Don’t Bring a Fretsaw to a Coping Saw Fight

While I have a blister on my right hand from wielding a saw and mallet (alternately, of course) for five hours, I’m delighted to report that I now have the shell for my “Anarchist’s Tool Chest” dovetailed and in clamps. Yes, five hours of dovetailing for one 38″ x 21-7/8″ shell. And while Christopher Schwarz shows 13 tails per end on the tailboards in his book, I opted for only eight. I’d likely still be chopping had I slavishly followed his drawing.

So why’d it take me longer than it perhaps should have? Well, I don’t own a coping saw. I have a Knew Concepts aluminum 5″ fretsaw (and I’m testing a new design of a Knew Concepts 5″ titanium fretsaw for the magazine; it’s pictured here, and you’ll read about it in our December issue). After snapping the only regular fretsaw blade I had, I was reduced to a handful of fine spiral blades – which I’m not practiced with. And a fine spiral blade cuts frustrating slowly, even if one has lots of practice using it (Chris wrote about spiral blades here, if you’re interested).

In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have gang coped the 7/8″-thick material. Taking into account the shallow rabbet on each tail board, I was making that poor little inappropriately bladed fretsaw (and my poor shoulder), cut through about 1-3/4″ of material.

Now I’m not good at math, but I believe that leaves about 3-1/4″ of blade out of the cut – less, actually, because where the blade attaches in the saw, it’s flat to about 1/4″ on either end. So that’s what…2-3/4″ of blade out of the cut at any given time. No wonder my shoulder is achy. (But here’s a sneak peek at the saw review: Though I pushed it well beyond what it’s designed to do, the saw performed better than can reasonably be expected under the circumstances – no flex in the frame that I could feel. But man do fretsaw  blades snap often and easily, spiral or no.)

It likely would have been quicker to cope out (fret out?) the bulk of the waste separately on each tailboard. And I would have been able to get a lot closer to my baseline had I done that. (Instead, I operated on fear. Fear and ruthless inefficiency; no surprise.) But no. So when it came time to chop, I had to chisel out more waste than usual, and that meant having to touch up the chisel blade more often, too. Maybe I should have just chopped out all the waste; perhaps that would have been faster. I do know how, of course, but I prefer to cope and fret (so to speak).

So now I’m on the hunt for the perfect coping saw. Unfortunately, there seems to be no such thing. But after reading what Chris (and others) have written about them, I think what I want is a new old stock Olson. I might have to settle for a new new stock version. Either way, the next time I have to cut through 1-3/4″ material, my shoulder will thank me.

But hey – I made it. The shell is in clamps. and it took only a wee bit of pressure across the top to get it square. And with luck, my tendonitis will resolve itself sans cortisone injection.

— Megan Fitzpatrick

p.s. If you happen to buy just the hardware for a Benchcrafted Moxon Vise, and ever plan to build an “Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” I strongly recommend you place the screws at 25″ apart on center…or a little more. The ends for the tool chest fit into my vise with 1/8″ clearance on both sides – I’d have hated to have built this shell without that vise!

 

 

16 thoughts on “Don’t Bring a Fretsaw to a Coping Saw Fight

  1. oldster

    I hope to see many of you at the WIA Pasadena show, where I will be introducing my version of the Knew Concepts Koping Saw.
    Some of the features:
    weighs only 8 ounces.
    3/16″ thick aluminum frame for a really strong frame.
    Cam lever tension, as you CANNOT bend the frame to tension the blade.
    8 indexed positions at 45 degrees with positive lock at both top and bottom.

    I think that this addresses most of the complaints that have been fielded about coping saws.

    Lee (the saw guy)

  2. Wood Man Dan

    I would stick with the fretsaw. There are a number of scrollsaw blades made by Olsen and others that will cut through 1 1/2″ to 2″ wood very effectively.

  3. tombuhl

    I sure like my small Grammercy bow saw for such work. As Jonathan said, the handle is rather small for my mitts. No problem for most work, but casework exposes the problem. One can make their own handle, or for that matter your own bow saw. Grammercy has post of PDF plans on their web site.

    Looking forward to upcoming Knew Concepts review. I use the bow saw for small pieces but perhaps a fretsaw could have a place in my arsenal. Much to be said though for having smaller set of quality tools…and knowing how they…and you work.

    See ya in Pasadena

  4. pzgren

    I’ve tried several of the commercial coping saws, and found them all wanting. My solution was to make a bow saw sized to take coping saw blades. It works great, and, so far (3+ years of use), I have not had any of the problems encountered with the commercial coping saws. You might give it a try…..

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick Post author

      Yes – perhaps I should have driven out to work to get the absolutely gorgeous small bowsaw that Bill Anderson built for his article on making one in the shop (November 2011). But I’m stubborn…and I would have had to change out of my sweatpants.

  5. Glen Huey

    Megan, your dovetails look great and I appreciate your tails first effort, however, pins first rules. I thought we covered this. You must sit in on “The Mighty Dovetail” class during the 2012 Woodworking in America conference:)

    Also, you have touched on a pet peeve of mine – I guess I should have stayed longer at the magazine. To try and square a box using a single clamp across the corners is not the way to work. In my opinion, this technique squares only the top edge of your box, and it could be that the remaining portion of the box continues to be out of square. A better method is to adjust your clamps to change the pressure – pull one end of the clamp (say the head) away from the end while you keep your clamp tight at the opposite end (or vice versa). This makes small changes in the squareness of your box that would be carried throughout the height of your work.

  6. andrae

    “Poke her with the soft cushions!”

    I think I also started out with a fret saw for this task (and not a very good one either, that Knew Concepts saw is vehhra naaace) but quickly switched to a coping saw. I have the new-ish Olson; it’s probably the best available but still drives me crazy sometimes.

  7. Jonathan Szczepanski

    “Fear and ruthless inefficiency.” This made me laugh.

    When I took Chris’ tool chest class, I was hanging my head in shame when I broke out my Buck Bros coping saw that I bought decades ago. It’s a piece of junk. But luckily Chris made me feel better by saying that there aren’t any good coping saws. Luckily, the students in the class were nice enough, and we all shared tools. I was able to test out many different coping saw options. Now my favorite coping saw isn’t a coping saw at all, but a bow saw. It was the Gramercy Tools 12″ bow saw (http://www.toolsforworkingwood.com/store/dept/TS/item/GT-BOWSAW12/Gramercy_Tools_12%22_Bow_Saw). While my hand cramped, because the handle is too small, I loved the much longer throw on the bow saw. It made removing the waste much faster. The bow saw is on my wishlist now.

    Keep up the good work Megan!

  8. Old Baleine

    Megan, thanks for the tip in re the Moxon vise; I am just about to get started, and yours sounds like good advice. I like your title for this entry, too. I especially would like to express my thanks for your help taming the pop-up generator. I haven’t had a single pop-up since I complained and you said you would look into it. Thank you, thank you.

    1. Megan Fitzpatrick Post author

      Not at all! I love my fretsaw – especially when making dovetails for small drawers and the like (i.e., thinner stock). The nice thing about a fretsaw is that because the blade is so thin, you can drop it in your DT saw kerf, barely have to make a turn and you’re at your baseline. With a coping saw, it’s generally two cuts per waste area — you have to swoop in once from each side. So I recommend having both — right tool for the job and all that.

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