A Pair of Dovetail Saws

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you know that I like making and using my own tools. However, up until now, most of the tools I’ve made were mostly made of wood or at least mostly wood. But for some time, I’ve wanted to replace a couple of my saws with something better. I was just never really happy with them the way they were. As much as I would like one, my tool budget doesn’t allow the purchase of a premium saw. I also didn’t want to go majorly modifying my current saws. My dovetail saw was shorter than I wanted anyway so modifying it still wouldn’t get me what I wanted. So I did what any good Yankee would do, I made them.

The first challenge was the back of the saw. I had never made one before but I did know what I wanted. I didn’t want a milled back, I wanted a folded back. While milled backs are very beautiful and function as good if not better than a traditional folded back, they just aren’t very traditional and I like the traditional styled tools. The problem was that I had no specialized tools for bending metal. I had read the Norse Woodsmith’s article on making saws in which he makes a bending brake for folding brass backs but I didn’t want to go through so much expense and trouble to find that I really didn’t like making saws. I wanted to do this as inexpensively as possible and with as few specialized tools as possible.

The solution came to me one day when I was in Lowes looking for some supplies for some home improvement projects. In one of their hardware isles they have mild steel stock. It comes in flat, round and angle. When I looked at the 14 gauge angle stock, the idea hit me. See, most angle stock I’ve seen looks like it was extruded from a die and has a thick sharp outside corner. Indeed this is exactly how the 12 gauge stuff was at Lowes. However the 14 gauge stock was bent into a 90 degree angle from a flat piece of steel. They had made the first bend of a folded saw back for me! I picked up some 3/4″ angle and some 1″ angle. The 3/4″ would be for smaller saws like dovetail and carcass saws and the 1″ would be for larger back saws like sash and tenon saws.

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The next thing I had to figure out was how to finish bending this stuff into a folded saw back. At first I tried to play blacksmith and cold forge it with a 3 lb. hammer on the anvil of my machinist vise. After all, this is likely how saw backs were originally made in the 18th century. It worked eventually and I did build my first saw that way but the process of folding the back was slow and inacurate. I ended up with a lot of bends and twists in the back that I spent a lot of time and effort removing. In the end, removing the bends and twists resulted in a lot of dents and dings in the steel back that just would have taken too long to remove. I had to find a better way to bend the back for my second saw.

The solution came to me after an email exchange with Adam Cherubini. On his web site, he currently sells brass backed saws. However, he mentions that he wants to offer more traditional steel backed saws in the future after he works out a better process for folding the backs. I let him know of my experiences and he mentioned that the tool smiths in Colonial Williamsburg use some sort of press (hydraulic or otherwise, he wasn’t sure) to fold backs. When I read this email, the light went on again.

Pictured is the setup I came up with. I had an old metal woodworking face vise that I removed from my bench when I built my wooden twin screw vise. My plan was to use it as a press to close the fold of the pre-bent steel angle. I just clamped the vise upside down to the bench because I didn’t want to re-bolt it to the bench but if your vise is already attached to your bench you can of course use it as is.

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So I started by cutting a piece of the steel angle to just slightly longer than the length I would need for the back of the saw. Leaving it a little long would allow for some filing to clean it up later. I placed the steel angle in the vise with the open part of the angle right down against the guide bars of the vise. I slowly applied pressure and began closing the bend. After just a little bending, I opened the vise, shifted the piece down and did the same on the part of the steel that extended outside of the vise jaws. I continued this process of bending and shifting the steel back and fourth to make sure I closed the bend evenly. Trying to close one end too much more than the other results in twisting and bending in ways that you don’t want a saw back to twist and bend.

After doing this about four or five times, I had the bend about half way closed. I removed the piece from the vise often to make sure I was not introducing unwanted bends and twists like I had done with my forging attempt. Everything looked to be going well so I continued onward. I flipped the back over and finished closing the fold with the open end facing the top of the vise (which would actually be the floor in my setup. My vise had a small recess at the bottom that helped to finish closing the fold. Again, I worked slowly to close the fold evenly. Don’t want to mess it up now.

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Success! The fold closed evenly and the back stayed straight. I ended up with a very nice saw back without all the cussing and fussing of the first one. Another benefit was that the steel was relatively unmarked on the sides. On my first attempt of cold forging a back, I did a lot of damage to the back that I just was not able to remove from the finished back without removing way too much metal. So I left it in. This back came out amazingly smooth and free of blemishes. Bonus!

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So I had one nice, straight, practically blemish free saw back. This picture was taken before I did any filing of chamfers or sanding to clean up the back itself. All that was left to do was tap in a piece of spring steel saw plate, fit a handle and some split nuts and file in some teeth. The back was the hard part and now it wasn’t so hard anymore! Sweet! I was so thrilled I tried it again with some 1″, 14 gauge stock I was planning to use for some larger tenon saws. The process worked equally well for a 16″ and a 19″ piece of 1″ steel angle. Excellent!

So here’s the final result. A pair of matching saws. The handles are made from the last of a piece of bubinga that I had. The split nuts are built using the Norse Woodsmith “Poor Boy Split Nuts” method with a minor modification. Since I don’t have the ability to silver solder or braze the brass, I used cyanoacrylate glue to attach the bolt head to the threaded brass rod. I also stole an idea from the Grammercy saws kits and used a lock washer under the bolt head to keep it from spinning instead of the traditional square shaft with matching mortise. Much less work and you can’t tell the difference until you remove the bolts.

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You can see in this picture the difference in the resulting backs from the cold forging and the vise method. The smaller dovetail saw back was cold forged. You can see the dings and dents I couldn’t remove. The larger carcass saw back was folded in the vise and is much cleaner.

Both saws have 0.020″ thick saw plates. The small dovetail saw has a 9″ plate and 17 PPI (16 TPI) filed rip with 5 degrees of rake. I built this saw for dovetailing thin stock like drawers and small boxes. The larger carcass saw has an 11″ plate and 15 PPI (14 TPI) filed rip with 5 degrees of rake. I built this one for dovetailing thicker material like 7/8″ thick carcass sides and the like. It could also be used for cutting small tenon cheeks, however, I have a pair of rip filed tenon saws in the plans for the future to replace my not so fun to use tenon saw. The best thing about building a saw this way is that I think just about anyone can do it. No special tools required other than your typical woodworking tools. Mucho fun!

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15 thoughts on “A Pair of Dovetail Saws

  1. Great looking pair of saws. I’ve also been wanting to try this. Where did you get your saw plate?

    • I’ve done this a couple of ways. For the smaller saws, you can actually use blued steel drywall taping knives for a source of spring steel if you just want to try it out. Get the blued steel though, not the stainless steel. If you don’t like the bluing you can sand it off fairly easily. That’s what I did for my smaller saw. Taping knives are actually a cheaper steel than most modern saw manufacturers use, but it is still spring steel. Mike Wenzloff informs me that the taping knives are likely something like 1080 spring steel (which incidentally he informs me is also the steel used in the new “premium” Disston saw sold by Rockler).

      Most modern day saw manufacturers use 1095 spring steel, which is available from suppliers like McMaster Carr, MSC or Ried Tool. It has a higher carbon content so will remain sharp longer and may be a little stiffer than the taping knives. I think it might actually be a little cheaper to go the 1095 route if you plane to build more than one saw. You can get a roll of 1095 for about $15 and it’s enough to do quite a few smaller dovetail/carcass sized saws. For saws of this size I like 0.020″ thick spring steel. My next saws will be larger in size tenon and sash saws so I’ll be going with 0.025″ thick steel. Good luck!

      • Thanks for all the info Bob! I looked at the McMaster and MSC sites and looks like they have a nice selection. I think between the info you gave me and what I’ve read on the Norse Woodsmith, I should be in pretty good shape to tackle a saw or two. I was wondering how you cut your saw plate? I have access to a metal shear and was wondering if this would be a good way to do straight runs? I’m thinking about maybe trying a panel saw as well with a wide saw plate, curved at the toe like a Seaton saw. What would you think the best way to cut the curve? Thanks again so much for your help.

        • I used a straight edge and the corner of a file to score the metal and then put it in a vise and snapped it along the line. Similar to how you would cut glass. I don’t have access to a metal shear but it would probably work fine. You’ll need to clean up the cut edge with a file anyway so the cut doesn’t need to be perfect. You can always straighten the cut edge with the file.

  2. Amazing. Over at the Depot getting supplies for By By Birdie set at Woodbury HS. Got a blue steel taping knife, pulled handle off and filed some teeth. It rips. Shame the folded back that comes on it is flimsy. Got Roys latest but will hold off on the pole lathe till you report. All this fret saw, coping saw turning saw for dovetail waste has got my head spinning. Making a box for my new old Ward Master 45. My first chore is to really sharpen the chisles. Latest foray into pine was a disaster.

  3. I have a nice new dovetail saw. Filed the taping knife rip, gave a little set and used the back off an old stanley plastic miter box saw. Put the whole thing into a nice handle traced from a Tim Hoff saw I’ve had. Started jumping in the kerf but a little stone on each side smoothed it out. A nice dovetail saw for $4.95. Taping knife was on sale. Tie my own flies and make my own rods but making a saw is stupifying.

    • Congratulations John! Pretty cool isn’t it? I haven’t built a rod or tied any flies in a long time but I’d say building tools is right up there in satisfaction level! Good job!

      By the way, do you build cane or graphite? I’ve build a ton of graphite rods but would really like to try making a cane rod.

      • Graphite only. The new Hi-Build Epoxy for wrappings and a turning motor make anyone a pro with one coat of epoxy. I saved a tidy sum making a 3,4 two 5’s, a six and a nine weight Loomis IMX. Working with cane has got to be a whole nother experience. Keep us posted on progress with Roy’s lathe.

  4. Very nice Bob. I’ve been toying with making a saw myself and I have to say your bending method looks good. One question regarding spring steel. Is it not in a “roll” when purchased? How would you flattening something like that?

    • Yes,spring steel does come in a roll, but it is stapped into that roll under tension. As soon as you cut the steel strap that holds it in a roll, it springs open on you as it wants to be flat naturally. To see what I mean, take an old hand saw and bend it in a loop. When you let go it springs back straight. A roll is just under more tension so you need to be extremely careful when you unstrap it so you don’t catch it in the face. DAMHIKT.

  5. Three years later and still getting hits! Good ideas. Don’t try it with a small 4″ inch vise though.

  6. Hi Bob!

    Great post 🙂 I’d like to confirm, is 14 gauge steel 2mm thick? Is this a traditional thickness of steel for backs or were they rather thicker ca. 1/8″?

    Regards,
    Lukasz.

    • Hi Lukasz,

      Sorry for the delay in respondin to this one. Yeah, 14 ga. is right around 2 mm. Believe me, it’s plenty thick enough for a saw back. Home shop tools really won’t be capable of floding anything thicker. As for 1/8″ thick, maybe. Traditional folded backs are very inconsistent in thickness though. For someone just trying to knock together something at home on a weekend, without industrial hydraulic presses, the 14 ga. is just about the maximum they’re going to be able to handle. Trust me, 14 ga. steel is still not very easy to fold.

      • Hi Bob!

        Thank You, for your reply. I’ve been trying with a 2mm angle and your method of using a woodworking vise. Indeed it worked very well 🙂 To get the bend closed to the end, in order to hold on a 0.020″ plate, I used a machinists vise, as the WW vise couldn’t give me that. This is the tricky part, as one may introduce uneven closing and the plate gets out of true. I understand these methods’ limitations, but the 14 gauge seems enough 🙂

        Thanks and take care,
        Lukasz.

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