Chris Schwarz's Blog

Frame Fight! Coping Saws vs. Fret Saws

For those of you who chisel out all your waste when dovetailing, this post is not for you. Please move along. There’s nothing to see here.

OK, now that we’re alone: Have you ever been confused about which frame saw you should use to remove the waste between your pins and tails? I have. For years I used a coping saw and was blissfully happy.

Then I took an advanced dovetail class with maestro Rob Cosman and he made a strong case that a fret saw was superior because you could remove the waste in one fell swoop. So, like any good monkey, I bought a fret saw and did it that way for many years.

A fret saw’s thin blade drops into the kerf left by a dovetail saw. Then you just turn and saw.

Here are the results left by the fret saw.

But fret saws aren’t perfect. Almost all of them require some tuning. You need to file some serrations in the pads that clamp the blade, otherwise it’s all stroke, stroke, sproing! Oh and the blades tend to break a lot. Or bend.

And fret saws are slower. I use 11.5 tpi scrollsaw blades and it takes about 30 strokes to get through the waste between my typical tails in hardwood.

If you want to see a good video on how to tune up a fretsaw, check out Rob Cosman’s site. He shows you how to hot rod the handle and bend the blade for the best performance.

About Coping Saws
What I like about coping saws is that they cut faster. I use an 18 tpi blade from Tools for Working Wood. (I think they’re made by Olson.) The blades cut wicked fast thanks to their deeper gullets. It takes me 12 to 14 strokes to remove the waste between tails.

Coping saws require two swooping passes to remove the waste. Drop the teeth in your kerf and make swoop one.

Come back and make swoop two. Sometimes you have to rotate the blade to do this.

The other thing I like about the coping saw is that its throat is deeper (5″ vs. 2-3/4″ on the fret saw), which allows me to handle some drawers without turning the blade. Also, the blades are far more robust and almost never come loose. I’m quite partial to the German-made Olson coping saw. It’s about $12 and beats the pants off the stuff at the home centers.

The major downside to the coping saw is that you have to remove the waste in two passes instead of one. Because the coping saw’s blade is thick, it usually won’t drop down into the kerf left by your dovetail saw (unless you saw dovetails with a chainsaw). So you make two swooping passes to clear the waste. I think I’m going to put my fret saw away for a while. In other words, I’m going to stop fretting and just cope (sorry about that as well).

- Christopher Schwarz

 

19 thoughts on “Frame Fight! Coping Saws vs. Fret Saws

  1. Brian

    One slightly different approach I’ve used sometimes is:

    1. Drill a small hole with an eggbeater near the baseline in the center of the waste.
    2. Cut down (with a dovetail or coping saw) to get a kerf to the hole.
    3. Put a coping saw through the kerf into the hole, turn sideways, and cut the waste out along (or close to) the baseline in each direction.

    It’s kind of cheesy, but you do get to avoid turning the saw during the cut.

  2. Gary Roberts

    Yup, that’s a jewelers saw. Jewelers and Fret saws, as you noted, hold the blade in clamps. The purpose was to allow the user to insert the blade through a very tiny hole in the metal, wood, shell, ivory or whatever that needed to be sawn. Fret work, like jewelery work, was usually performed on thin workpieces hence the lack of a need for a powerful clamping mechanism.

    I have an old Millers Falls (I think) coping saw with a wierd ballbearing mechanism that works well for me. But I can’t get a lot of tension on the blade so I just go slow.

  3. Carl Stammerjohn

    I use the Olson CP301 blade in my old Craftsman coping saw and it works great. I think it’s similar to the blade that Tools for Working Wood sells. I bought the blades a few years ago and perhaps Olson has changed the pitch; mine are 16 tpi.

    The best thing about the blades is their width, .094". Most blades are .125", which makes the turning radius larger. I can turn a 1/8" radius with the .094" blade.

    According to the Olson web site, they also sell the CP302. It is also 18tpi and .094" wide, but I assume it has a hook tooth pattern (the 301 description says skip). The hook tooth should give a more aggressive cut.

  4. Rob Porcaro

    Hi Chris,

    With the very thin kerf of a Japanese dovetail saw I pretty much have to use a coping saw, or, for larger work, the Gramercy bow saw, using the two-swoop pattern that you do. Now that I’m enamored of the Gramercy dovetail saw, for drawer-size work I use the fret saw with a #5 skip tooth blade, sawing as close as I dare to the baseline, with the show side of the work facing me. Still, for large work I’ll go to the Gramercy bow saw.

    I chop out the remaining wood to the baseline, working in from each side. At the center, there is usually some pull out of the wood. Most authors seem to think this should be avoided. I think "who cares" – it’s not a glue surface and the joined piece is well supported at each side of the socket. I have 25 year old dovetails that have suffered no consequence from this.

    What’s the difference between a good monkey and a clever monkey, and can one be both?

  5. Charles Davis

    Sounds like there’s a market here for a froping saw.

    You know, there’s nothing better than replacing the blade in a jeweler’s saw, taking two strokes and hearing that ping immediately again. Rob’s idea of wrapping the handles hockey style may really help to get a better grip with which to throw it as that urge inevitably arrives.

    I’ve been enjoying all the dovetail posts. Lots of good tips!

    Thanks Chris!

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    Very good question.

    Fret saws are designed for delicate work. Most of them have deep throats for fretwork — the little saw I call a "fretsaw" in this post is technically a jeweler’s saw. All the fretsaws that I have owned have blade clamps that pinch the ends of the blade.

    Coping saws are a fairly standard animal. They use pin-end blades, which makes them robust but able to handle only one length of blade. I have always assumed they were designed specifically for coping moulding. (Jeweler’s saws can accommodate slightly different lengths.)

    I think I have this right. If not, I’m sure someone will whoop me.

    Chris

  7. CatX

    Asking an utterly daft question — how would I tell the difference between a coping saw and a fret saw in the first place? Is it simply frame size?

  8. Harold Atkinson

    Guys, Roy has been doing this for 20 years with a bowsaw by turning the blade to approximate a right angle cut. Saw it on the woodwrights shop long ago

  9. Christopher Schwarz

    Megan and I did some dovetails today with a bowsaw that uses the Tools for Working Wood blade. It was indeed faster than poo through a goose. And it had a nice big throat.

    I still have about 100 dovetails to cut this month and next. I think I’m going to try to make friends with the bowsaw for this operation.

    And Derek, I’ve never tried those Lee Valley saws. I will definitely put one on my next shopping list.

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Chris

  10. Adrian

    I just used the Gramercy bow saw on my last set of dovetails. With two inches between the pins I’m pretty sure it was (much) faster than chiseling. Quieter too. It was a lot faster than the coping saw I used to use. But I can’t fit the saw blade in the kerf left by the rip cut dozuki, so I have to do two cuts.

    I did discover that I could make the saw cut a very sharp corner by turning the blade in the frame (keeping the frame fixed). For some reason this turns a very sharp corner, but it does seem to result eventually in a twisted blade, and the twisting stress broke the handle of the bow saw loose from the brass fitting. (In my defense I when I took it apart it looked like they didn’t use enough glue.)

    I don’t understand why turning the blade while keeping the frame upright turns a sharper corner than turning the whole saw, blade and frame together.

  11. Derek Cohen

    Hi Chris

    I went down this same path about a year ago. Joel recommended his 18 tpi blades, which I have since been using. These are .018" thick, which will fit into the kerf of most dovetail saws (since these are .020" wide) – unless you are using one of Andrew Lunn’s saws, of course! :)

    More recently I began to miss the delicacy of my fret saw, and returned to it. I am using Olson blades in it (also from Joel), and they have been holding up well.

    The other saw that I should draw your attention to is the "Featherweight Fret-Saw Frame" from Lee Valley. This has a 12" depth of cut in a super light frame that is easy to use and control when cutting the waste across a wide drawer or box.

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

  12. Christopher Schwarz

    Steve,

    I’ve done it both ways. I come back to sawing because I’m really fast at it. Plus I’ve occasionally damaged my tails in softwoods when chiseling out the waste between them. The waste can mangle a tail as it’s forced out.

    Chris

  13. mudtracks

    I’m a chiseler and I know I wasn’t supposed to read this, but…

    Does it really save that much time over chiseling? My only coping saw experience is with my Ace Hardware kit.

    I guess I will have to try this out.

    –steve

  14. Christopher Schwarz

    Tom,

    I have a Gramercy bowsaw, but it is out of commission right now. A student over-tightened it, snapping an arm.

    And D,

    I have used Frank Klausz’s blade. It’s very coarse (he himself says it’s for rough work), and it’s not commercially available as far as I know. If you know where to buy one, please chime in.

    Chris

  15. d white

    Have you tried the dovetail cutout saw that I’ve seen Frank Klausz use? Instead of a dainty little blade, it’s a medium bowsaw with a blade that bends 90 degrees about 2/3 of the way from the handle. The far end of the blade sits in the kerf, you poke a few times to get the cut started, and then finish with the near part of the blade. I don’t think it takes anywhere near 12 strokes.

  16. tom fidgen

    Nice post Chris,
    I’ve had the same ‘back and forth’ weekly episodes between both saws as well and have lately come up with a solution of my own.
    The Gramercy Tools 12" Bow Saw with the fine tooth blade is incredibly light, easy to change from a vertical to horizontal plane and at 12" long, takes me half of the strokes to complete. No more of that short, fast, waving/sawing dance for this arm! Give it a try if you haven’t already explored this approach; if you have maybe you could…
    Cheers!

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