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Aside from Bender, Zapp Brannigan and Hypnotoad, my favorite character on the show “Futurama” is Nibbler – a cute little alien that can swallow an entire elephant in one bite and then poop starship fuel.

What does this have to to with sawing? Everything. Nibbling before swallowing the whole giraffe is how I saw accurately with a carcase saw, tenon saw and dovetail saw.

What is nibbling? Well there are (at least) two ways to begin a cut with a backsaw:

1. Begin with the teeth engaged across the entire face of the board you wish to cut. This is how I learned to cut dovetails many years ago. Put the teeth on the end grain of the board. Push forward – gently. Saw away. This is not nibbling.

2. Begin your cut on a corner. Advance on one face or on two faces. This can be nibbling.

When sawing for accuracy, I always have better results by starting at a corner and nibbling – tooth by tooth – to the the other corner of the work. When cutting dovetails I start on the corner facing the bench and nibble back to the corner facing me.

When I cut tenons, I start at the corner closest to me and nibble down the end grain to the corner away from me. When crosscutting a wide board, such as a tenon shoulder, I begin on the far corner and work toward the corner close to me.

The point is that you can begin at either corner and work to the other corner. Use your thumb to help guide the sawplate. Advance using tiny sawing strokes and no – repeat no – downward pressure. Nibble tooth by tooth until you have completed the kerf between the two corners. Then begin long and smooth sawing strokes, again using little or no downward pressure.

As you get deeper into the work, you might need to apply a little downward pressure, especially in thick or wide stock where the gullets are prone to fill up with dust.

Once the kerf is established and you’re using long strokes, you can pick up speed to dive to your destination. At this stage, the kerf across the board is straight and will stay that way thanks to the sawplate. Then you just have to steer left or right until you hit your baseline or the other end of the board.

For me, nibbling is the core of accurate sawing with a backsaw. It doesn’t matter if you cut tails or pis first, shoulders or cheeks first. Watch the video and give it a try next time. You might just start calling yourself a “nibbler.”

— Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 9 comments
  • Steve Branam

    Very nice! I like the emphasis on guiding with the thumb while nibbling.

    This is one of those fine subtleties that seems almost too trivial to mention, yet can have a huge effect on accuracy.

  • Steve


    I think Adam Cherubini has hijacked the link to all your previous blog entries on saws. It looks like the correct link is:


  • billlattpa

    I learned to cut dovetails pins first which I prefer but always seems to be a somewhat delicate operation to me. Probably because I work with mainly oak and pine. After the first few times I cut my dovetails I started using the base of the blade to “nibble” away and then going into the cut fully. I found that this leads to cleaner and more accurate cuts. It’s nice to see that my “technique” has some form of basis in reality..

  • Derek Cohen

    Hi Chris

    About the sawing technique …

    1. Dovetails: sawing from the end increases the effective rake angle of the teeth. For a high angle saw, such as the LN (with zero rake), this will make the saw very grabby and difficult to start. Generally I advise that the cut starts at the nearest end. I think that Adam Cherubini would nod his head here.

    2. Tenons: you get my full support. You are (a) reducing rake angle by pitching the board foward, seeing two lines simultaneously, and (c) not obscurring the line as much as with the shoulder cut (see #3).

    3. Shoulder: I prefer to saw towards the end. Again, this reduces the rake angle but also sawing backards obscures the line more (than sawing forwards).

    Regards from Perth


  • DanGar

    There is nothing like GOOD TOOLS when it comes to woodworking.
    Try to do that with a HOMECENTER saw!

  • Cobwobbler

    Hi Chris,
    Here’s a link to a Youtube clip about a similar technique, has an interesting “Gas pedal” analogy about 2 minutes in.
    TTFN, Martin

  • Pedder

    Like your first class sawing technique this is making a guarding line carefully, then saw fast. Good idea.


  • Niels


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