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Episode #3: $10 saw bench build
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SHOW NOTES: Stumpy gives a lesson in handsaws while he builds one of the most useful fixtures of the hand tool shop- the traditional sawbench (at least his own tricked out version of it). He teaches you about backsaws from Dovetail to carcass to sash to tenon; which tooth counts you should own for different uses, and then puts it all to work cutting dovetails and draw boring tenons on a $10 sawbench.



SHOW TRANSCRIPT: F- An Old Timey Woodworker knows a thing or two about saws. Actually there’s more than a thing or two to know about saws. It’s more like a thing or two-bazillion. But an old timey woodworker isn’t afraid to apply himself to the art of book-learnin’, or even video learnin’ until he mastered the art of the handsaw in all its toothy glory. And that’s what we’ll be doing in this episode of The Old Timey Workshop! INTRO - These kids today with their power saws and their fancy do-dads. If saws were meant to be circular God wouldn’t have invented the saw plate, or the brass back, or the sweet comfort of a perfectly formed apple wood handle that’s the closest thing to heaven itself. Handsaws are an old timey woodworker’s bread and butter, his mashed potatoes and gravy, his bourbon and ice. Asking an old timey woodworker to make something without a hand saw would be like asking your kid to have a conversation without a little keyboard in his hands. It’s just not possible. So pull up a saw bench and we’ll get started. What’s that, you don’t have a saw bench? You don’t even know what a saw bench is? You saw a bench at the park but it was cover with bird poop? I see I’ve got my work cut out for me today. A saw bench is an old timey woodworker’s bread and butter, his mashed potatoes and gravy… If it sounds like I’m repeating myself it’s because I’m trying to drive home two points: Old timey woodworkers love their mashed potatoes and gravy, and the saw bench is one of the most useful fixtures of any shop. A saw bench is the workbench’s little brother. It’s smaller, you can pound on it all you like, and it’s a great place to sit and eat your lunch. They come in all sorts of shapes and styles and once you build one you’ll start to wonder how you ever got along without it. You can build a pretty saw bench from fancy wood with inlays and all that stuff. But since these things are meant to be used and abused, I prefer to make mine from some 2X6’s and call it done. That’s not to say they don’t require some forethought. What sets a saw bench apart from a saw horse are a few key features that make all the difference. First of all, a saw bench’s height should be customized to the woodworker. The top should should be right below your kneecap because your knee will become your hold down when your sawing a board, and if you’re doing a long rip cut, you don’t want to be in an awkward position while you work. Second, a saw bench has a handy-dandy split to make rip cuts easier. Now this particular bench is my personal adaptation or a couple of other designs. On one end we have a V, which is a feature on many traditional benches. This is designed to support smaller pieces for ripping without cutting into your bench. It also makes a handy holding spot for frame and panel doors or the like when you want to stand them on end and plane down an edge. A more modern design is the complete split top, which make it easier to rip long boards without cutting into your bench. I like this design, but I also like the holding feature of the older style. So I incorporated both into my own design. Of course, this makes my bench a little longer than some of the others out there, but there’s a reason for that too. A lot of old timey woodworking tasks are best done sitting down, and the shaving horse used to be the place to do it. The back of a shaving horse seat would often serve as a sitting workbench with holes for a bench hook and a flat place to chop out a mortise, all sorts of things. But not every woodworker has a use for a shaving horse, so I decided to add those features to my saw bench. Brilliant, eh? Now let’s quit messing around and get to the building! (PROJECT TITLE) Now, I did say I like my saw bench a bit long, but don’t get carried away. If you have a small shop you probably want it small enough to get out of the way when you’re not using it. For me, three feet long is just about right. So I’ve got a couple 2X8’s cut to 3ft, and four more cut at ??”. Why ??” Because I measured from the floor to my kneecap and found it to be ??” high, which I believe is the perfect kneecap height for an old timey woodworker. But you should measure yours just to be sure. Your 2X6’s are probably not flat, and every old timey woodworker knows what to do about that. Get out the hand planes and go to work. I wouldn’t worry about getting perfection, this is a project that can be very forgiving. You just don’t want any bows or twists or wanes or crooks- and I also like to take off those rounded edges so it looks a little less like a 2X8 if you know what I mean. M- Next we have to cut a few dovetails, which is a scary thought for a lot of guys. Don’t worry, I’ll talk you through it. But if you need to go syke yourself up, vomit, whatever you need to do, go get it over with while I go get a saw out of Pappy’s tools chest. (PAPPY’s CHEST) Pappy Nubs was a man of many saws, some of them hang on the wall, others are in his tool chest. My favorite is this one, it’s one of the earliest ???? backsaws ever made and dates back to the late 1700’s. Pappy carried this saw with him during the war of 1812 and it’s said that he while cannon balls were bouncing off old ironsides, pappy swam just below the surface of the water with this saw in his teeth from ship to ship, cutting holes in the hulls and sinking the entire British armada, which explains the rusty plate. This is a back saw, means it has a metal stiffener along the back which makes it possible to use a very thin blade and produce crisp, accurate cuts. Some might call this a dovetail saw, others would say it’s a carcass saw. In fact there are several classifications of back saws and it’s not always clear where a particular one fits. So let me give you a quick rundown. As a joiner, which is what an old timey furniture maker was called, you had a least four classes of back saws at your disposal and selecting the right saw for the joint you wanted to cut was often a matter of personal preference. The smallest is the dovetail saw. These are usually between 6 and 10 inches from toe to heel, they have fine teeth, 15 or more per inch, and are filed for a rip cut. They have a very thin plate that’s only as wide as it has to be for dovetail cutting because they can be easy to kink. That and the fact that hand cut dovetails are considered a fine woodworking joint, have made these saws a sort of status symbol among woodworkers, even the old timey guys. Next comes the carcass saw, which was used to cut up the cow for the old timey woodworker’s lunch. But its name actually comes from the fact that this saw is used on the structural pieces of the furniture, the skeleton so to speak. I don’t know, it’s a dumb name. But it’s my favorite of the back saws. They’re usually 12-14” long with relatively fine teeth. Mine are 12 points per inch, others like about 14. The carcass saw is most commonly filed for a crosscut, but I keep two, one for crosscuts and one for rip cuts because I like to use my carcass saw for cutting small tenons and even dovetails in thicker material. The next size up in the back saw world is the sash saw, and these are the conundrums of the hand saw world. Ask a woodworker today to describe a sash saw and you may as well be walking into a bar shouting Harleys suck! A fight is gonna’ commence! In the old-timey days the sash saw was the workhorse of the workshop. A lot of woodworkers used it for everything because they’re kind of a hybrid between a carcass saw and a tenon saw. They’re 14-18” long with 11-14 points per inch and the teeth were filed in a specific way that enabled the saw to make crosscuts and rips. They’ve kind of fallen out of favor nowadays but I actually prefer to use a sash saw for tenon cutting rather than the larger tenon saw. Of course that brings us to the largest of the four back saws in an old timey woodworker’s tool kit. Tenon saws have one purpose, cutting delicate dovetails. That doesn’t sound right does it. Actually the tenon saw is the anti-dovetail saw. It’s big, heavy and long, 16-20 inches, with a course 10 points per inch filed for a rip cut. These are made for cutting the cheeks of tenons so they have a wide plate. Unless I’m cutting some really heavy duty tenons, I find these things a little unwieldy. But for many woodworkers, this is their bread and butter, their mashed potatoes… did I already say that… (BREAK) Time to make dovetails. Get it, like the old dunkin donut commercials, except dovetails… not donuts Now that you know all about back saws, you’re probably expecting me to whip out the ol’ dovetail saw for this. Well you couldn’t be more wrong. A 2X6 is a little too much for a fine toothed dovetail saw. When I’m cutting this much meat, I prefer a carcass saw. In our last two episodes we made a couple of tools that you’re going to need to lay out your dovetail, the marking gauge and the marking knife. See, there’s a reason for the way this show is laid out. I’m not just making shows all willy nilly here… We set our marking gauge to the thickness of our leg and mark all the way around the ends of the mating top piece. The traditional angle for a dovetail in soft wood is 1:6- which means your bevel gauge is set to the 1 and the 6 on your carpenter’s square. Really, you don’t have to use a bevel gauge to lay out your angles. If you’ve cut a few dovetails in your day, you probably have a rough idea on what angle you want to cut and you can just eyeball it. I still like to mark mine out. But I will eyeball the spacing because with only two tails per joint, it’s hard to screw that up. And a square is used to transfer the line across the endgrain so you have something to follow there. If you’re new to dovetailing, this is a great project because it’s not a piece of fine furniture. There’s no pressure to get them perfect. (cut) You need sharp chisels for dovetails and I like to carve out a little shoulder to keep the chisel from pushing backward across the line as I chop. Now this is why you can just eyeball the angles when you cut the tails, because even if they’re not exact, you are custom cutting the pins to match the tails, so any errors will be compensated for. If you want to learn more about hand cutting dovetails, check out Blue Collar Woodworking season 1, episode 12 at (Cut & chop pins) The moment of truth always comes when it’s time to put your dovetails together. But don’t do it yet! A dovetail always fits best the first time it’s assembled, and you still have to cut tails on the other ends of your top pieces and we’ll have tenons on the other ends of the leg pieces, so rather than putting them together and then taking them apart to do all that, hold your horses, I’m going to go get a cold one, and be right back to talk tenons. (TIP) And old timey woodworker’s backsaws are for joinery. But when fast cutting and dimensioning stock needs doin’, he turns to his panel saws. Technically the term panel saw refers to shorter handsaws under 20 inches or so. But my head is already full of saw classifications from the back saws, and hand saw is too general of a term, so I call just about all of my traditional backless saws panel saws. I’m just nutty that way. When I was a kid there was only one of these saws in the garage, and I did everything with it. I don’t know if it was rip or crosscut because I didn’t even know there was a difference, and if you’d asked me how many points per inch, I’d have thrown it on the floor and ran away ‘cause that’s crazy commie talk. But the fact is, teeth shape and count are everything when it comes to panel saws, and an old timey woodworker usually wants a good selection on hand so he has the right saw for the job. You already know the difference between crosscuts and rip teeth, so let’s consider points per inch. A good rule of thumb for rip saws is to have 4-8 teeth, or points, inside the wood during the cut. That means a 1 inch board is best cut with 4-8 points per inch, a ¾” board with 6-10 and a half inch board with 8-12. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a different saw for every board. An 8 ppi blade fits into all those thickness, so for many rip cuts, that’s a good general purpose saw. Of course if you use a lot of thin stock, you may also want a 12 point, and if you want to rip thicker stock fast, consider a 4 point too. When it comes to crosscut saws, the rules change a bit because cutting across the fibers can cause a lot of tear out, so you want a less aggressive cut. The rule of thumb here is 6-10 teeth within the wood during the cut. That means 6-10 points per inch for a 1 inch board, 8-12 for ¾” and 10-14 for half inch. If you want an all-purpose saw, go with 10 points per inch. For finer work or a lot of thin stock, it pays to add a 14 point to your set, and for fast rough crosscutting without messing around, it’s also good to have a course 6 tooth saw. The bottom line is you can get away with two panel saws, but it’s good to have six or even more, and since high quality old saws are a dime a dozen at yard sales and flea markets, it won’t be long until you have way more than you’ll ever use. (BREAK) While you were captivated by my lesson on panel saws, I was cutting the rest of my dovetails and thinking that I should have mentioned how important it was to number your mating dovetail pieces so you can match them back up properly come assembly time. So, hope you did that! Now it’s time to talk tenons. This is the most important joint in woodworking and anybody who says different is lying to you and you shouldn’t be friends with that sort of person. A mortise and tenon is stronger than an ox and prettier too when properly done. Every good tenon starts with a mortising gauge, so it’s a good thing we made one in the last episode. Normally you’d set your gauge to the width of your mortising chisel, but we’re going to do things differently this time. Set your pins an inch apart and your fence a quarter inch from the pins. We’re going to make our tenon 2 ½” long, so you can mark the shoulder first with your regular marking gauge, or use a ruler and a try square. When I’m making any saw cut that I want to be right along a line like this, I always cut a little notch just like I did with a chisel on the dovetails. This creates a shoulder for your saw to start in without skipping across the line. And if it’s going to be a through tenon with a visible end, I also cut a groove all the way down the end grain. That gives me a crisp edge, and helps the saw to track accurately since it will naturally want to follow the path of least resistance. To cut a tenon you want to angle the piece away from you so you have a good view of the line on this edge. And as you cut you want to follow this line, while keeping an eye on the line across the endgrain until you get down to your shoulder. (Cut cheeks) Then we flip the piece around in the vice and do the same thing from this side. (cut cheeks) To crosscut our shoulders we can do the same trick with our chisel or marking knife before we make our cut. It’s also important with any cut to keep the saw perpendicular to the work piece. You can do this very accurately with your eyes as you sight down both sides of the saw at once, and with your thumb against the plate to help guide the cut. (Cut shoulders) These tenons are going to fit into mortises in the feet, which are made from 18 inch long pieces of 2X6- you’ll need two of these, one for each foot. Now, most mortises are just drilled or chopped out, but in this case we’ll do it a bit differently. We’re going to cut half our mortise at a time. And I’m not talking top half, bottom half. I mean right half left half. Now remember which legs are which because you want to keep all your mating dovetails together and get the right legs on the right feet. So these are the two legs that will go with this foot. I know I want them about an inch and a half apart, so I’ll use a 2X6 scrap as a spacer. And I want this roughly centered on the foot. Now I can mark the sides of my half mortises. Some back saws come with depth stops. You can even make your own depth stop which we’ll do in a future episode. But this time we’ll use a gauge to mark a line where we want to stop cutting, and that has to be half the thickness of the tenon, which is ½”. Now we want to cut a series of kerfs down to those lines, being very careful not to cut too far. Now we can start splitting out this waste. Don’t try to do it all at once, you’ll end up splitting deeper than you want. Better to do half, then a bit more and work your way down. (Split) Then you can use a sharp wide chisel to smooth it out. Now we can rip it right down the middle so we have two pieces that are 2 ½” wide. (By sandwiching the two halves together we get a delicious mortise, hold the mayo. And hold the glue for that matter, because first we want to check for a good fit. If one of your tenons was cut thinner than an inch, you can plane down one of the inner surfaces until you get a tight fit. If that makes it too tight for the other tenon, you can then chisel out that mortise a little. When everything fits, glue your two halves together and do the other foot. Don’t glue the tenon in yet Mr. anxious, we’ll get to that after the feet dry overnight. (BREAK) Well, I don’t have time to wait all night, so I used some nails to hold my feet halves together. But you won’t tell anybody, because you’re too busy. It’s time for assembly. Hopefully all the joints fit together, but if they don’-ain’t no thang. This is pine, you can mash then together. Why do I keep thinking about mashed potatoes and gravy… We want this bench to be really stable, and the best way to do that is to drawbore the tenons. It’s easier than it sounds. First, get yourself a nail or an awl or something narrow and pointy. Then you drill a pair of holes just big enough for your pointy thing through the side of each mortise where you want your draw pins to go. When you dry fit the joint, stick your nail into the hole to make a mark on the tenon inside. Hardwood dowels are best for making pins because you’re going to be doing some pounding on the ends. Use a chisel to make a point on the other end then chuck up a drill bit to match your dowels and bore the holes in the foot bigger. Now take the tenons and bore holes about an eighth of an inch or a little less below those marks you made. Finally we can add our glue and reassemble the joint. But this time we drive our pins into place. As the pointy pin goes into the offset tenon holes they pull the joint tightly together. There things will never come apart. But our bench still has one weakness, the dovetails will keep it from pulling apart, but they won’t resist a racking force diagonally across the piece. No problem, we’ll cut a couple of 2X6’s to fit into each side. You can glue the top edges, but the ends should be nailed. Hopefully you’ve still got one last 12” long, 1 ½” thick scrap left because we want to glue it between the two top boards on one end. This is going to be our sit down work surface, so when it dries you can bore some holes for hold fasts and if you want to cut a V notch like we talked about earlier, you’ll have a saw bench so versatile you’ll make any old timey woodworker proud! That’s all for this episode of The Old Timey Workshop. Tune in next time when we’ll take the skills we’ve learned so far, add a few more and build a shaker clock. And for you power tool guys don’t forget Blue Collar Woodworking over at In the meantime you can sit back, and have a cold one, because you’ve earned it my friend!

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