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Best saw for dovetails

wericha's picture

Up to now, all the dovetail work I've done has been with a router and jig.  I really want to up my game and become better with hand work.  What is the best style, type of saw for cutting dovetails?  I have a couple of saws that are probably adequate, but at this stage of my life adequate is not enough.

I'm certainly not opposed to older saws, but want to know what to look for in a vintage saw.

RalphBarker's picture

Uh-oh . . . (post #170136, reply #1 of 10)

 . . . now you've done it - started a new skirmish in the long-standing dovetail saw wars.  ;-)

There are essentially two designs - English- or Euro-style push stroke, and the Japanese Dozuki pull-stroke. Then there is the Frank Klaus approach - a large bow saw he uses to hand-cut DTs in seconds.

Both Lie Nielsen and Veritas make nice English-style DT saws, as do several boutique saw makers. Some folks even get by with refurbished old Sears back saws.

My personal preference is a good pull-stroke Dozuki, which I think provides greater accuracy and smoother walls.

wericha's picture

Oh No!!!! (post #170136, reply #2 of 10)

RalphBarker wrote:

 . . . now you've done it - started a new skirmish in the long-standing dovetail saw wars.  ;-)


Oh great.....

Please tell me it doesn't get as childish as the table saw war!!!  I've had a gut full of the coward on that mess.  I'm ignoring the ignorant dipstick from here on out.

I've got a couple of fine cut saws, one a push style and the other a pull, but neither of them are back saws.  I'm gonna play with them when I have a chance and see if I can decide which style I like better before I invest in anything.  I've looked at the saw you mentioned and really like it.  From everything I've read, that style of saw is now out-selling the western style.  The one argument I've seen against them that makes any real sense involves the design of the handle.  The arguments for the pistol grip style have some good merit, I'll just have to see if it is enough to sway me.

RalphBarker's picture

Dozuki handles (post #170136, reply #4 of 10)

There is, perhaps, a certain Zen (or, should that be Bushido?) to using Japanese-style saws. [This is where I should refer to you as "Grasshopper"  ;-) ]  Personally, I find the long handle to be comfortable and able to give subtle control of the cut. Think of it like the long handle on a Katana (Samurai sword), even though the Dozuki is used one-handed. Addressing the work piece with a two-handed grip, while wearing Ninja garb is optional. ;-)

Once the cut is started with a Dozuki, it will want to track as started, due to the very thin kerf the saw makes. Mid-cut "corrections" are difficult. The shape of the teeth contribute to this, as well, Those tiny opposing skew chisels just love to slice cleanly through wood.

Note, too, that marking with a single-bevel Japanese marking knife provides a good start for the cut - essentially a half-V, one side straight vertical, and the other slanted. Thus, the Dozuki will start tracking against the straight vertical side of the mark, producing considerable accuracy and tight joinery.

Bottom line, it is all very personal, I think. What feels right for one person may seem unnatural to the next. If possible, try to find someone local who is willing to let you try their Dozuki, so you can see for yourself.

roc's picture

The Sword and the Shield are all that I know : ) (post #170136, reply #3 of 10)

Here is a no holds barred thread

If you want to skip all that jawing . . .

I would recommend getting something that is no longer available new; at least not from the manufacturer; there may be some in stores etc.

Op hold the phone here is one

As you can see in the photo bellow I have tried about all of the various styles of western saws and in addition there is a seriously nice collection of Japanese saws hanging right above the bench where I took this photo.

I like the Lie-Nelson round handle saw.  The handle is somewhat like the Japanese saw but from much farting around "experimenting" with all the saws I now see that a pull / Japanese saw is wrong for western style dovetail joinery.

In the photo see the saws third from the right side of the photo and seventh from the right side.

One is about a fifteen tooth and the other is a ten tooth per inch saw.  I recommend the coarser saw for work over about three eighths inch thick.  Cuts really fast and the advantage is one is not hacking back and forth and wobbling all over the place but quickly cutting down the line.

I suspect this info won't satisfy you, or anyone else here so I strongly recommend buying several saws and finding what works best for you.

The pistol grip saw was the first high quality dovetail saw I bought by the way.  I kept looking and the ones I mentioned above is what I arrived at after several years of farting around . . . ah . . . I mean . . experimenting .

What ever you buy it is my opinion that it is super important you learn to tune and sharpen saws your self for best results.

PS: the Klausz twisty bow saw blade is used to quickly cut dovetails in packing crates, not for fine carcass work.


Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. Abraham Lincoln ( 54° shaves )

rocs_western_back_saw_collection.jpg96.21 KB
PhillipB's picture

My unorthdox method ... (post #170136, reply #10 of 10)

Best saw for dovetails ...

As most of us are aware, 'best' normally varies from person to person based on what he or she does.  Without going down that path any further,  I will just comment on where my experience has lead me.

To be clear, I have jumped through all the same hoops that those who want to hand cut dovetails have jumped through.  And, I too, have an assortment of dove tail saws and have tried each with varing results long forgotten.  Today, I use a Japanese dowel cutting saw (no tooth set) and a Lee Valley Dovetail magnetic guide ( hand-cut my dovetails.

To augment my dovetail process, I have built a custom dovetail rig that enables me to cut both the pins and tails with ease.  In addition, I can chop out the waste on the same rig.

Note.  I am having problems uploading the rig photo, so it may not appear.  I will try again later.

PhillipB's picture

Continuing ... (post #170136, reply #5 of 10)

I was not certain that my comments were going to be 'allowed' - I had to do the 'word authenticate' idiocy before I could continue.  I'm not going to waste my time commenting on this.

Back on topic ...

I am not trying to imply that my choice of saw is better than others.  I will only say that it works very well for how I cut dovetails.  Purists will no doubt cringe at my process.

The dovetail rig ...

I hope the photo is adequately clear that a viewer can envision how it can be used.  This particular photo is my original rig.  A 2nd generation rig was recently built which is basically the same only sturdier and taller.

The attached photo is of an ill-fitting drawer front and side dovetail prototype that I was contemplating using.  The height of this drawer is 1-7/16 inch.

Dovetail_Prototypes.jpg242.46 KB
RalphBarker's picture

Interesting jig-rig (post #170136, reply #7 of 10)

I'll confess that my mind was going in circles with the "Dowel Saw" until I got to the photos (pun intended, of course). It (the dowel saw) appears to be essentially a Dozuki without the back support.

PhillipB's picture

Nomenclature, nomenclauture, ... (post #170136, reply #9 of 10)

I believe the proper name for these Japanese saws is 'kugihiki' or something similar.  I have seen them referred to as 'flush cutting' or 'detail' saws.  In either case, they have no tooth set which sets them apart from the dozuki because the dozuki's definitely have tooth set.

Here is I believe the saw that I use:

 99% of my wood working $$ goes to Lee Valley.

Thanks for taking a look.

wericha's picture

Gee thanks, guys (post #170136, reply #6 of 10)

Now my head is spinning like what's-her-name in the Excorcist.  Good thing I hate pea soup.

So, the bottom line is the western saws are good, but so are the japanese are as well.  Push cut, pull cut, wax on, wax off.  Can I just hire Mr. Miaggi to cut 'em for me?

Seriously, I appreciate the responses.  I love seeing how we get from point a to point b and you've given me a lot to chew on.  My biggest challenge will be getting a chance to test out the different saws to get a feel for them. 

Ralph Kolva's picture

Good saw for dovetails (post #170136, reply #8 of 10)

Having spent the last 3 months making the same decision here's my take.   Let me start by stating that I'm certainly no hand tool or dovetail expert and I'm only relaying my experience and not making any recommendations as to what the Best Saw is, as far as I know Apple doesn't use their special Mesiah poop to make a Dovetail saw yet.

I've been a hobbyist for almost 30 years, sold a few peices over the years and thinking about seeing if I can make a meager income going professional.  In the fall of 2011 I took an 'Intro to Fine Woodworking' class to help improve my hand tool skills and last semester was a Teaching Assistant for that same class, over the last year I've cut quite a few dovetails.  The school has a number of dovetail saws and I had the opportunity to pick the brains of woodworkers better than myself.  Here's the list of saws I considered, cheapo Dozuki (~$50 with replacements blades ~35), Adria, Veritas, Cosman, Lie Nielsen, Gramercy Tools; not a comprehensive list but definitely some good saws.

The Dozuki seems to have the easist learning curve to getting good results, I've found this for myself and new students.  The problem is the blades are delicate and cut a little slower than the Western saws.  I've used my relatively inexpensive Dozuki for 15 years and like it but in getting more into hand tool work I'm replacing blades more often, particularly cutting lots of DTs in harder woods, perhaps a better Dozuki would hold up better?

The Adria, Veritas and standard Lie-Nielsen are all nice saws and I can't say I particularly liked one significantly better than the others, I could cut nice DTs with all of them.  Before getting to the other Western saws let me state that the problem I see a lot of people have, myself included, is in starting the cut across the end grain.  The Western saws are all a little heavier than the Japanese saws and I've found that I need to almost lift the saw when starting a cut.  If the saw tends to grab, jerk, or jump then I'm being too heavy handed with it and need to lift the saw off the work a little.  The Cosman saw is nice, it starts cutting really easily and cuts quickly.  It's the heaviest of the bunch and nearly twice the price, I also happen to think it's kind of ugly, I really like pretty tools, particularly at this price range, call me shallow if you want.  The Gramercy saw is the lighest of the saws I considered; it starts well and makes a nice clean cut but perhaps a little slower than the other saws.  If you have large hands it's also a little tighter in the handle.  I put together one of the Gramercy kits for the school, it's a good way to save a few dollars but it took me 3 tries to get a handle that I was willing to accept (first handle the cut wandered a little, second the handle broke on me).  The saw I wound up buying was the Lie-Nielsen Progressive Pitch saw, I find it starts the cut a little easier for me (not quite as well as the Gramercy or Cosman but close) and cuts quickly.  For the price and quality it really works well for, and it's a lot prettier than the Cosman.  

No matter what saw you get it's going to take practice, practice, and more practice to get exacting results in your dovetail work.  I find that the most critical part of the cut is in keeping square across the end grain on your tails, whatever angle you start with just stick with it but really try and start that tail cut square.  On the pins, cut inside the waste a little because you'll need to clean it up with your chisels anyhow, it will take a little longer than cutting right up to your line but until you gain experience with the saw you'll at least be safe.  I make it a habit to cut at least one dovetail a day, they're looking pretty good if I take my time (~20 minutes for a two tail through DT join a on ~4" wide board), maybe one of these days I'll get it down to 4 minutes, maybe not.