Agree with you throughout – specially about rip vs cross-cut; a well-maintained 8-10 tpi ripsaw will cross cut beautifully. I have a couple of fine saws, supposedly for dovetails, but hardly ever pick them up – except once in a while for fiddly, small mouldings.
    I think many of us own too many saws; 85% of my sawing is done either with the 8 tpi 22″ Diston rip, or the 14″ Tyzac 12 tpi tenon, also rip. The only cross-cut I own is a 26″ S&J 5 tpi for heavy stock. Two or three good quality saws is a better idea than six of lesser quality.

    Reply
  11. Brian Steinberger

    I’ve been looking at the Pax 1776. They come with walnut handles currently which I quite like. They come in either 13 or 15 tpi. I’d be curious which you would recommend Richard. I use mostly pine but some softer hardwoods as well, nothing thicker than 1″.

    Reply
  12. les parlane

    thanks for that info on the dovetail saws !! your page is very informative so thanks for that.
    cheers
    lesp

    Reply
  13. Ed

    I use an old 14″ Disston tenon saw, 12 tpi, filed rip and set fine to do all of my joinery, including dovetails. I like the extra depth on the plate, which lets me use the saw for tenons, too, when I don’t split them. Cutting fine joints isn’t really related to the size of the saw as it is to how well it is sharpened and set. Nevertheless, despite saw sharpening being my weakest skill and despite this saw being anything but perfect, it functions fine. If the teeth aren’t all equal sized or equal pitched, but you joint the saw and get a good set, you’ll probably be fine, even if a few teeth don’t come all the way up to the jointing. So, if someone can’t afford a new saw, don’t be discouraged, especially since all those new saws will need to be sharpened sooner rather than later. If you can afford a new saw, it *is* an easier starting point and *if* the seller truly delivers a sharp saw (not a given), then you get to feel what a proper saw should feel like. One advantage of 12 tpi is that it is easier to learn to file. To me, the hallmark of a good saw is that it doesn’t skate or wallow around when you are starting it on wider material. Instead, after a few feather light, sort-stoke rubs to get your body-saw-line lined up, one definite push and the saw has bitten in and it’s line is set. If a saw can do that, and if it doesn’t drift in the cut or make a jagged kerf, I can do joinery with it, probably regardless of the size of the saw, kerf width, plate thickness, and all the other stuff we fuss over. If you can afford multiple tenon saws, great. You’ll like them. If you can only afford one tenon saw, don’t be put off of woodworking.

    Reply
  14. lars christiansen

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for this simple and clear approach for choosing a dovetail saw.
    As a beginner this is most helpful fo me, and I shall be looking to the offers for new saw, that are within my reach. Skelton is not :-).
    I think that I have understood how tenon and dovetail saws are differnt/positioned one to the other.
    I have a complementary question though.
    Between Dovetail, Tenon, CarCass and Sash all that I have found so far is that the designation depends on size of the blade and the number of teeth.
    Is that assumption correct?
    Thank you in advance for your help.
    Cheers
    Lars

    Reply
  15. Miikka

    I recently received my Pax 1776 small tenon saw (15 tpi) which I bought based on Richard’s recommendation. After thorough research I had three or four prime candidates with not much difference in quality or price and ended up with ordering the Pax.

    The new version with walnut handles is a beautiful tool which performs extremely well. I highly recommend it for anyone choosing a small tenon saw.

    Reply
  16. david o'sullivan

    I bought and old saw sharpened it .disappointed bought a new saw expensive but the difference is astounding. Problem.New saw gets dull tried sharpening it .disappointed again .revert to a good Japanese saw .but kerf to thin for coping saw .need to master sharpening

    Reply
    • Michael Ballinger

      Hi David, after you sharpen the saw try putting a tiny secondary bevel on the tooth the strengthen the cutting edge from fracture. It was a tip I learnt from another master woodworker and it made my saw stay sharp for longer. He used a fine diamond file, made by eze-lap.

      Reply
  17. Steven Seaton

    Hi Richard , thanks a lot for recomending the Pax saw ,and just before Christmas 😉 . So that went to the top of me list!
    And the big man didn’t let me down , I’m now the proud owner of a 1776 tenon saw with walnut handle 15 tpi rip cut , I’ll be honest I can’t stop looking at it , it’s that good and hand built in this country what more do want .
    Anyway hopefully I’ll be able to get started on the work bench this year ,so all the best to you and Helen and keep up the good work the videos really are amazing ! I’ve copied a link to a video that shows the saws and plans been made enjoy everyone https://youtu.be/NiW5E8vYaPo

    Reply
  18. David Clark

    Sawing has always been a bit of mystery to me but watching you work and reading this article has made it clear to me how to approach sawing. Here are my basic 2 rules I now follow with religious fervor:

    1. Saw always in the waste.
    2. Clean it up with a plane, chisel, spokeshave or a combination of these tools.

    It is not about the saw rather the clean-up.

    Reply

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