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What is a Dovetail Saw?  


A few years ago when I was starting work on the Gramercy Dovetail Saw I went to checkout Duncan Phye's toolbox and saw at The New York Historical Society. It was there I had the lightbulb that said - How come Phyfe's saw, and the other 18th / early 19th century dovetail saws that I know exist where we have distinct provenance look so different from the dovetail saw of the later 19th century in both examples and in catalogs. Just a quick few examples of differences Seaton dovetail saw is 19ppi, Disstons are usually listed at 17ppi. Phyfe's is much narrower, all of the early samples are canted (depth of cut narrower at toe than heel), and most important the hang is much higher, that is to say that the pistol grip handle is at a much higher angle on early saws than later saws. There are exceptions but in general for saws we know were used for dovetailing back then it's the case. When we actually prototyped our version of Phyfe's Dovetail saw (which later became the basic model for the Gramercy saw) we found them easier to use that any other dovetail saw we had of later design, and even with the tiny handle and giant dolphin fins the handle was comfortable for a large range of hands, and most important shifted the focus of the handle from lower palm (which was comfortable but harder to control) to the thumb and forefinger which made it easy to control. What happened? We had thought that since in London for example there were 5 times as many joiners as cabinetmakers, the minute larger companies like Kenyon started taking over the market from smaller local makers, the production was "rationalized" to what was the design in more demand. That is most of these 15pt backsaws were never used for dovetailing. And that of course also explains why up until recently when you bought a Sheffield made dovetail saw it would be filed crosscut. A joiner cutting trim would want a crosscut saw not a rip saw.
And there the matter rested for two years. Our saw came out, was and is a big hit, but all the scholar in me had was a theory.

Then I surfed the Old Bailey. (I wrote a previous blog entry about the records in the Old Bailey when I initially found this information - click here).

On the 18th February 1801. GEORGE BOYER was indicted for feloniously stealing, on the 11th of February , two saws, [one a dovetail saw and the other a hand saw,] value 5s. the property of Peter Kelly.
PETER KELLY sworn. - I am a carpenter ; I lost two saws from a house that I am repairing, the corner of John-street, Edgware-road....

Okay - what is a carpenter, working on site doing with a dovetail saw? Carpenters didn't do dovetailing, and certainly not on site.
The answer of course is that in all the catalogs, and lists, and keys which have a "dovetail saw" mentioned it doesn't mean "a saw used for dovetailing" what it means in contemporary jargon - is a short back saw convenient for trimming and other things a short saw is handy for.

And this explains why the handle angle dropped, - for more power, the tooth pattern coarsened - for ease of sharpening and cutting rougher, thicker wood, and why they ended up crosscut in the late 20th century - the traditional buyer would have used them on a job site doing carpentry and joinery. Not for dovetailing.

Anyway I found a few more court citations and I thought the case was closed. Until I found a old book on woodworking from 1839 which I have been researching and is being reprinted with projects and notes later this year. The book clinches it - the only contemporary reference on things you can do with a dovetail saw (along with lots of other information), and only a tiny bit of it is dovetailing.

More on this new old book later.

The picture above is a silhouette of Duncan Phyfe's Kenyon made dovetail saw which we used as a starting point for the Gramercy Tools Dovetail Saw.
Tags:Woodworking Tools and Techniques,Historical Subjects
Comments: 1
07/07/2009Rob Porcaro
Thanks, Joel. This explains so much. It is sad that some of the art has been lost or obscured, at least temporarily, but research like yours is heartening and exciting. What's more is that you've been able to bring this knowledge to fruition with a great, practical tool. I can certainly say from experience with the Gramercy dovetail saw that it's not just research and theory - IT WORKS!

Keep the R & D coming.

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