Sawing Out Dovetail Waste
When I teach dovetailing to a class, one of the common questions is why I saw out the majority of the waste between the tails and pins, instead of chopping with a chisel.
The simple answer is: That’s how I learned to do it, I’m fast at it and coping saws are easier to sharpen than chisels (the last part is a bit of a joke, by the way).
There’s usually some smart aleck in the room who calls sawing the waste a “modern complication” devised in the mid- to late-20th century. To be pure, one must chop.
I’m no purist (except when it comes to reinheitsgebot), but sawing out the waste is not modern. Every time I read an old book that discusses sawing out dovetail waste, I note the publication date. Through the years, that date has been getting earlier and earlier.
Right now, the earliest account I have is 1892 in Thomas A. Clark’s “Workshop Notes & Sketches, Second Edition” (James Thin, Edinburgh). You can download the entire book from Google Books for free here. I haven’t been able to find the first edition of the book, which was published in 1888.
Here are snippets of the original text.
The tenon or dovetail saw is taken to cut down the vertical sides of the pins to the lines, after which the pieces between the pins may be removed. This is done by cutting in with the chisel from both sides, a little away from the line, as at B, or better still, by means of the bow-saw (if it can be got), which has a narrow, thin blade, and if passed down the vertical saw-cut, it may easily be turned round and made to cut along by the line as at c. The holes in the other piece, A, Fig. 64, would be cut out either way, except that the outside ones should be done with the dovetail saw….
When all the pins are marked off, the wood should be fixed upright in the vice, and the tenon or dovetail saw used to cut down the side of the lines, this being done as exactly as possible. The large intervening portions should now be cut out, which may be accomplished, as already explained, by means of the bow-saw, or paring chisel and mallet.
Part of the reason I think that sawing out waste is considered “modern” is that readers look for the words “coping saw,” which is a fairly modern name for a tool that has been around for 500 years. It has been called a “bracket saw,” “frame compass saw,” “Morris saw” and “bowsaw” among other names.
I honestly don’t care how you remove your waste, but sawing it out has been around for at least 122 years. If you have an earlier reference, please post it in the comments.
— Christopher Schwarz