Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dream Saws...Seriously

Careful what you wish for ?

In my wood shop using only hand tools to build furniture, back saws are without a doubt one of the most important and most frequently used tool than any other outside of perhaps hand planes. Today we have the luxury of purchasing pre-dimensioned, quality lumber for our projects making my full size panel saws second in most cases. I still have to spend the time to cross-cut and rip stock, but the backsaws are where the real joinery happens.
I use my Lie Nielsen saws for most of my work but also have a couple of nice reconditioned antiques. One of these vintage gems is an old 'R.H. Davis Co. and was given 'the works' by Mark at Technoprimitives, it's a great saw and a real pleasure to use.
Over this past year I've designed and manufactured thirteen pieces of furniture in my small workspace and through this hectic schedule realised some limitations in my current hand saw arsenal. For example, when cutting dovetails in carcass work I like to use the method of clamping two surface pieces of the stock together and cut the tails simultaneously. When dealing with stock 3/4" or better in thickness, I've often found myself wishing my Lie Nielsen dovetail saw had a longer plate. I absolutely love this saw for general dovetail work like drawers and single board thickness sawing-but dealing with 1 1/2" to 1 3/4" material shows limitations. For this reason I've been speaking to a couple of hand saw manufacturers and would like to develop a dovetail saw that has a longer saw plate.
I think most people associate a longer saw plate with less TPI (teeth per inch) but on the contrary, the design I think would suite my work best would actually be a finer tooth pattern. The Lie Nielsen comes standard with a 15 tpi or for easier kerf starting they now offer a Progressive Pitch Dovetail Saw which runs from 16 tpi at the tip down to 9 tpi at the handle position. I haven't yet tried this model but have heard great things about it.
The dovetail saw I'm thinking about would have at least a 10" saw plate with a slightly finer tooth count, say 16 tpi over the length. The progressive pitch would be fine if I can convince anyone to build one for me! With this size plate I began to worry that the extra length would mean of course extra steel or brass back in turn making the saw heavier. Not a plus when cutting dovetails in my eyes...or hands. I'm not sure how this will play out but I have a couple of ideas in mind; one being a kind of hybrid mix of dovetail saw with No. 9 half back saw plate. This would essentially make the plate the desired length without the extra weight of the full length back.
I'm still in the developing stages of this and need to work more on it...any comments or suggestions are always welcome!
So that's my 'dream' dovetail saw but unfortunately I'd also like a larger scale back saw for cross cutting long miters. I've seen pictures of the really large plated back saws used in miter boxes...Roy Underhill is famous for that one, but would like something in the 16" range. Anyhow, the same thing would apply, a longer saw plate with a finer tooth pattern. For this one I wouldn't mind the extra heft so I think the back would run full length.

Now here's the cool/freaky/strange and then cool again-part in all of this:
Last weekend I stumbled over an add in the local buy and simply read 2 Antique back saws for sale- $15.00 and $20.00.
At that price is was worth the gasoline to drive across town to see them. A friendly gentleman greeted me with the two saws saying they had been sitting in his cottage for years.
Well when I first saw him hold up these two saws I was a little bit like...
"O.k. where's the hidden camera.?"
I took them home and simply gave them a light cleaning with metal polish and fine steel wool to remove a bit of the surface dirt and small amounts of rust that had collected on them; not more than 10 minutes on each and they were shining like new dimes. The handles needed only a fresh wipe of oil and I'll re-sharpen them as soon as I can...
So now, here's the hook, one saw is a closed handle, 10" back saw with a 1 1/2" depth of cut made by Disston & Sons the better part of 100 years ago. It does have a small crack in the handle but doesn't seem to interfere with holding it...nothing a bit of glue won't fix.
The other has a 16" plate with 3 1/2" depth filed cross cut at 14 tpi. It's by Shurley & Dietrich, a fine Canadian saw manufacturer from years ago. Oh yeah, the little carcass saw, which The Disstonian Institute mentions: "While not marketed as such, the 8 and 10 inch saws make respectable dovetail saws when filed with 14-point rip teeth." is indeed filed at 14 tpi-Rip tooth.
While not 'exactly' the saws I'd been dreaming about these past few months, (cutting a couple thousand dovetails will do that to you) they are an incredible find. A couple of pieces of history to inspire me, assist me while I'm working wood and educate me in designing a couple of new backsaws someday...Careful what you wish for? I'll never get them designed now!



  1. Hey Tom,

    When you have two boards together and cut the tails couldn't you use a bow saw the way Tage Frid did? The length of blade wouldn't be an issue then.
    Nice find with those two saws.
    Mark Harrel at Bad Axe Toolworks, TechnoPrimitives, will be offering his own new line of backsaws this summer. I just got a picture of one and I'm sure they'll be mighty fine.



  2. Tico,

    Thanks for the comment; I don't own one of those large frame saws suitable for fine straight cuts but you're right, I probably could use one for this procedure. I've seen the European style saws fitted with a Japanese style blade...they probably excell at this. That said, when cutting dovetails I prefer the 'feel in hand' of a traditional-Western style saw handle. The naturally occuring, vertical reference helps to make square cuts which is the most important step in good fitting joints. I find registering a square cut much easier with this grip then that of a bow or frame saw. I have an old frame saw as well as the Gramercy tools bow saw and although they have their place in my shop, it's not for the initial cuts in for removing the waste between them, I'm all over the bow saw!
    As for Bad Axe, yeah, I've been biting my tongue on that information for the past six-months...should be really nice to see some larger scale back saws on the market. You may have already guessed this but Mark is actually one of the 'saw manufactureres' I was referring to in the article. We've been discussing back saw designs all winter!


  3. It sounds like you got this taken care of, but I was thinking that something like the material in the new Veritas dovetail saw may be an answer (I haven't actually handled the saw, but everything I have read leads me to believe that the material is lighter than brass). Basically, you're looking for the strength of brass, without the weight. It would likely suck a little to work with (for the manufacturing of the saw), but maybe something like aluminum would help with the weight issue. In the luxury segment, I was also thinking that you could go with a titanium (!) back, though that would also suffer from brittleness. I guess to keep things practical, you could still go with a brass back, but hollow out small bits from the parts that are folded under (judiciously, of course) that would keep the strength, but leave the classic look. I'm interested to see what you came up with.

  4. Geemoney,
    Thanks for your thoughts...
    I'll keep you posted.