Dovetail saws

Ok, everyone…blame daddy-O for my first ever tool review. He requested that I offer my opinion on some of the saws linked on the Rookster’s blog . Well, this started me on a quest. I didn’t just want to give you folks an opinion of one or two saws. I wanted to give you my saw philosophy as well as my opinion on a bunch of saws.

Let’s start with my saw philosophy. First, as I’ve stated before, I’m not a gadget guy. I’m a minimalist woodworker. What I mean by that is, I don’t go out and buy tools: to impress my friends, students or colleagues; because a magazine, blog or website says it’s the greatest thing ever; because it costs more so it MUST be better; and on and on. I say, buy the least expensive tool that will do the job comfortably and efficiently at the quality level you expect. Most of the time, a $300 saw (in this case) isn’t going to help you cut dovetails any better than a $60 saw. To be honest, it comes down to technique and practice which is the case with most tools and machines.

I’ve done LOTS of dovetailing over the years. I can run into one of the Big Box stores and buy a back saw off the rack *shuddering at the thought* and cut dovetails that look like the ones I cut with my Lie-Nielsen Independence saws (which sells for about $125.00).  It’s not the tool but what you do with it that counts. With that said you may ask, “why then did you spend all that money on the LN saws?”. The answer runs in line with my current obsession for the blog…connoisseurship.

Let’s get one other thing out of the way before we get too far into the nuts and bolts of this discussion. I’m a European or Western backsaw guy. I’ve tried Japanese saws and I just don’t like them. I tend to believe people gravitate to the tools, and methods, on which they learned. I was taught with a European saw (makes sense since my instructor was European) and I “know” how to make the saw work for me. What I mean by “know” is, I have a feel. It’s not intellectual (come on, I am a woodworker…intellectual would be an oxymoron), it’s tactile. I’m also not a “Gent’s” saw kind of guy. I have one but it’s still pretty much like new.I just can’t get the control over the blade that I get from a traditional backsaw.

What I look for in a dovetail saw is something that has a comfortable grip and a stiff, thin blade with something in excess of 15 points (or teeth) per inch. The finer the kerf and more teeth you have, the cleaner your sawn surface will be. For those who have seen me demonstrate my dovetailing method at a woodworking show, or taken one of my fundamentals classes, you know I’m huge on leaving the sawn surface. Saw your dovetails to the line and assemble. If you a chiseling the sawn surface, you’ve screwed up.

My first real dovetail saw was an English made  W. Tyzak and Sons 8″ dovetail saw. If I remember correctly, it cost about $50 back in the early 80’s from Woodcraft or Fine Tool Shops. Today the selection of tools at Woodcraft is dramatically smaller than it was in the early 80’s and Fine tool Shops is long gone. Many of the other competitors of Woodcraft are also long gone. Needless to say, I haven’t been able to find out if Tyzak is still making saws or if they are available in the US.

There are a couple of saws out there today that are pretty much on par with my first saw. Prices range a good bit but they are still less expensive than the Wezloff and Gramercy saws we’ll talk about in a bit. Lee Valley sells a Pax dovetail saw for around $87.00. They don’t give any specs on the blade thickness but at 20 ppi, I assume it’s fairly thin. The grip appears to be similar to my Tyzak as well. Hartville Tool sells a Crown dovetail saw that is very similar for around $65.00. If I was just starting out, and wasn’t sure how I was going to like cutting dovetails by hand, I’d give this saw some serious consideration.

My second dovetail saw was a French open grip saw from Fine Tool Shops (can you tell I seriously miss this place?). I liked the grip better on this saw than the Tyzak but the tool steel on the Tyzak was better. sells the Robert Larson dovetail saw. It’s French and appears to be similar to mine. It’s at the lower end of my “ppi” requirement at 17 (but then again, my Lie-Nielsen saw has only 15ppi…check the pic). This just means you’ll have a slightly rougher sawn surface but at just over $50 (the cheapest saw of the bunch), it’s worth a look.

I really wanted to move on to a group of mid-range saws but there really aren’t any on the market (unless you consider the ones already mentioned as “mid-range” in comparison to the Big Box Store Back saws and the ones I’m about to talk about).  Traditional Woodworker sells a Lynx saw that has a very similar  grip to my Tyzak. The blade seems to be fairly thin as does the kerf. At around $130.00, it’s not a bad deal. 

Adria also makes a really nice dovetail saw for about $130.00. Again, the blade thickness and kerf is about the same as all the saws I’ve looked over. In fact, if you look it over, it isn’t too much different than my Lie-Nielsen. Almost all the saws so far have a 0.020″ blade thickness. I lean towards buying a rip set on my saws because that’s primarily the operation needed to cut dovetails.

The last two saws I want to talk about are, in my estimation, more along the lines of “custom” saws than the ones I’ve looked over so far. They are the Wenzloff & Sons 9″ dovetail saw, which they also sell through Lee Valley for about $125.00, and the Gramercy dovetail saw which sells for about $140.00. These saws, according to their respective websites, are primarily made by hand and copied, or adapted, from older saws (as is the Lie-Nielsen). What I really like about these saws is the obvious amount of craftsmanship that has gone into them. The Gramercy is the only saw in the group with a different grip angle. A couple of weeks ago I was talking with Alan Turner (even though he’s a competitor, I really like the guy and his work) at a woodworkers club meeting about his thoughts on his Gramercy saw. He loves it. I found the grip angle a little awkward for my taste initially but given the light weight of the saw and the actually comfort of the grip itself, I might be able to get used to standing up a little straighter when I saw.

The Wenzloff saw, much like the Sauer and Steiner planes I posted about before, just screams quality. Mike Wenzloff seems to take great care in creating his saws. The grips just look like they would mould to your hand. Both the Wenzloff and Gramercy saws have thin kerfs but the Gramercy blade is thinner than all the saws I’ve look over coming in at 0.018″ thickness with only a 0.003″ set to the teeth. I can see why Alan really likes this saw. Much like my Lie-Nielsen saw, these two are made with exacting craftsmanship and great care.

Ok, so now we’ve gotten through all this stuff about the different saws and you’re probably wondering “when’s he going to critique the saws? He’s given us all the different makers and their prices but I haven’t heard much about the pros and cons of any of the particular saws.”. Well, you aren’t going to hear me rip apart any of these saws. How does this help you decide how to critically look at a saw and which one to buy? I’ll tell you.

Realistically, all of the saws I have listed in this post are, to one degree or another, worthy of a place in your shop. As I’ve stated numerous times, I’m not in the employ of any tool manufacturer. The opinions I’m about to express are my own and not influenced by some endorsement deal. I’ve already told you my philosophy on tool buying. As you can see, I have had several dovetail saws in my life. My Lie-Nielsens are the first ones on which I would say I actually spent “real” money. Do I like them better? Certainly. Am I running out and buying the Gramercy or Wenzloff saws today because I truly admire the work that goes into them? Not likely. I may purchase those saws down the road because they are so well made that I’m sure they would be a pleasure to use.

If I was just starting out again, would I run off and buy the Lie-Nielsen, Gramercy or Wenzloff saws? That depends entirely on how much dovetailing I think I’m going to do and how much cash I have in my pocket to spend. The reality is, if you are not sure if you are going to LOVE cutting dovetails by hand, and that you are going to do a lot of it over your lifetime, that $50 French saw from Amazon, or the Pax saw from Lee Valley are probably good starting places. Will you struggle a little more to get great results with that saw rather than some of the most expensive saws? Probably but, at the beginning, you most likely have a fair number of other things to overcome that the saw you use will make little difference.

Think of it this way, when you started out in little league (well, the younger members of the readership anyway, when I was a kid there was no such thing as “T” ball), you started out playing “T” ball, right? In other words, you got a bat, stood in front of a stand on top of which was placed a baseball. You took a swing and the ball and stand went flying. The whole point of the exercise was to teach you to keep your eye on the ball. In other words, learn the basic skill first then polish the technique. They didn’t start you out with a custom made Louisville slugger pitted against Nolan Ryan.

If you have the time and want to really critique the saws on your own, I suggest you attend a show, join a woodworker’s club or have the companies ship you one to test. Check out how the saw feels in your hand. Is the grip comfortable when you are using the proper form (index finger extended and three fingers through the grip)? Does one saw grip feel more natural to you than another? Does the saw feel heavy or light? Does the weight of the saw seem to be balanced when you hold it or does it seem to be more towards the front or back? I tend to like saws that are well balanced. If you like the front, or back a little heavier, knock yourself out. When you look down the blade, is the set fairly even (in other words, you don’t see the odd tooth sticking out to one side or another)? Does the saw seem sharp? Do I have so many points per inch I’ll never be able to see them in order to sharpen them? If that’s the case, how do I get the thing sharpened? Do I like an open grip or a closed one?

All of these things are extremely personal considerations. In the end, that’s what really matters. If you are comfortable with the tool, you are more likely to be more productive and turn out a better product than if you ran off and bought a saw simply because I said you should. What works well for me, might not feel right in your hand. So, the best advice I can give is, do your own homework. Try out a saw or two before you commit to the saw of your lifetime. Learn the skills and perfect the techniques before you dive into an expensive tool. You’ll appreciate that hand crafted tool all the more if you do (did I mention I really like my Lie-Nielsen saws? Now you know why…).


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4 thoughts on “Dovetail saws

  1. Chuck First of all i wanted to say thank you for the time you put in to this post. Now first let me start by saying this may not apply to evreyone but here it is. In my past when i first started woodworking I like may others were buying tools i could afford in my budget but by doing that what i found is i was really just wasting my money over and over.

    May be a little story will help everyone understand. about 8 years ago i didn’t have a jointer but was getting more into wood working and realtized i needed a jointer if I was going to use rough lumber. ( I all ready had a planner) So I set out to buy a jointer the question ? what size? Well I ended up with a 6″ free standing machine for many reasons which cost about $550 shortly after i had it i realized i should have bought a 8″ or larger and if I had taken my 550 towards a 8″ i would have only needed a few hundred more . Which I would have had to wait a little longer to get the money together before buying the bigger machine. which i would have been ok with but, i didn’t wait because i figured a 6″ would do the job but it didn’t. So i spent more money in the long run and should have just gotten the 8″.

    So to make a long story short I havn’t done alot of dovetailing but would not like to buy 2 saws so I’m still leaning towards 2 custom saws on the higher end. Plus I would like to stack the chips in my favor so to speak with good quality tools that i don’t have to rebuy later as i grow or kind of grow into them. There are a few great points you made Chuck Frist I didn’t see the differnt grip angle unitl you talked about it. Also the point per inch, the kref size and the height of the blade are a few things i learned to look for. Chuck you talked about asking a tool company to send you a saw to try. Will they really do that? do you have to buy both saws and return one? This sounds like a great thing but I’m not awear that companies will do that? I guess with out tring one out I’m down to 2 saws drum roll please!!!
    Either the LN or the Wenzloff & sons saws. I would really like to test both. Chuck as you know I have been to wood shows in the past but have not seen both of these saws there. Does anyone know of a show were both saws would be there at the same time? Chuck you have giving me a few more things to think about and it is now as clear as MUD! thanks for the frist ever tool reveiw. Keep up ALL the great work and Also i wanted thank your support staff .

  2. daddy-O,

    First, the saw manufacturers will not send you a “test” saw unless you give them a “test” credit card. I guess I should have stressed a little more the concept of getting together with a group of woodworkers, such as a guild or club, where you might be able to test drive several saws before you buy. Lie-Nielsen has done nearly every show I did this past season so, you should have plenty of opportunity to check out their saws. Lee Valley was also at many of the same shows. If you can’t wait until the Fall show season starts, daddy-O, you are welcome to make an appointment to come over and test drive my LN saw since you live so close.

    Second, the jointer analogy isn’t really a fair comparison. My first saw was the Tyzak but I never had the problem of not being able to cut dovetails because of the tool. In fact, my support staff asked after I finished the last of my research for the post which of my three saws I would use if they were all in perfect working order. My answer…the Tyzak. The reason is, I “know” that saw better than the others. It’s not that I don’t like my LN saws (I said in the post that I really like them, actually) it’s just that the Tyzak feels good in my hand, it works and it stays sharp. What else is a saw supposed to do?

    The Lie-Nielsen saw takes some getting used to. They even state in the instructions that come with the saw something to the effect that ‘the saw is sharpened properly, if it doesn’t cut accurately the most likely cause is poor form or technique’. It is, in a sense, less forgiving than some of the other saws. That said, I do like it.

    When I do the dovetailing demonstrations at the shows, I use the French saw I own. I also bring along my Tyzak and allow the audience participant to choose which saw they would like to try. No one has ever said “man, if only the saw was better my dovetails would have turned out”. In fact, most people do a great job. It’s technique and form driven not tool driven. Give me the cheapest backsaw on the planet and I’ll still turn out decent dovetails because I know how to make the tool work for me instead of against me.

    When I looked over Alan Turner’s Gramercy, we started talking about the fine details of the saw. Some of which a novice would never even be able to notice because they are concentrating on “how” to use the saw instead of the minutia of its performance…connoisseurship.

    Buying a saw to “grow into” is a fine thing. I am not advocating you buy the cheapest saw you can find. What I am saying is, you don’t NEED to buy the most expensive. I’m a practical woodworker. If you can figure out a way to get your hands on examples of the saws you’d like to try, I suggest you buy the one that “feels” right in your hand. For how to figure that out, check out the next to the last paragraph in the post. If it “feels” right, it doesn’t matter who made it or how much it costs.

    I hope I’ve cleared up the mud a little.

    BTW , daddy-O, which saw did you use when you cut dovetails in your class here at the shop?

  3. Chuck I hear what your saying about the tool is only as good as the user. Allow the tool to work for you. but have you ever heard the worker is only as good as his tools?
    As for trying out a LN at one of the shows last year. In all honesty I wasn’t in the market for a dovetail saw when i was at the show last fall. It wasn’t unitl I took your class and cut some dovetails that I realized there is a whole world of woodworking that I’m missing from my skill set. Having been a power tool guy. I hardly every used hand tools to make a pcs. In fact i hated hand tools and looked for any way possilbe to use a power tool to do something ( D4 Leigh jig VS hand cut dovetails) . So to answer your question which saw did I use well I can’t rember but I do know that it was not the LN saw. Well i really do what to thank you for all your insight. It is diffently a differnt way than i was thinking. Well I will keep everyone posted what I decide to do. Later everybody.

  4. should also mention Cosmans new dt saw………….got one and its great.bob lindh,

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