Hand Tools #1: My Tenon Saws

  • Advertise with us
Blog entry by Tom posted 04-13-2021 07:44 PM 462 reads 0 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Hand Tools series Part 2: My Tenon Saws addendum »

My woodworking hand tool purchasing experience has been fairly haphazard over the last 10 years. I pretty much started with no tools at all and no real idea what tools I needed to get started. This was before a lot of online resources existed, like Paul Sellers. It probably didn’t help that much of my inspiration to try hand tool woodworking came from watching The Woodwright’s Shop with Roy Underhill. I love that show, but Roy tends to have a huge variety of tools and they seem to change from week to week. I did like the idea of using old tools versus new, but then you need to know how to determine the good tools from the junk and how to fix them up. So I bought some old tools and some new ones. The new ones included tenon saws or back saws.

I knew that I wanted to do joinery such as dovetails and mortise and tenons. So I went to Amazon and purchased a Crown Tools Tenon saw and Dovetail Saw. I used these saws for a couple years right out of the box. I did not know how or when to sharpen a saw, so I just used them with reckless abandon.

You don’t see too many positive reviews for these tools by professionals or individuals, but they are actually pretty nice in my opinion. The handles are not shaped pretty but they are comfortable enough and the rose wood is nice. The brass back is substantial and the saw plate is thin and fitted nicely. Both are rip saws which is what you need for tenons and dovetails.

However, the tenon saw is really too short at 12” to be effective when ripping the tenon cheeks on hardwoods and the teeth are too fine at 13 teeth per inch for efficient cutting in my opinion. The dovetail saw is also too short at 8” and the teeth are too fine at 20 teeth per inch. I can manage the saw length but the teeth need a more aggressive cut. I think they should be closer to 11 and 15 teeth per inch to be effective.

Next I tried some vintage saws called Jackson USA. These were a secondary brand from Disston. I purchased them individually from eBay and I sent them away to be sharpened. The 14” saw is 11 TPI, the 12” is 13 TPI and the 10” dovetail saw is 15 TPI. The dovetail saw was mess when I bought it. The plate was bent and the handle was damaged. I bought a new saw plate from Windsor Saw and they filed it very nicely. I repaired the handle and converted it to an open handle design. Same handle, just less of it. The dovetail saw is still one of my all time favorite saws.

At the time, these saws were very reasonably priced, maybe $30 at the most. The dovetail saw was only a few bucks since it was damaged. In general, I have been pretty happy with these saws. The saw plates are thicker than modern saws, but that does not bother me. The steel back is kind of light weight compared to the brass, but it’s fine. The saw performance has improved as I have improved my sharpening skills. I have moved on from these saws for my main joinery workbench, but I still use them all the time on my Moravian workbench where I do more carpentry or specialty woodworking projects.

My current tenon saws are Disston saws which I purchased from eBay again. The cost was reasonable a few years ago, but I noticed they seem to be in greater demand lately. Maybe people have more time for woodworking during the pandemic. I probably spent about $50 on each saw.

The length and number of teeth are the same as the Jackson USA saws. The steel back is heavier than the Jackson USA saws and it feels more well balanced. The handles fit my hand well.

All of my tenon saws are filed for ripping, even though I use them for crosscutting as well. If I need a finer cut, I use a finer tooth saw. My dovetail saw gets used for all sorts of trimming and joinery cuts, not just for dovetails. Also, filing a saw for rip is much easier for me than filing for crosscut. The 14” and the 10” saws are filed for a fairly aggressive rip with only a couple degrees of rake. The 12” is filed with a more relaxed rake, maybe 8-10 degrees which is less prone tearing for crosscuts during trimming or miters. I generally do not need a crosscut tenon saw as long as a start the cut with a knife line to severe the grain. Also, the first inch at the toe has a more relaxed rake to help start the saw. Look for Paul Sellers videos on rip saw filing on Youtube.

Also, I have always found that the saw file sizes to be very confusing. I only use one saw file for all three tenon saws, Bahco 4” extra slim taper saw file. That one can be a little harder to find lately. I think you can also use a Bahco 5” double extra slim taper file and have good results and you can find it at Lee Valley.

I also set the teeth for all three tenon saws at pretty much the same. I use a Somax saw set with the setting of 12 which is the minimum. I don’t think that Somax is available anymore, but this one looks similar from Amazon. I want just enough set to allow the saw plate to have clearance. You can have more set if you want to be able to steer the saw more.

If you are just starting out, maybe this can help you a little bit. Personally, I think you can do without the 12” tenon saw. 14” and 10” will do most anything that you need to do for basic joinery.

I think it’s fun to try new tools and figure out what works best for you. I hope it’s fun for you too. :)

-- Tom

5 comments so far

View mafe's profile


13188 posts in 4173 days

#1 posted 04-13-2021 08:24 PM

Nice and informative, I’m sure many will find this really useful.
Best thoughts,

-- MAD F, the fanatical rhykenologist and vintage architect.

View Oldtool's profile


3219 posts in 3275 days

#2 posted 04-14-2021 12:29 AM

Nice critique on saws, covered all the bases.
Like you, I started with a dovetail saw from Crown, but have since supplemented that with two Diston saws – one crosscut & one for rip cuts, and a smaller Jackson. If you think about it, all saws do is remove the majority of waste material, then are followed for refinement by: shooting boards on ends, chisels in dovetails, hand planes on rip cuts, and so on, so I don’t pay much attention as to which I use, just whether the cut is cross or rip.

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View Tom's profile


269 posts in 976 days

#3 posted 04-14-2021 01:12 AM

Old tool – I think that is a fine approach. It gets the work done. Maybe someday I’ll get the hang of crosscut sharpening. Maybe… :)

-- Tom

View controlfreak's profile (online now)


2131 posts in 686 days

#4 posted 04-14-2021 02:36 PM

I tried crosscut sharpening once, not so good on a fine tooth saw. I may need to give it another go one day. Working on a saw till design now and as soon as that’s done I plan on tuning up my saws and maybe going back to acquire mode. Thank you for posting.

View Tom's profile


269 posts in 976 days

#5 posted 04-14-2021 03:56 PM

I have sharpened 8 TPI hand saws for crosscut with reasonable success. But those small tooth tenon saws are bit more troublesome for me. I sometimes think it would be good to have a crosscut tenon saw for some miter and trimming cuts. Maybe I should find a professional sharpener to do it, if it is a rarely used saw. Or maybe I need to take a saw sharpening class… :)

-- Tom

Have your say...

You must be signed in to post the comments.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics