Hand tools for a cabinet maker part iii – Rowden Atelier

Hand tools for a cabinet maker part iii

In this article, the last of the series of three, I am talking about the last section of tools that a young apprentice cabinetmaker would need to start their collection of handtools. In previous weeks I’ve spoken of planes and chisels, marking and measuring tools and all that remains now are two areas of hand tools that have changed most for the modern European cabinet maker – those of saws and routers.

There was a time when a cabinet makers toolkit would have half a dozen hand saws. He’d have two or three back saws, dovetail saw, a tenon saw, maybe a coping saw. He would also have several long saws; a rip saw a cross-cut saw, probably a couple of panel saws sharpened in different ways. Each of these saws had another purpose and would be used for a different part of the job. Tool catalogues were full to busting of saw companies products boasting features like breasted tooth lines and taper grinding. All this now is no more. In the modern cabinet makers workshop the bench saw has primarily been replaced either by the small machine – like the table saw or the band saw, or by the portable hand tool such as the jigsaw or contractors circular saw. I don’t propose to look at power tools or machines in this article but will still concentrate on what is left, for what is left is quite important. It will be a sad day when a cabinet maker can’t pick up a saw and cut a piece of wood dead straight, trim the end of a tenon or cut a mitre just shy of the line. But sometimes it feels like that day isn’t too far away for so much of the sawing dimensioning of components is done nowadays on the small machine. It’s so much easier to potter off away from the bench, in our case go downstairs to a machine room and buzz that little bit of wood off on the table saw. Cutting it off by hand involves effort, energy and skill. It also involves a good saw. Now it saddens me that when I look in the tool catalogue these days, the saw section which used to occupy a whole chapter is now condensed down to two or three pages, but it’s still possible to buy an excellent saw, the trouble is it comes from Japan.


Here at our Shebbear workshops, I must admit that we have allowed the “tools of the devil” to take over. I’ve had Japanese chisels and waterstones in my workshop for 20 or more years, but Japanese saws came when Nick Chandler and I got together 4 years ago. I had never really taken to Japanese saws, but many of my students have used them with great success. Basically because when I started work, I was lucky enough to find myself a really good dovetail saw. This was a saw made by Roberts & Lee and fitted with an open handle. For nearly twenty years, I was advising students to buy similar Roberts & Lee, Dorchester, dovetail saws. Now lots of my students bought their 8 inch and 10-inch saws with beautiful walnut handles and lovely brass backs. They paid something approaching £50 for each saw. Just recently I decided to treat myself to a new 10-inch dovetail saw. A natural choice wasn’t a Japanese rubbishy thing, but the £49 Roberts & Lee, Dorchester, 590 walnut handled whizzo dovetail saw. I thought it was British and I’ve had a saw like that for over 25 years. Fair to say I unhappy with my new saw I experienced myself the disappointment I had visited upon so many of my students. The thickness of the saw plate was roughly similar to my old dovetail saw. The quality and weight of the brass back was if anything a little heavier, which is probably appropriate for a slightly longer saw. The way that the handle was fitted to the back and blade assembly was loose and sloppy. Even with the blade tightened as much as I could, there was a gap of a quarter of a millimetre on either side where my old saw was tight and snug. Why in this age when such wonderful feats of engineering can be accomplished as a manner of course by robots can we not make a backsaw with a decently fitting wooden handle. When it came to using the saw, I was prepared for a tussle. Dovetail saws come with a crosscut sharpening and wide-set that means they don’t really function very well especially ripping dry hardwood. What with all the saws I’ve helped students set up over the years I learnt how to get these little saws running reasonably well. It involves firstly taking a cloth soaked in thinners to the blade and removing most of the gunk that manufacturers leave on the blade to protect it from rust whilst it is in the shop. Once you’ve done this, it’s necessary to slightly stone off some of the set applied to the saw. A dovetail saw is a precision instrument the way these saws are set in the factory is to my mind much too coarse. A good dovetail saw should cut a nice fine kerf, and you can only achieve this by stoning off some of the set by running a fine stone down either side of the blade or as I used to do tapping the set back with a small hammer on an anvil. This can get the saw running reasonably well but what it really needs is a full re-sharpen, and that’s best accomplished by taking a small saw file and filing a 90 degree to the saw blade just one stroke per tooth. I think that dovetail saws when sharpened new are sharpened in cross-cut fashion when really most of the action, certainly in our workshop, a rip point seems to work much more efficiently.

Now you can be patriotic, and you can go on supporting these old saw makers but there comes a day when somebody puts a saw in your hands that works so much better, costs less than half as much, you have to think why am I beating my head against this brick wall. Perhaps I should not continue to advise you go on paying nearly £50 for British saw when there’s the Japanese equivalent for £17.79 that does the job somewhat better straight out of the box. But then I remember what they did to our motorcycle industry.


Now the difficulty with these Japanese saws is they require a different technique. They cut on the pull stroke whereas European saws cut on the push. But don’t they work beautifully. Two saws that seem to have found a home in our workshop are the Doutsuki-Me which seems to be the equivalent of the European dovetail saw, and the professional Ryoba saw. The Doutsuki-Me saw is a very fine light backsaw with a long handle which makes the control relatively straight forward. But the problem everyone had a few years ago with these saws was sharpening the wretched things. That has been overcome recently with the introduction of the replaceable blade. Nowadays the Doutsuki-Me saw is sold complete for just under £18 and a spare standard blade for just over £10. I think Nick tends to replace his saw blade maybe two or three times a year which makes this quite an expensive saw, but for the cabinetmaker, this is an essential tool, and one would spend whatever is necessary within reason to achieve these results.

The Ryoba saw also has a replaceable blade, but don’t confuse replaceable in this context with the cheap throwaway blades found European saws. This is a saw made for the professional market. The saw has two cutting edges. The top edge has rip teeth with a finer set of teeth adjacent to the handle for starting the cut while the other edge has cross-cut teeth which gives a very smooth clean cut. The centre of the blade is scraped out in the same way that old fashioned panel saws had tapered round blades this is done to help prevent the saws from sticking in a deep cut. I must admit that these “tools of the devil” have taken a long time to arrive in my very conservative and chauvinistic workshop. Even given my support for the British motorcycle industry, I can’t go on supporting Messrs Roberts & Lee when the design and construction of their best saws seem to have deteriorated over time rather than improved.


Now we come to routers. The second area I want to look at is the single tool that has changed cabinet making in the last 25 years – that of the router. I must admit that I hate routers, not for what it’s done to cabinet making but for the bloody noise and mess they make. They are filthy tools that create a fine dust that covers the whole workshop in brown snow and admit a scream that would drive a Methodist to drink. As far as I’m concerned the only good router’s a dead router. However, they are incredibly useful. A router is essentially a small portable machine centre, infinitely versatile, used in a myriad of ways depending on your tooling and ingenuity. We have five routers in the shop at the moment, and probably two are in if not constant then in intermittent use most of the time

The most useful is a small router, and I think the small router would be the only I would recommend a beginner to buy first. The large router is a bit of a brute, but eventually, you will need a large router as well as a small one. Of the small routers today available on the market, the choice in the professional workshop seems to be between the Dewalt DW6201K and the Trend T5. Both these routers have variable speed and a proven track record. I think the Dewalt weighs in at £212 while the Trend costs £159, including a metal box. I think if I were buying a new router today, I would probably go for the Trend T5 but then this is because it’s so similar to my old Elu router that I would feel at home and comfortable with it. A new router in the larger category which found a place in our affections most recently is the Freud FT2000VCE. This is a half-inch router with loads of grunt, but it comes equipped with a very accurate and nice to use fine depth adjuster which makes it very useful for fitting underneath a router table. This is one of the primary uses in this workshop of this kind of big router. This place isn’t the place to discuss the merit of each particular model of router. One point I would like to stress is the way a small handheld router, usually with a quarter-inch collet has become an essential hand tool in the cabinet makers toolbox. Rather than filling his toolbox with half sets of moulding planes, the young cabinet maker will be gathering together an assorted collection of router bits of different sizes and shapes and qualities.

Our toolkit series is complete, but this is just the start of the process of assembling your set of tools. It seems to me that the professional is always seeking to have the best tools available, not the most tools. We always seem to seek to replace that irritating plane with a better one or with something that will do the job better, like a better dovetail saw.

Written by our founder, David Savage. Originally published as Saws and sundries in Good Woodworking Magazine / 2000