A Tale (or tails) of Two Dovetail Saws

The Gyokucho 372 Razor Saw Dotsuki and Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Dovetail Saw

The woodworker wishing to beguile (bore) his non-woodworking friends and family can do so with a long and lively discourse on the intricacies of dovetail saws; the beauty of Swedish steel, the multi decimal point reading of the kerf, the controversy surrounding teeth profile, and the heresy of – gasp – dovetail machines.

Vivid photos of impossibly delicate hand cut dovetails leer out from the pages of woodworking magazines. I had to try one myself. And based on a rather limited knowledge of woodworking, all I knew of was the need for a saw with sharp teeth to cut wood. And probably a handle.

From there the fun starts for beginners asking the woodworking community what dovetail saw to buy. Or even more basically, do you even need something called a “dovetail saw”.

Let’s start with a simple truth; dovetail saws cut wood, woodworkers cut dovetails. A not so deep thought doing no more than stating (restating) the obvious. But it also reflects my approach for woodworking in general, and cutting dovetails specifically - it’s best to start simple and learn techniques before making any large or long term investments. After all, in the end you may decide that hand cut dovetails just aren’t your cup of tea.

But let’s say money is no object. In the rarefied air you breathe buying tools is no more than visiting a premium tool maker’s website and clicking away. And there’s nothing wrong with supporting companies engaged in quality work. I’m a huge fan of Lee Valley Tools, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, Highlands Woodworking, to name just a few. I turn to these vendors when I’ve been at something for a while and ready to step up my work. And if any of these fine merchants care to donate tools they can send them to Workbench Ink, RR 1, Pig Trot, Arkansas.

After sawing up a hundred or so dovetails, I now own two very different saws; my first purchase of a Japanese style pull saw, inexpensive at $39, and my later acquisition of an upper end Lie-Nielsen model that retails for $125.

My first buy came about after a long, and at times painful, search for a reliable and reasonably priced saw. Thanks to the vast resources of the internet we’re quickly buried in an avalanche of advice and recommendations from a thousand websites. And mine makes one thousand and one. Eventually I stumbled upon a series of highly recommended YouTube videos from UK woodworker David Barron that cut through the clutter and delivered advice in a clear, well thought out, digestible format. His recommendation was an inexpensive Japanese saw, specifically the Gyokucho 372 Razor Saw Dotsuki Saw.

Japanese saws differ from western style saws in that they cut on the pull, rather than push. Because of this action Japanese saws can have a much thinner blade than their western counterpart. Thin blade, thin kerf, less wood wasted. The Gyokucho blade is a stunning .012” inches thick:

The grip differs as well – the grasp on the Gyokucho is nothing more than a bamboo covered rod:

Some woodworkers mention that they never get comfortable with this orientation. But the 12 in. long handle does easily accommodate large hands, even allowing both hands for a samurai like stance:

Blades on a Gyokucho are not sharpened. When the blade becomes dull it’s easily discarded and replaced with a new one since it’s only a single screw that fastens the blade to the handle. Not that there’s an economic advantage over paying to have a blade sharpened. The best price I found for a replacement Gyokucho 372 blade was $35, not surprising considering that the utilitarian handle couldn’t possibly account for much of the cost. That may seem like a potential problem; one replacement and the Gyokucho creeps ever so close to the cost of a premium dovetail saw. But in one of his videos, David Barron speaks of cutting thousands of dovetails with a single blade while the saw still remained sharp. I suspect a replacement is more likely needed due to damage done to the extremely thin blade.

The Gyokucho blade is stiffened with a heavier metal back and cuts showed little deflection. Dovetails were easily cut in oak, cherry, pine, poplar and walnut. My joints still tended to look like a gap tooth smile rather than the model like chiseled perfection of a dream dovetail (I’m still dreaming). But the saw performed well enough that after dozens of dovetails I didn’t feel the need to step up my game. It was an auction and the swan song of a “good deal” that brought a new saw to my shop.

Unlike prudent folk who arrive at an auction with a budget, diligently tracking all their bids, I don’t record anything and wait till the end to be shocked by how much I spent. Good thing because reasonable behavior might have kept me from snatching up a never used Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Dovetail saw for a bargain $90.

My Gyokucho gets the job done with little flair, the Lie-Nielsen performs flawlessly while looking damn good doing so. There are numerous differences between the two. Although the Lie-Nielsen saw is 9 inches shorter with 2 inches less cutting length, it’s still heavier in the hand than the Gyokucho. The LN’s blade is almost twice as thick at .020 inches, the back is a solid piece of brass, and the full handle is a stunning piece of curly maple. This saw is understandably marketed as an heirloom tool and it certainly shows.

The LN is a western style saw with the teeth set at 15 ppi in a rip orientation, while the Gyokucho refers to their teeth as “combination” having 21 ppi. Both saws have similar cut depth at just over 1 ½ inches. This rather shallow cut distinguishes a “dovetail saw” from the more general rip or cross cut carcass saw - which can still be used for dovetails. Here's a Lee Valley Veritas cross cut saw (on top in the picture) with it's deeper cut compared to the Lie-Nielsen saw:

The smaller blade does make the saw easier to handle on delicate work. As can be expected, LN blades are sharpened, not discarded, when they become dull. For those not wanting to learn this skill, or spend the time, Lie-Nielsen offers a sharpening service for $25, including return shipping.

The ability to cut dead square is probably the largest factor determining the accuracy of your dovetail, and this is where I feel the Lie-Nielsen really shines. The blade on the Gyokucho seemed to flex a bit when cutting down the angle of the dovetail. On the other hand, the Lie-Nielsen felt solid and sure as it cleanly worked through a 7/8” piece of cherry. It may be important to note that David Barron demonstrates using a guide (his own make) when using the Gyokucho. His guide has a magnet in place that holds onto the blade, which probably adds some stability during the cut. I talk more about guides in Dovetail Layout.

Although I found the staff like handle of the Gyokucho to work reasonably well, the open-grip handle of the LN leant more confidence. The larger kerf of the LN required some practice; I had become comfortable with slicing right into my layout marks with the Gyokucho since it produced such a razor thin cut. The Lie-Nielsen wants to take more wood out from the waste side of the joint and required moving a little further off the line. Even though more wood is cut, more sawdust produced, I never felt I was working harder during the cut with the LN than the Gyokucho. In short time the Lie-Nielsen saw felt like a natural extension of my arm.

The Gyokucho still has a place in my shop; its quick and accurate cutting makes it especially handy for slicing up miter keys. And its low entry price is a boon to the woodworker wanting to experiment with hand cut dovetails.

But when I’m dreaming of picture perfect dovetails, it’s the Lie-Nielsen that I reach for.

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