When it comes to cutting wood, there’s a whole bunch of saws to choose from, but for delicate and accurate jointing, it often comes down to just two — the tenon saw vs dovetail saw.
At first glance, there’s not much difference. They’re both short, stubby little saws, but there’s a big difference in the performance.
So, if you had to choose one, which would it be?
Tenon Saw vs Dovetail Saw
I don’t have a massive collection of saws. I like to keep my tool collection to a minimum, so I choose multi-functional tools as much as possible. However, I have a passion for woodworking, so when it comes to choosing the best saw for the job, I do plenty of research.
For rough work, I have a general-purpose combination saw that works on various projects, from fencing to carcassing – anything that doesn’t need too much precision. My trusty hacksaw is handy for fiddly bits, but it isn’t accurate enough for joinery work.
For jointing and framing, you need something more rigid, not a saw that will wander off in its own direction.
Do you need a tenon saw or a dovetail saw? Let’s now compare the two saws in detail.
The tenon saw is ideal for precise joinery cuts, such as the “male” part of a mortise and tenon joint. When forming this joint, you initially cut across the grain, which is why tenon saws are often set to cut on the push stroke.
The blade length on a tenon saw is typically 250mm, but you can get longer saws up to 350mm. The advantage of the longer blade is that you can cut more quickly. However, this may result in less accuracy.
Accuracy is also dictated by the number of teeth per inch (TPI) — the more TPI, the finer the cut — but this can also lead to inaccuracies. You need a steady hand when using a fine-toothed saw.
Tenon saws typically have 11-15 TPI, set straight to reduce the kerf thickness (width of cut). However, this can sometimes result in binding, as described in this Paul Sellers blog post. To overcome binding, lightly lubricate the cutting surface with WD40, or set the teeth to a cross-cut pattern to increase the kerf.
For more information on setting a cross-cut saw, check the video below by Paul Sellers.
Tenon saws have a deeper blade than the dovetail saw (typically 75-80mm), allowing you to cut into thicker sections of wood, ideal for carcassing.
You must avoid over-cutting to form a perfect joint, and the tenon saw, with its tight control, is excellent at preventing this.
To learn more about using a tenon saw, check out our guide to using a tenon saw like a pro.
At first glance, tenon and dovetail saws may look the same, but the dovetail saw is shorter, typically 200mm, and has finer teeth — around 16-20 TPI. These teeth are set to cut along the grain — known as a rip cut — as you would when forming a dovetail joint.
The blade depth is also shorter (55-60mm) because dovetail saws aren’t intended for cutting deep sections of wood.
Furthermore, the dovetail blade is slimmer, providing a thinner kerf for a neater joint.
A dovetail saw may have a straight handle, sometimes referred to as a “Gent’s saw”, which is better for more delicate cutting such as, but not limited to, dovetail joints.
A finer tooth setting is best for detailed work, but it makes sharpening more challenging, and they tend to clog up on softer wood.
Pro Tip: You shouldn’t underestimate teeth sharpening. To keep your saw in top condition, you must look after its teeth.
Tenon and dovetail saws are called backsaws because of the strip of metal (usually brass) or wood that runs along the back of the saw to stiffen the blade.
The two critical components of any handsaw are the handle and the blade.
Most tenon and dovetail saws have a pistol grip — a closed handle with three fixing points through the blade for extra rigidity. However, you will find some with an open pistol grip or a straight handle.
It’s down to personal comfort, but most professionals think that a straight handle gives them better control when doing delicate joinery work.
The blade of a backsaw is short compared to general-purpose handsaws, and the metal or wooden strip along the spine limits the depth of cut. Note: this isn’t a problem when cutting joints or framing.
The blade’s teeth are also influential in your choice of saw. I.e. some teeth are set to cut on the push stroke, while others cut on the pull stroke. Some teeth are set to cut in both directions.
Pro Tip: Cross-cutting is best done on the push stroke because you can apply more force. Also, the shorter the blade, the more accurate the cut.
The table below compares how each saw performs when doing typical woodworking tasks.
|Task||Tenon Saw||Dovetail Saw|
|TOTAL (out of 20)||18||17|
It’s a close call, but I would choose a tenon saw over the dovetail saw because of its versatility. It’s good enough for most types of cutting, and if you go for a finer-toothed tenon saw, this will form a decent joint in most instances.
Final Thoughts — Tenon Saw vs Dovetail Saw
Both the tenon saw and dovetail saw have pros and cons, but as a general guide, consider the following:
Use a tenon saw if you want a neat, accurate cross-cut with no over-cutting. Also, the tenon saw is your best option if you’re looking to form mitre joints, lap joints, or other framing jobs.
Use a dovetail saw if you’re looking for a finer cut, such as the shoulder of a tenon joint or a dovetail joint where you are cutting along the grain.
If you only want one saw, I recommend going for a short(ish) tenon saw. For example, a 250mm tenon saw with 12-14 TPI is suitable for most applications.
You can read more about different saw types and their performance in our 21 Essential Types of Saws guide.