Full Chisel Blog

April 1, 2008

Dovetail Saws

Filed under: Sawing,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 7:06 am

I use unbacked saws for a variety of reasons.  They are much lighter than backed saws and the old steel in these saws (made from old damaged saw blades) is good and at this size doesn’t need a back.

Dovetail Saws

The upper is sharpened to rip and is a bit thicker and stiffer blade and the lower is sharpened crosscut.  Note that the tooth guards are held on without a string.  And note the keft starting nicker nib on the ends.  The upper one is purely functional the lower one a little more decorative and just as functional.

I like these saws because they can do things like this:

Leveling furniture

I place the long leg on a thin slip of wood and use the unbacked crosscut saw to level the legs.  This is a reproduction settee and the center legs made the settee teeter and I had to cut the back leg twice and the front leg three times to get all 6 legs on the ground at the same time.

I cut in from both sides and you can tell when you get through as the saw stops from the downward pressure of the leg.  This technique also works on tables and I do this regularly (if my chairs are not square) on chairs.  It is important to have a true area of a workbench, a truing board (one you know is flat) or on a cast iron table.  I once owned a printers composing table, perfectly flat iron table that worked great for truing up furniture.

This could not be done with a backed saw that easily.  And while I do own two backed saws, a nice old Disston with a new handle and a small rosewood handled Gent’s saw.  The latter one with real fine teeth I will keep, the old Disston tenon saw is a lunker I am going to sell or trade.

I had previously used backed dovetail saws but the back was always getting in the way so I made saws without backs (thicker blades), they work exceptionally well and I have no intention of going back (pun intended).



  1. While I agree that the task you show above couldn’t be easily done cleanly with a backsaw, it can be done and I have an vintage offset saw (gent style) that will do that. For the amount of time that I have a piece of stock wider than the blade is deep (the back would interfere) is very minimal, quite honestly.

    I really wanted to reply on your saws, and know that you have said you prefer them without a back, but that decorative nib on the front of that bottom saw is nicely done…maybe this shall be known as the Shepherd’s Nib. Seriously, I do like it. I’ve seen some saws like that, Wayne Anderson did a nice saw that had some cutouts in the front of the blade, it was also very attractive. Nice work!

    Comment by Alan — April 1, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  2. Alan,

    I had one of those offset saws and I cut the back off and made a very thin saw I use for detail work. The blade is very thin and I do have to be careful with that little saw but it is very handy to use.

    And I am down to the little backed Gent’s saw as I gave the Disston back saw away yesterday to Dave Buss, a volunteer in my shop. He was happy with the gift, but it came with a warning that he might not use it either and it may not be that much of a gift.

    The nib on the crosscut saw is a copy from an old saw, nothing original on my part.

    As for the back on handsaws they also interfere with sighting the saw on a score line. The fat back doesn’t allow you to sight properly along the blade.

    Another thing is that when you make a deep cut and the back interferes, when you change to an unbacked saw to finish the cut, they are usually wider (thicker) than backed saws resulting in the unbacked saw binding in the narrower kerf.

    I sometimes use the straight backs of saws to mark straight lines. A backed saw has a rounded or chamfered edges and doesn’t make a good straight edge.

    The large number of backed saws, especially tenon saws that has survived leads me to believe that they were not used that much. I think tool makers in the nineteenth century are like those today and introduce ‘new’ tools to the market that seems like a good idea.

    Less steel in the blade keeps the price down by using wrought iron or brass on the back, which is cheaper than steel. And for most applications the thickness of the saw blade is irrelative, especially for tenons and even dovetails as there is waste to be removed.

    If I need a fine kerf I use a bow saw, coping saw or fret saw with very fine blades (without backs) held under tension in a frame.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 5, 2008 @ 7:20 am

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