Minimalist tools – dovetail saws

So you need a dovetail saw. I think that many people think that a dovetail saw is for cutting dovetails and though that is true, it is not so much a dedicated saw but simply a small saw we use mostly for cutting smaller joints and that includes dovetails. A well-sharpened well-set dovetail saw is used as much for other cutting alongside its larger cousin the tenon saw, which also is not a dedicated use saw either. Most tenon saws are sharpened for aggressive rip cut, which is exactly what you need for cutting the cheeks of tenons. A 12-PPI tenon saw with an aggressive rip pattern is not good for cutting tenon shoulders at all. The teeth are really too big and so you either have two tenon saws or use a small-toothed saw like a 15-16-PPI saw, which of course can be a tenon saw. I find I have greater control with say a ten inch tenon saw and this just happens to be the ideal saw for dovetails too and so I keep my so-called dovetail saw close to hand for the shoulder-cutting aspect of cutting tenons. Furthermore, that’s why in general I don’t advocate a 20-PPI saw because the teeth are generally too small and too hard to sharpen. Nothing wrong with the saw.

There is of course much information out there about saws. As sawmakers deliver most of the information, the info is not so much about how to maintain a saw but why theirs is the best or about features of their saws, naturally. But the significance of saw sharpening and the importance of the skill should never be dumbed down this way and never lost in the mass of useless information. There isn’t really much you need to know about a saw in terms of its maker or its material. You need good, resharpenable steel, a rigid back, 15 PPI or less – that is larger, and a comfortable handle aligned for and capable of in-line thrust. These are the ingredients of a good saw.

Though I own many good dovetail saws and use them most days, I actually need only one. It’s a 10” 15-PPI Spear and Jackson made in the late 60’s and has a fine Rosewood handle. Rosewood has a lovely feel about it. Smooth as silk in the hand, quite heavy with good balance in my hand. Though not so available today, they occasionally come up on eBay so if you want one, that’s probably the most likely place to buy them from. Other than that there are Disstons too, which have a nice fruitwood handles that after craftsmen owned them and used them they feel quite lovely in the hand. I have one with a beech wood handle I really like. I hope to go to Texas soon to retrieve my tools back to where they belong right next to me. It’s funny how my tools have become faithful friends.

The most important elements to a good dovetail saw is thin steel and minimal set – No point taking too much wood out. These are elements people don’t know. With smaller teeth you can sharpen with an aggressive tooth.

I like progressive tooth shape; that means starting with a passive rake and moving to a perpendicular negative rake. See drawing above. At the toe-end of the saw, for the first  1″, I always start with the top of my file level along its length and also across its narrow width from side to side. Then for the next 1″ I pitch the top of the file forward (as in the second step shown above) and this increases to a more productive cut.  After that, along the remaining length I make the adjacent face of my file perfectly upright and this gives me my aggressive power cut – perfect for dovetail cutting when there is minimal cross-grain cutting. Where the saw may be used for more cross-grain cutting than with dovetails it’s best to make progressive change. The shoulders of tenons, for instance, or simply crosscutting wood to length.

Many people think a saw file to be three-sided when in actuality they are six sided with three large faces separated by a narrow flat face, which creates an appearance of a curved gullet.






This is a pattern for a rip  cut pattern used for crosscut sawing.


  1. Eric Potter says:


    So, why is the 10″ tenon saw the ideal for dovetailing?  Does it make a significant enough difference that I should go find one rather than using the 14″ 13ppi Disston tenon saw I already have?  I mean, I’ll probably go find one anyway, eventually, because I like to shop for old tools, but is it the kind of thing that will help take skill to a new level?

    • The closer the work the finer the length. You can of course use any saw with finer teeth but accuracy is lessened the longer the sword. Most of the cutting is nearer to the handle when it comes to cutting dovetails. Also, dovetails always occur in thinner sections of wood. It’s a fineness thing really. Tenon saws on other other are used for cutting through wider sections of wood and need the extra length because of this wider section in the cut.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Hi Paul, what saw depth blade size do you recommend for a tenon saw? I see some are on the smaller size and some are 3″ plus.

    • Good question – simple answer:
      In an ideal world fleam cut teeth make the best crosscuts. Veritas saws have a very fine fleam cut, steepbut effective. The problems occur in sharpening them to the same angle though with practice you can do it. There is insufficient difference between fleam and rip in this instance to cause concern and so I advocate a more refined tooth shape in a rip style that compensates for the lack of fleam and the difference can scarcely be seen. Because all dovetail saws have smaller teeth the teeth are then commensurate with size of cells that are the structure and substance of the wood being cut though this dies vary between species it makes little difference. So smaller teeth make cross-cuttingand ripping about the same.

  3. Eric Potter says:

    Another question for you.  Talking about saw sharpening and saw files, how do you tell when your file face is used up and it’s time to move on to another face?

    • Paul Sellers says:

      OK, good question, simple answer. You aways choose a saw file that has facets slightly over twice the height of the tooth so that whenever you rotate the file through the sharpening process, both faces are wearing but not the whole face, only half, the half that’s in the gullet, that way, when you rotate accidentally or intentionally, these two faces are actually worn at more or less the same level. Remember that you are not sharpening one face but two; the font of the one tooth and therefore the back of the other.

  4. halifaxj says:


    I love your blog – Canadian woodworker here moving towards more hand tools/work. I’m a bit of a minimalist, and looking to have no more than 2 saws. I was fortunate enough to find a Tizack Turner & Sons 12″ tenon saw that I need to restore (I read your article or re establishing teeth on a saw – the teeth are completely uneven).

    If you were to have only one 10″ or 12″ saw, how would you approach it’s setup? 12-15 tpi? Rip pattern with progressive rake?

    Regards, and appreciate all your output.


  5. Chris Bailey says:

    Very interesting thoughts on dovetail saws Paul. Very much like the current debate about water stones, do you have any thoughts about the apparently current vogue for Japanese saws certainly for cutting dovetails with their very thin kerf. Regards, Chris Bailey

    • I have no need for them in my work. Some say that they prefer them. I cut dov err tails and other journal with equal success using either type but I prefer wester-style saws in my day to day work.

      • Chris Bailey says:

        Thank you Paul for taking the time to reply. Normally, I use a western saw but I am currently trying a Japanese saw. So far, no conclusive result…..

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