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. Amazon.com 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…).