Chris Schwarz's Blog

What I Think About Sawplate Thickness

Now that there are so many sawmakers out there, it’s no surprise that they are all trying to offer something a little different than the rock-solid Independence dovetail saw that kicked off this revolution in Western sawmaking.

In the last decade, toolmakers have again begun experimenting with different:

– Tooth filings, including changing the rake, pitch and fleam.
– Hang angles (how the grip is angled compared to the toothline)
– Different backs , traditional bent backs, slotted solid backs, backs that taper in width
– Different widths of sawplate, including those that get narrower at the toe.
– Different thicknesses of the sawplate.

All of these differences change how the saw cuts. And little things add up to significant changes. For example: relax the rake a tad, lower the hang angle a few degrees and add some fleam and you’ll get a saw that is remarkably smooth-cutting but is fairly slow. The important point here is that I think saws are subtle and personal tools, much more so than handplanes.

So it’s difficult for me to talk about one of these factors in isolation. But I’m going to try.

I get a lot of questions about sawplate thickness and if it’s better to have a plate that is really thin (such as .015″) or fairly thick (I have one on my desk that is .027″). The answer is, as Mike Dunbar at The Windsor Institute is wont to say: It depends.

Let’s take a look at the Lie-Nielsen line of dovetail saws because the company has three saws, each with different characteristics. There is the company’s standard line, which has 15 points per inch (ppi) and a plate that is .020″ thick , fairly standard stuff among many sawmakers. The company makes a progressive-pitch dovetail saw with a .020″ plate , the saw starts at 16 ppi at the toe and ends at 9 ppi at the heel. And the company offers a thin-plate dovetail saw with 15 ppi and a .015″-thick plate.

If you were in the showroom in Warren, Maine, and were trying to choose a saw, which tool should you buy? It depends on your work and your level of experience.

The standard dovetail saw is an excellent tool for all-around work. The plate is robust and hard to kink. The tooth configuration makes it a fine saw for dovetailing carcases and drawers.

The progressive-pitch saw is just as easy to start as the standard saw, but it is swifter, especially in thick stock. If most of your work is dovetailing carcases or you work in stock that is thicker than 3/4″, this saw makes a lot of sense. The big teeth at the heel are a little big for dovetailing thin drawer sides. Sometimes the heel will catch in stock thinner than 1/2″.

Then there is the thin-kerf saw. It is swift like the progressive-pitch saw (because it removes less wood). And its tooth configuration make it ideal for 3/4″ carcases or 1/2″ drawer sides. The trade-off is that the plate is more easily kinked.

When I teach sawing, I let students use all of my saws (except one) during a class. And in May, I had a student kink my Lie-Nielsen thin-kerf saw at the heel. I’ve been too embarrassed to send it back, though I guess I’ll have to get over that.

But the experience taught me a good lesson: Thin plates are not for beginners.

So if you are a beginner, I recommend a saw with a more robust plate. Get the standard saw if you plan to do drawers and carcases. Get the progressive pitch if you tend to work in thicker stock or plan to do more carcases than drawers.

And get the thin kerf if you are an experienced sawyer.

Once you choose your saw, you might need to change another tool in your shop as well. If you remove the waste between your pins and tails with a saw (I do), then plate thickness comes into play.

A jeweler’s saw equipped with scrollsaw blades will work with any dovetail saw. The downside to jeweler’s saws is that the blades tend to break easily. Too easily in my book.

A coping saw has blades that almost never break, but they are thicker. My Olson sawblades (available from Tools for Working Wood) make a kerf about .024″ in width. They fit fine in a kerf left by a standard .020″ dovetail saw, but it’s a squeeze for them to get into a kerf left by a thin plate. Note that home center coping saw blades are even thicker than the Olsons, and they are over-set. So they may not work at all.

– Christopher Schwarz

Other Sawing Resources

– Lie-Nielsen has just released my DVD “Sawing Fundamentals” , it discusses how to choose the right saw for your work and how to use it with precision. All my proceeds from the DVD are donated to help restore the White Water Shaker Village.

– Need a saw education? One good place to get lost is the Disstonian Institute.

8 thoughts on “What I Think About Sawplate Thickness

  1. arfabuck

    A standard saw is used most of the time but I do confess I use a Japanese 0.001 mm pull saw in box making when seperating the lid from the sides. Makes the join almost invisible with grain continuity.
    A slow process but!


  2. david brown

    I think your level of kinkiness depends on how much latex you wear in the shop.

    Personally, I only wear latex when I’m applying a finish to a project.

  3. Richard Dawson

    The reference to The Kinks got me real excited until I realized I had misread and you were talking about kinky saws, not about my favorite British rock group.

    This is a fascinating topic that doesn’t seem to get enough attention, or at least I haven’t been reading the right material. It raises some questions, at least for me:

    1) It looks like the kink in your saw was caused by a deviation from the straight back and forth, piston like motion required for sawing. Has the metal been stretched by this action? Will it require a replacement of the blade, or are less drastic measures possible?
    2) Is any kinkiness permissible in a saw? Does the size of the saw (depth of cut possible, as well as length) or intended usage offer some leeway?
    3) And of course, do standards of measurement to describe kinkiness exist, at least in the woodworking world? Inquiring minds need to know.

    Thanks for starting this most interesting topic. A lot to learn, and I’m looking forward to it.


  4. Chris G

    One thing I don’t see addressed often is length of plate in dovetail saws. Doesn’t a 10" or longer saw plate allow one to cut a bit faster and take on slightly thicker stock while still maintaining a 15ppi tooth count and a standard thickness plate? Sure, there is a bit of a weight/balance trade off, but I’ve had a lot of success using an 11" 15ppi saw for dovetailing in 3/8" 1/2" and 3/4" stock.

    Hmmm, I guess this shows your point about how personal saw preferences are.

    Anyway, thanks for your point of view on plate thickness. This is something I have been wondering about a lot lately.



  5. Sean

    If you try one, you’ll feel the difference rather easily. I have a Gramercy dovetail as well as a LN (original)and some others. The Gramercy definitely gives a different feel when cutting than the thicker plates.

  6. Doug F.

    Not to speak for Chris, David, but I believe he was saying that a) saw plate thickness is often a personal choice based on your individual work habits, projects, and skill level, and b) under particular circumstances a thin saw plate has the advantage of speed and a finer saw kerf.

    As you suggest, you can probably get by with a "standard" thickness sawplate for 99% of the work most people will ever do. However, a thinner sawplate could make dovetailing the drawers in this escritoire easier and nicer.

    Personally, I would consider a thin sawplate dovetail saw a specialty tool and a luxury. But to a box maker it might be an absolute necessity. As with most tools, your experience may vary.


  7. Sean

    David, thickness is relevant because a thinner plate is removing less material, and therefore the physics dictate that it will either require less time or less effort to achieve the cut. In planing terms, it is the difference between taking a shaving on the face of a board with a plane that has a nearly 3" blade, versus one that has say a 1" width. It would be much easier to push the 1" wide plane across the surface because it is doing 1/3rd the work and meeting 1/3rd the resistance.

  8. David

    Why is thickness relevant? If you put the left edge( I’m a right hander) in the middle of the cut line, the rest of the saw thickness is in the waste.

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