Saws for Dovetailing

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This article is from Issue 99 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Saws for dovetailing

Whether you’re starting out or stepping up, get the saw that suits your work and budget

By Paul Anthony

Because of their terrific strength and good looks, well-made hand-cut dovetails are a hallmark of fine craftsmanship, as well as a source of pride for any woodworker accomplished enough to make them. Laying out and cutting the joint can be challenging, but it’s certainly within anyone’s reach, as shown on page 31. 

It definitely helps to use a good saw for the job—one that cuts relatively quickly, smoothly enough, and without any tendency to veer on its own. Saws suitable for cutting dovetails share two common characteristics: a relatively small size, and a spine on the blade to stiffen it. Otherwise, design varies widely. Some blades are thicker, some longer, and some have more teeth. Some cut on the push stroke; some on the pull stroke. Some are better quality and, of course, prices range to suit. 

On these pages, I have curated a selection of generally affordable saws for dovetailing, dividing them into three basic families: gent’s saws, pistol-grip saws, and Japanese saws. My colleague Ken Burton and I tested each tool for ease of starting, sawing speed, smoothness of cut, and accuracy of tracking. While this list is by no means comprehensive, it does represent a good range of proven, capable saws. So whether you have yet to lay out your first set of dovetails or you’re simply looking to tighten your game, you’ll find something here to suit your work and budget.

Gent’s saws

A gent’s saw is a small, economically priced backsaw meant for general work. These saws are typically available in 6- to 10"-long versions, with teeth per inch (tpi) usually ranging from 12tpi to 22tpi. Although often configured for crosscutting, the teeth work fine for dovetailing. Like other western-style saws, these cut on the push stroke. Keep in mind that—all else being equal—a longer blade results in fewer strokes, and thus a faster cut. The turned handle provides a suitable grasp, but spending hours with it can tire your hand, especially your index finger. 

A gent’s saw is a thrifty choice for beginning dovetailers, although the teeth may need a bit of dressing first. The tool will certainly get the job done, but it can be somewhat slow going in denser, thicker wood. I find most gent’s saws best suited to cutting moderately soft hardwoods 5/8" thick or thinner, which includes most drawer joinery. Of the families of saws on these pages, gent’s saws tend to be the most prone to poor tracking. I recommend avoiding the cheapest versions. Twenty bucks may just buy you a poorly manufactured, slow, erratic-cutting saw that will frustrate your dovetailing education. Sometimes it is the tool, not the craftsman. 

Classic 8" Gent’s Saw

Classic 8" Gent’s Saw 

Crown Tools, 8" blade, 17tpi, $29.90 (LeeValley.com #29T2003)
This saw started cuts without much jumping, and tracked pretty well. Cutting was somewhat slow, but yielded a relatively smooth surface. The 8" blade is a bit short for my tastes, but I adjusted my stroke. Overall, a nice starter saw for the money. 

Lynx 410048 10" Gent’s Saw

Lynx 410048 10" Gent’s Saw

Thomas Flynn, 10" blade, 20tpi, $32.95 (amazon.com)
The high tooth count on this saw made for easy starting, and a very smooth cut. It sawed reasonably fast for a 20tpi blade and tracked nicely. The 10" length makes for efficient cutting with fewer strokes. My only complaint is the heavy coating of hard-to-remove metal protectant. 

Veritas Gent’s Saw (rip)

Veritas Gent’s Saw (rip) 

Veritas, 7 7⁄8" blade, 20tpi, $59.00 (LeeValley.com #05T1001)
This modernistic looking saw with its polymer spine started cuts cooperatively and tracked very well. Solidly made and comfortable to use, it sawed aggressively, considering its high tooth count, and produced a smooth cut. It’s one of the pricier gent’s saws, but worth it.

Dressing for success.





Dressing for success. The teeth on some gent’s saws’ stamped-steel blades may have an erratic set that causes a rough cut and poor tracking. The fix is to very lightly hone both faces of the teeth with a fine stone, which improves tracking and cut quality.

Finger press.




Finger press. When using a gent’s saw, your index finger points the way while applying subtle downward pressure. Don’t overdo it; the weight and motion of the saw should primarily be advancing the cut. 

Traditional pistol-grip saws

These smallish, pistol-grip, push-stroke backsaws represent the quintessential western dovetail saw. They are heavy-duty and ergonomically comfortable, with teeth configured for ripping. Blade lengths typically range from 8" to 10", with a tpi count usually between 14 and 20, with most leaning toward the lower end. Having fewer teeth helps power these saws through thicker, harder woods. 

Many woodworkers find a pistol-grip saw much more comfortable to use than a straight-handle saw. The ergonomics of the handle relieves strain and takes advantage of wrist power. The weight of the tool also helps the cutting action of a push saw. A pistol-grip saw is more substantial than a gent’s saw and well suited to sawing everything from typical drawer sides to thick casework pieces of dense hardwood. It is, however, not a good choice for thin, delicate stock. 

As compared to gent’s saws, most pistol-grip saws are manufactured to higher standards, with accurately filed and carefully set teeth, precision-fit spines, and comfortable, well-fabricated handles. And, like other western saws, you can readily sharpen them yourself, unlike most Japanese saws. If you prefer push saws over pull saws, this is the type to get for serious dovetailing. 

Veritas Standard Dovetail Saw

Veritas Standard Dovetail Saw 

Veritas, 9 1⁄4" blade, 14tpi, $79.99 (woodcraft.com #153370)
This unusual looking saw with its composite spine has a crisp, clean bite that cut aggressively, but not as smoothly as some others. Starting was a bit jumpy, but then the saw moved through the cut very nicely and tracked beautifully. The open handle was very comfortable. Attractively priced, this tool offers a great introduction to pistol-grip dovetail saws.

Pax Rip Pattern Dovetail Saw

Pax Rip Pattern Dovetail Saw 

Thomas Flinn and Co., 8" blade, 20tpi, $102.00 (LeeValley.com #33T0841)
This very traditional-style saw started easily with little balking, and tracked nicely. It cut relatively smoothly but fairly aggressively, and its considerable weight helped. At 8", it’s a bit short in my book, but that’s a quibble. The closed handle is pretty comfortable, and large enough that it didn’t pinch my fingers. This is a substantial saw for a very reasonable price. 

Florip Dovetail Saw

Florip Dovetail Saw

Florip Toolworks, 9" blade, 16tpi, $119.99 (woodcraft.com #172200)
This beautifully made saw started easily and tracked perfectly, neither chomping nor nibbling. It cut aggressively but as smoothly as some blades with more teeth per inch. It has enough heft to help the cutting action, and one of the most comfortable pistol-grip handles I’ve ever grabbed. This tool really offers a lot to like, especially for the money. 

Fire at will. With a pistol-grip saw, the index finger helps direct the cut, while three fingers wrapped around the handle take advantage of wrist strength, minimizing strain caused by twisting the hand. Cocking your wrist can subtly control the cutting pressure.

Show some spine. The heavy brass spine folded over the top of the blade protects it from deflection and adds enough heft to help the cutting action. The idea is not to apply a lot of downward hand pressure, but to let the saw do the work. 

Japanese saws

The Japanese saw used for dovetailing is called a dozuki. It cuts on the pull stroke, so the working blade is in tension, meaning it can be made thinner without danger of buckling under pressure. Being thin, it removes less material, and so tends to cut faster. Dozukis are typically available with blades ranging from about 7" to 10" with a tooth-count generally from 16 to 30. Again, fewer teeth normally result in a quicker, but rougher cut. Dozuki teeth are much harder than those on western saws. They stay sharp longer, but risk breakage. Because they’re long, fine, and brittle, they’re difficult to sharpen, which is why replacement blades are often available. Many dozukis come with crosscut teeth, but these work fine for ripping as well.

Although light in weight, they don’t need heft, as the pulling action on the extremely sharp teeth means the tool does most of the work. And the long, straight handles provide much better control than gent’s saw handles, while inducing less hand strain. One potential hindrance for a newbie sawyer is that the wood fibers pulled from the cut can somewhat obscure the cutline. 

Japanese saws are very popular in the U.S. for their affordability and simply because they work so well. It doesn’t take long to get used to pulling a saw if you’re used to pushing. And at these prices, there’s no excuse not to try one.

SUIZAN Japanese Hand Saw

SUIZAN Japanese Hand Saw 9 1⁄2" Dozuki Dovetail Pull Saw 

SUIZAN, 9 1⁄2" blade, 25tpi, $39.80 (amazon.com)
A nicely made saw, the Suizan started easily enough, and cut fairly aggressively for such fine teeth. It tracked satisfactorily, and produced a surprisingly smooth surface for an inexpensive saw. My only complaint is that the unwrapped handle doesn’t provide much gripping friction, tiring my hand a bit from the extra clutching. Overall, a good introductory Japanese saw. 

Razorsaw Dozuki

Razorsaw Dozuki 

Razorsaw, 9" blade, 19.5tpi, $68.99 (woodcraft.com #173495)
The tool started very easily, but didn’t saw quite as aggressively as the Suizan. However, it cut smoothly and tracked beautifully with no problems at all. I love the feel of the elastomer handle, which provides a very sure grip that I prefer to the traditional rattan wrapping. In all, an excellent dozuki saw for dovetailing and general handwork.

Kondo Joinery Saw with Depth Stop

Kondo Joinery Saw with Depth Stop

Kondo, 9" blade, 26tpi, $80.99 (woodcraft.com #156947)
This uniquely designed saw started with no balking at all. It cut fairly quickly and tracked accurately, but produced a rougher cut than the other two saws. The rattan-wrapped handle provided more grip than the bare-handled Suizan, but not as much as the Razorsaw. The depth stop is a nice feature, but a bit less rigid than a fixed spine.

Choke stroke. When starting a cut with a Japanese saw, it can help to choke up on the handle, which provides better control. 
Power pull. Once the direction of the cut is firmly established, sliding your grip to the end of the handle makes for more efficient cutting.
Depth stop.




Depth stop. The stiffener on this Kondo brand dozuki allows the blade be adjusted up or down, creating a depth stop to prevent cutting past the scribed baseline on a dovetail joint.

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