Last week I discussed the Zona Razor Saw and how it’s the ideal saw for beginning dovetailers. It’s just $12 to $15 and cuts extremely well. This saw got me thinking about what other inexpensive tools could fill out the kit for the beginner (or someone who is short on money).
So here’s my best shot at this list. I’ve also included (at times) what I think is the next best upgrade for each item.
Get the Zona. If you want a step up, get the Veritas 14 pt. Personally I think the best bargain in dovetail saws is the Lie-Nielsen tapered dovetail saw. I can’t believe this saw is still only $125. When I bought mine, people said Thomas Lie-Nielsen was nuts for selling a dovetail saw for $125. Now it’s the least expensive premium dovetail saw and – in my opinion – the one against which all others are compared.
Make you own from a spade bit (that was my first knife), or get the Veritas striking knife (shown above). It is $16 but performs just as well as knives that cost five times as much. I want to dislike it because of the plastic handle, but I cannot. It’s a great knife.
The best cheap gauge ($22.50) is the Pocket Marking Gauge from Lee Valley. The second best cheap gauge is this 3-in-1 Brass Marking Gauge for $29.50. (I know this is sounding like a Lee Valley commercial, but they specialize at good tools at a good price.) The best gauge – period – is the Tite-Mark. Accept no imitators; reject all clones.
Unless you do wacky stuff, you need only a 1/2” chisel and a 1/4” chisel for carcases and drawers. For the last year, I’ve been testing the Buck Bros. chisels sold at Home Depot. They have two lines. One made in Millbury, Mass., and another line made in China. Ignore the Chinese ones.
The U.S.-made ones are quite good for about $10 each. They are high-carbon steel and drop forged. The side bevels are small enough that you can clean out the waste between tails without too much trouble. They do have downsides. The plastic handle is indestructible but heavy. And the edge needs much more frequent sharpening than a premium chisel.
The upgrade is to buy a Lie-Nielsen chisel. Buy a 1/2” for $55. They are perfection.
Fretsaw & Coping Saw
This is tough. For the beginning dovetailer, I recommend vintage coping saws and fretsaws. For a fretsaw, search ebay for a German jeweler’s saw. You want a smaller one (2-1/2” throat). You’ll spend $10 to $20 and get a sweet saw.
For coping saws, got to ebay again and search for vintage ones. You’ll want a saw that accepts pin-end blades. Again, you’ll probably spend $10 to $20. Don’t bother buying one from the hardware store. You might as well set your $20 bill on fire and flush it down the potty.
Fretsaw & Coping Saw Blades
Go with Pegas. They are cheaper and better than any other blade on the market. Tools for Working Wood sells them. It’s silly to buy anything else.
The Veritas Dovetail Saddle Markers are inexpensive and perfectly made – $14.50. Pick a slope you like and stick with it. You need only one – I promise. The upgrade is the Sterling Toolworks Saddle-Tail. The dovetail template from WoodJoy is less expensive ($29) and extremely well made. Its demerit is that it has two slopes on it. When I’ve used this tool I’ve gotten turned around too many times.
Make or turn your own. Here are the free plans.
Yes, pencils are an important part of dovetailing. I use .5mm and .3mm mechanical pencils to darken my knife lines so I can see them. (I am horribly nearsighted.) I buy my pencils from art supply stores.
I use small dividers to lay out my dovetails. If you go this route, you are best served by going to ebay and searching for vintage dividers. Off-brand and no-name dividers work just as well as the Starrett stuff. Be patient and you will be surprised what you can score for $10 to $15.
So that’s the basic kit. When I dovetail stuff, I don’t have much more on my workbench. If you have better recommendations for tools, feel free to leave a comment.
— Christopher Schwarz