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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.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 14 comments
  • Barquester

    I bet you haven’t heard this one.
    I’ve become addicted to Japanese pull saws, mainly for the price. But I’ve been practicing, Oh no, dovetails. But I was having a lot of trouble seeing the line. A duh moment! Wait, push saws don’t clog the face with saw dribble. So I turned the pull saw around and started cutting backwards with it and made my first perfect dovetail joint.
    I just ordered a Veritas Dovetail saw.

  • Ted Thompson

    Rule 7 states "Whenever possible, advance on two lines……….." What does that mean?

  • Walt Cheever

    Chris, Another thing I have discovered along with sawing to the line on two faces is to let the kerf guide the saw. In order to do that I continually vary the angle of the saw blade. First I extend the kerf a ways on the top face (low angle) letting the vertical kerf guide the blade. Then I extend the vertical kerf (high angle) letting the horizontal kerf control the blade.

    Also you forgot the first principle–USE A SHARP SAW!

  • Eric

    Great entry, thanks for the informative post! I learned a good piece of advice from the course I took at Homestead Heritage:

    While you don’t want to apply a lot (or any) pressure when making the cut, letting the weight of the saw do the work, you still need to mean business with your arm motion. I’ve still got a ways to go, finding the balance between light pressure and strong motion, but it seems to do the trick.

  • Christopher Schwarz


    In essence, it’s like the photo shown above. John there is sawing across both the end grain and edge grain while cutting a tenon cheek. When he hits the baseline at the joint’s shoulder, he’ll reverse the piece and do the same on the other edge. This trick is a boon to accuracy.

    I hope this helps.


  • Gye Greene


    Sorry — could you please clarify?

    (7. Whenever possible, advance on two lines (tenons, crosscutting, dovetailing at times). This increases your accuracy.)

    Do you mean, target the line on the face, as well as the edge, as the same time? i.e. so you’re working in three dimensions, not two?


  • Christopher Schwarz


    I wish there were a simple answer here that didn’t begin with "It depends…."

    The point I was trying to make is to never saw a certain distance away from your line if you want accuracy. Either saw right against the line or take away a fraction of the line.

    Which one of those techniques depends on what you are trying to accomplish. I saw against the line when tenoning. I split the line when dovetailing.

    Same rules apply (for me) when working with a knife line in 2nd and 1st class sawcuts.


  • P. M.

    “…Always work right against a line. Never saw a certain distance away from a line”

    Does this mean that the line should prevail right beside the cut after the cut is finished (on which side the line should be waste or piece?), or this mean that one edge of the kerf should erase the line, or your line(s) should disappear under the center of the kerf whilst you make the cut?
    What should happen with a line that is coming from a marking knife (or gage)?



  • Mike Siemsen

    "I see", said the blind cabinetmaker as he picked up his hammer and saw.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    I continue to use the chiseled notch in second-class sawcuts. Starting a cut right is the most important thing in ensuring that the cut will end up right. I think it’s worth the extra two hand motions.


  • J.C. Collier

    Boffo on the good sawyer technique. I’ve been taking it for granted even before I started "working" wood. My father taught me how to do it correctly when I was but a tender youth. So it has always amazed me at how otherwise capable men go at a board with a handsaw making them look as if they performing some vaudevillian schtick rather than sawing a board. Never mind doing to two lines.

    #3 is right on but I would add the importance of stance. If your feet aren’t in the right place then your elbow will not follow the prescribed arc of a pendulum. Placement of the feet is fundamental and the foundation for proper handwork.


    P.S. Never laugh at your father-in-law when he’s struggling with a dull, kinked and rusty handsaw on a piece of wet pressure treated pine. At least stifle the urge till you can do it out of earshot.

  • Paul Kierstead

    Excellent tips! I have been trying to transition to sawing a lot more by hand and can always use all the tips, technique and reminders of technique I can get.

    Do you advocate the chisel notch all the time (i.e. do you continue to use it) or as a training device?

  • dave brown

    Awesome tips.

    Are you gonna hold an impromptu class in your hotel room in Philly? 😉

    On a more serious note, finding ways to use my hand saws, for any sawing task, improves my joinery. I don’t need to practice dovetails because I’m used to cutting to a line. When I’m cutting tenons, I cut to a line. When I’m cutting a board to length, I’m cutting to a line — and I’m constantly challenging myself to improve my accuracy. This takes some of the self-imposed difficulty out of dovetails. Cutting dovetails is just cutting to a some layout lines and paring, chopping or sawing out the waste.

    It’s like when Mr Miyagi had Ralph Macchio painting the fence. Getting the movement down was more important than worrying about what you’re doing with the movement.

    Now, about catching a fly with chopsticks . . . .

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