Most woodworkers I know aspire to cut their dovetails by hand. It is, for many of us, a self-imposed rite of passage to good craftsmanship. I’ve always tried not to encourage this attitude, because I think most woodworkers go about learning dovetails all wrong.
I’m not talking about cutting pins-first or tails-first, I’m talking about tenons-first. Or how about cutting straight lines first? Then maybe cutting some slanted lines? Instead most woodworkers buy a dovetail saw, read a magazine article (or 10,000 magazine articles) and try to cut them , typically with miserable results. It’s no wonder that there are hundreds of jigs out there today that help our power tools duplicate joints that could be cut simply with a good sharp backsaw.
This week I wrapped up teaching a class on the fundamentals of hand work at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking in Berea, Ky. And though we spent an entire day learning about handsaws and two days cutting joints, we didn’t cut a single dovetail. Heck we barely discussed them.
Instead, we worked on learning the historical tricks and techniques for cutting straight and true. And on the second day of sawing we held a little contest: The students had 30 minutes to cut a perfect tenon and put it on my bench. (The best tenon won its sawyer a cutting gauge.) Most of them had never cut a tenon by hand, but after 30 minutes, almost ever student placed a tenon on my bench that any router woodworker would be proud of. I put the dial caliper on them and found them all consistent within a few thousandths of an inch.
So how can you learn to saw? I’ve written an article for Lee Valley Tool’s newsletter that will introduce you to the three classes of sawcuts and how to accomplish them. Most woodworkers make it difficult on themselves to cut perfect tenon shoulders and cheeks. Your knife and a chisel can make things much easier. Lee Valley has archived the article on its web site.
I’ve also developed a list of nine rules for sawing that might also help. These are tricks that other people have taught me or ones I’ve found in books.
Nine Rules of Sawing
1. Use a relaxed grip on the tote. Clenching the handle will push you off your line. Pretend you are holding a baby bird and that you are trying to keep it in your hand without crushing it. That’s about right.
2. Extend your index finger out on the tote. The handle was built for a three-fingered grip, and extending your index finger is good to do with any user-guided tool.
3. Always work so your sawing elbow swings free like a steam locomotive. Don’t work with your arm rubbing your body or move it at an angle to the back of your saw.
4. Whenever possible, work so you can see your line. Try not to let the blade of the saw obscure the line.
5. Use minimal downward pressure. Allow the saw’s weight to carry the cut.
6. Always imagine the saw is longer than it really is. This will fool you into using longer strokes, which will allow you to saw faster and wear your teeth evenly.
7. Whenever possible, advance on two lines (tenons, crosscutting, dovetailing at times). This increases your accuracy.
8. Always work right against a line. Never saw a certain distance away from a line.
9. Lifting the saw a tad on the return stroke clears your line of sawdust.
I was excited to see the results of the 11 students when they obeyed these rules. Even more exciting was that Kelly Mehler agreed to let me teach a weekend course this spring dedicated to sawing. More details to follow.