The old saw.

This month its sawing. We dont do much sawing in modern cabinet making. Once upon a time we all had rip saws and cross cut saws, tenon saws and half tenons, nowadays the only useful saw in this workshop, apart from one with a motor on it, is the small dovetail saw. Indeed in this workshop weve had massive changes of direction lately over these saws. For years and years I resisted the temptation of using and recommending the Japanese dovetail saw, but the quality of European small back saws was getting worse and worse and worse and finally I was compelled to go with the flow. Indeed all my students were using Japanese saws and I was left on my own faffing around with a backsaw. I did for a while play around with a Japanese saw with the rather appealing name of Sun Child. These saws, which were recommended to us by David Charlesworth cut remarkably well. However one problem that is common not only to this saw but to others of its kind is that while the saws will cut freely and accurately down a straight line at the front of your job, at the back of the job, the blade can, unless it is pulled most carefully slightly wander off line. This amongst other things has brought us back to looking at the new style European style back saw that has been brought into the market by Lee Neilson and by Aria. These are lovely saws, well made, with a nicely fitting handle and a thin saw plate.

A common problem we used to find with the dovetail saw is they needed to have the Kerf of the saw reduced in order to get a very fine cut. This is because the teeth of the saw have been set to give a saw kerf which is a bit larger than is necessary. The kerf of the saw is the size of the slot that the saw cuts. Whilst the kerf of the saw should be wider than the saw plate, it shouldnt be too wide. If you are removing too much waste you are applying too much energy with no appreciable gain and probably giving up control in the process. A nicely set up saw has a kerf that is slightly wider than the saw plate, but not so wide that it rattles around in it. To achieve this, we now often stone the sides of the saw just very slightly to take off the corners off the teeth that have been pushed out in the setting process. Use a fine slip stone for this job and just lightly rub it down the plate of the saw once or twice on each side and then try it in the timber. This way you will see how much set is removed and be able to gauge how many more strokes of the slip stone you can give. Bear in mind once the set is gone, its gone. And you are left with a saw that you cant control the direction of ( saw sets are really too cumbersome for these saws so you may have to send it back to a saw doctor to have the set resored.)

Have a look now at the handle of the dovetail saw and see the two horns. These determine where your hand grips the handle. Also note the angle that the handle is presented to the blade. Hold the saw lightly by the brass back in your left hand then lightly take hold of the handle in your right hand. Are you holding it very lightly? Now grip the handle harder and you will see how the blade is pulled downwards ( I wonder how many of you are going to do this?)This is a great demonstration of how pressure on the cutting teeth is actually controlled by intensity with which you grip the handle. At one stage when we are learning to saw, we hold the handle like our lives depended upon it, when instead we should be holding it like we were holding the hand of a five year old girl, gently, with care and sensitivity. Okay, at some stages we have to grip it a little more firmly, like during the start, but most of the time we can back off, hold it like a girls hand and allow the saw to work in the way in which it was designed to work. See that strip of brass along the top of the blade. This is why it is called a back saw. This strip of brass is there to stiffen the blade and to be a weight. Its the weight of that strip that should be bearing down upon the teeth not your grip on the handle. Allow that strip to do its job and the teeth will cut properly. If you grip the handle too hard, you will bear down on the teeth, they will engage more wood than is good for them, and the saw will go off line. So if you are going wrong, back off and remember that little girl.

Anything complicated is made easier by breaking it down into smaller steps. Sawing isnt complicated, but its something that lots of us seem to have problems with, so its as well to take it in stages. The first thing to do is to mark up the job. When you are learning, practice sawing on one side of a line and then on the far side of the line. The object is to take the kerf of the saw, so the edge of the kerf of the saw is just taking out half of that mark that you have put on. This is called sawing at half mark and is what a skilled maker does as amatter of course. Make a mark with a knife rather than a pencil as this has less width. Make your mark across the top of the job and down the front side. Down to a second gauge line. You can make a mark on the back of the job if you want especially when you are learning how to do this, but its not always necessary and an experienced sawer will frequently leave this line out. When you are learning to saw, set up a job with lots of these lines at right angles across a 10 or 15 mm piece of wood and just practice moving from one line, sawing down to the gauge line, then moving straight on to the next line. Sawing in this way is all about rhythm and concentration. Again experienced sawers that come back to dovetailing a set of drawers after a break will warm themselves up by setting up a test piece in this way. Just cutting a few straight lines, just to warm the saw up and get their eye in. set this up so that you are sawing on the end grain of apeice and sawing down the grain of the job, dovwtail saws are usually used for ripping not cross cutting.

Now set the job up low down in your bench vice. Eyeball the top of the job so that its flat and parallel. If we stand properly, our natural instinct will be to saw vertically. If the job isnt placed at true horizontal then its that bit harder to saw down a true vertical. By placing the job low down in your bench vice, you are doing two things. One, you are stopping the job vibrating, which is always a pain, especially at the start of the cut, and secondly you are bringing your saw quite close to the top of the bench. As you dont want to damage your bench, the natural tendency then is to saw parallel with your bench stop, preventing any overcut on the back line. Next set up a bench light so you can see where you are going. This tool is invaluable to sawing, if you cant see where you are going, you are not going to get where you want to be. Make sure that light is on the right side of your saw so you can see the gauge line underneath it.

Use a bench light to see where you are going here position it carefully and if necessary move the light around as you move about the job, if you cannot see where you are going you may as well not bother doing it.

Next thing is the start. Grasp the top of the job with finger and thumb and rest the plate of the saw against your knuckles. You then ease the saw over to almost the exact place that you want to start the cut. Do this so the teeth are sitting alongside the line. Now adjust your stance to one similar to that of a first class bowler. Your arm, saw plate and shoulder should all be in a dead straight line. If you need to lower your head in order to see where you are going, spread your feet apart. The saw should now be placed with the front of the blade in contact with the work. Your next step is crucial. This is the start, the push that makes one shallow groove in the top of the job into which your saw cut sits. Do it too tentatively, and the saw will bounce around all over the place. Do it too hard, and you will proceed too deeply into the job. At this stage you may need to grasp the handle of the saw slightly more purposefully, it is one crisp, purposeful push.

Now youve got a shallow slot you can start sawing. Do it slowly. Hold the blade lightly. Let the weight of the backsaw press down on the teeth. Use the full length of the saw and get some gentle,calm sawing rhythm going here. Dont worry too much about making progress, worry about not going off that line. This should be your main point of focus at this moment. Watching the blade coming down alongside the line on your job. This is deeply zen. You are not directing it or driving it, or adjusting it, you are just watching it doing what it should be doing. If you are going wrong back off the grip and saw more slowly, once you are sawing straight you can speed up abit.
The last stage of this process is the stop. Youve got a gauge line there that you have to stop at, dont go past it, watch it approaching and stop exactly when you get to that line.

Once youve learnt how to saw you will be able to make dovetails like Rob Eaves has made in this lovely box of his. Rob has used two timbers very beautifully. There is a Zebrano and Ash, and tapered the sides of the box to enhance the decorative effects of the dovetail corners. Im not a great fan of dovetail joints. They tend to be used too much by amateur woodworkers to show how skilful they are. This however is a case where the joint is being used appropriately. This is a box that will hold timber samples, so when its full, will be probably be quite a heavy piece of work so the strength of the joint is necessary. Its been made by Rob to take with him to client meetings, and will be as much a demonstration of his skill, workmanship, as it will be a tool in enabling Rob to sell designs to clients. Dovetailing in this case, is I think more than justified. The two woods come together and create a strong contrast that the dovetails enhance and the tapering also creates an interest thats not not always apparent in a simple dovetail box.


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