Frame Fight: Coping Saws vs. Fret Saws

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A fret saw’s thin blade drops into the kerf left by any dovetail saw. Then you just turn and saw.

This is an excerpt from “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” by Anon, Christopher Schwarz and and Joel Moskowitz. 

For those of you who chisel out your waste when dovetailing, this section is not for you. Move along. There’s nothing to see here.

OK, now that we’re alone: Have you ever been confused about which frame saw you should use to remove the waste between your pins and tails? I have. For years I used a coping saw and was blissfully happy.

Then I took an advanced dovetail class with maestro Rob Cosman and he made a strong case that a fret saw was superior because you could remove the waste in one fell swoop (instead of two). So, like any good monkey, I bought a fret saw and did it that way for many years.

But fret saws aren’t perfect. Almost all of them require tuning. You need to file some serrations in the pads that clamp the blade, otherwise it’s all stroke, stroke, sproing. Oh, and the blades tend to break. Or kink.

And fret saws are slow. I use 11.5 teeth per inch (tpi) scrollsaw blades, and it takes about 30 strokes to get through the waste between my typical tails in hardwood.

If you want to see a good video on how to tune up a fretsaw, check out Rob Cosman’s site. He shows you how to hot-rod the handle and bend the blade for the best performance.

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Coping saws require two swooping passes to remove the waste. Drop the teeth in your kerf and make swoop one. Come back and make swoop two.


About Coping Saws

What I like about coping saws is that they cut faster. I use an 18 tpi blade from Tools for Working Wood. (I think they’re made by Olson.) The blades cut wicked fast thanks to their deeper gullets and longer length. It takes me 12 to 14 strokes to remove the waste between my typical tails.

The other thing I like about the coping saw is that its throat is deeper (5″ vs. 2-3/4″ on my fret saw), which allows me to handle wider drawers without turning the blade. Also, the blades of a coping saw are far more robust and almost never come loose. I’m partial to the German-made Olson coping saw. It’s about $12 and beats the pants off the stuff at the home centers.

The major downside to the coping saw is that you have to remove the waste in two passes instead of one. Because the coping saw’s blade is thick, it sometimes won’t drop down into the bottom of the kerf left by your dovetail saw. So you get around this by making two swooping passes to clear the waste.

One last thing: Some of you might be wondering why I didn’t discuss wooden bowsaws, another fantastic frame saw. At the time I was writing this book, my bowsaw was busted. First, one of the arms cracked after someone (no names) over-tensioned it. I fixed that. Then the twine busted and I didn’t have any on hand.

Since building the Chest of Drawers, I got my bowsaw back on its feet (bowsaws do not have feet, by the way) and it is giving my coping saw a run for its money. The fret saw still hangs dusty and lonely on the wall.

Meghan Bates

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14 Responses to Frame Fight: Coping Saws vs. Fret Saws

  1. Willard Anderson says:

    Make your bowsaw with tapered pins (the traditional way these were made), there you won’t have to fiddle with sawing or filing grooves in the handle to get a grip on things. I use a wooden coping saw I made based loosely on one made by Melhuish of London. Haven’t broken an arm yet but there’s not a time when I tension it up that I do not have a moment of anxiety! I use the Olsen webs. Tried out the Pegasus webs, but they cut funny and when I put them under the ‘scope, the teeth were rounded over and some missing–on webs that were right out of the pack. Wrote a note on quality assurance to them but never heard back,

  2. So Meghan when you going to show off your chest of draws? I want to attempt to build two sets one for me and one for my wife. So please do a story on your build. Thanks.

  3. Eric Kuehne says:

    I have the Knew Concepts fret saw. It is pretty much perfect out of the box. Does everything I want it to do with no down sides. A beautiful piece of engineering. A lot more than $12.00 but you get what you pay for.

  4. tombuhl says:

    I like, no love, my Gramercy (Tools for Working Wood) bowsaw. I too use an aggressive (and fairly robust) blade (probably Olsen). Two swipes is no big deal even with many drawers. The second one is done without even thinking about it. Zero broken blades, but replace once in a while as they do dull over time. Taking the bowsaw off the Shaker wall pegs just makes me smile. Joyful woodworking.
    I too broke an arm, was going to make a replacement, sent email to clarify an issue. TFWW sent me a new one, no charge, even though saw was several years old. They are good folks, interested in good tools.

  5. kmhatch says:

    Meghan,

    Funny I just posted about turning saws. The TFWW 12″ is the winner in my sho.

    ken

  6. I think the saw you call a fret saw is more likely to be a jewellers saw judging by the shallow throat. Jig saws usually have a throat of about 10″ that is because they were made to cut jigsaws by hand. Jewellers saw are used to cut pierced shapes in precious metal and thats why very fine blades are available for them.

    I use an old Eclipse coping saw and my Granddaughters use modern ones. Cost about ten dollars. I add a washer of 1/8″ firm unwaxed leather between the handle ferrule and the handle end of the frame. No need for anything complicated and more often than not these would work well without the washer. I have tried all the other methods: lock washers, spring washers, carborundrum paper etc.

    I use Pegas fast cutting skip tooth 18tpi blades made in Switzerland. Its so quick to use I have never bothered to time it

    The Eclipse jewellers saw is also in my toolbox as it is useful in cutting brass sheet to attractive patterns.
    I

  7. hansenandrew says:

    Another vote for Knew Concepts fret saw. I never have the problems Chris mentions with blades coming loose, and with good blades it cuts very fast. Comes in handy when making Roubo bookstands too, as I can drill a teensy hole then thread the blade through it.

    • admiralbumblebee says:

      Agreed. I was in the ‘chiseler’ camp for a while, then I tried fret saws and was disappointed. I tried coping saws and had much better luck and it was obviously quicker than chiseling.

      Now that I have a Knew Concepts fretsaw, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’m practiced enough at it that I can leave just a pare cut from both sides without unclamping the work.

      I’m not big on the whole ‘game changer’ concepts, since this woodworking stuff has been going around for 1000’s of years with relatively little variation, but that saw really is a huge improvement over other methods of removing joinery waste.

      • admiralbumblebee says:

        Also, I have no clue why anyone chisels waste anymore. Even 2 quick extra cuts with your dovetail saw cut your work down by a sizable amount.

  8. Luke Maddux says:

    I use a (handmade) bow saw which has the same pitch and kerf of my (also handmade) dovetail saw.

    I realize not everyone has access to this kind of duo, but, for what it’s worth, I believe this is the best option available among the three.

  9. Ryan Cheney says:

    I used to use an Olsen coping saw. I found it finicky and annoying to use. I have a bow saw made from the Gramercy kit, but I really only use that for cutting curves and patterns. At Handworks 2015, I bought a Knew Concepts fret saw, mainly for dovetail waste. You can have my Knew Concepts fret saw when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. It is a bit slow in thick or wide dovetails, but if it bothers me enough, I’ll just get the Knew Concepts coping saw. Their saws are, in fact, the cat’s pajamas.

  10. neitsdelf says:

    “It takes me 12 to 14 strokes to remove the waste between my typical tails. ,,, The major downside to the coping saw is that you have to remove the waste in two passes instead of one.”

    Tee hee. (I can’t be the only one.)

    • You do not need to make two cuts at all just adjust the angle of the blade if you are working on wide stuff. It takes no time at all to take the blade out if you would rather do that.

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