Dovetail Markers: A Review

I don’t want to write many tool reviews for this blog; tool selection is such a personal matter, and there are plenty of people more qualified than I to write reviews. That being said, I have some tools which do their job so perfectly, and have been made with such craftsmanship, that I can’t help but recommend them. My Badaxe saws are definitely in this category, as is the dovetail marker I recently bought from Sterling Tool Works.

Like many others, I first read about Sterling Tool Works on Chris Schwarz’s Popular Woodworking blog last December. As 2014 had already been earmarked as the year in which I was going to start dovetailing (not a skill which is necessary in lutherie, unless you’re Howard Klepper), I took note and ordered the Saddle-Tail Original from Sterling Tool Works.  The first thing that struck me was how approachable and helpful Sterling Tool Works were. Even before I had placed an order, Chris at Sterling Tool Works had responded to emails very promptly (all the more impressive considering there is a 7 hour time difference between us, and I was emailing on a Saturday).


The Schwarz does not recommend tools lightly so I knew to expect a quality tool, and when the Saddle-Tail arrived (less than two weeks after I’d placed the order, again, very prompt for shipping from America to the UK) I was far from disappointed. Doubling as both a dovetail marker and saddle square, the Saddle-Tail has a very substantial feel thanks to it’s generously proportioned steel head and brass body. This weight keeps the Saddle -Tail seated on the workpiece, and it feels more robust than other dovetail markers I have tried. The length of the head allows you to mark-up two boards at once, facilitating gang-cutting if you are that way inclined. The brass body, fitted to the head by way of a slot and two screws, is flutted for ease of picking up off the edge of a board and the curves of the fluting have a lovely feel in the hand. One of the most important details is the relief on the inside corners, which means that the Saddle-Tail will still it square even if the board has not been squared, or if the edge of your board retains a burr.


I selected the 1:4 slope for a bold, contemporary, dovetail, although 1:6 and 1:8 slopes are also  available for the more traditional woodworker. Sterling Tool Works now offer a cheaper Saddle-Tail which omits some of the details of the Original to offer the essentially the same quality tool at a lower price. There is also a leather holster in which to store the Saddle-Tail, which can be screwed to the side of your tool chest for ease of storage.

I cannot recommend the Saddle-Tail too highly. It is a quality tool made by approachable craftspeople who care about what they do. If, like me, your tools are an expression of the values of craftsmanship which we all seek to put into our own work, then this is the perfect addition to your tool chest.

Sterling Tool Works have also announced a new plane adjusting hammer, and are taking pre-orders on the first production run. If it has the same attention to detail and craftsmanship of the Saddle-Tail it will be an excellent tool; I have already placed my order and cannot wait to test it out in the workshop.

Night of 100 Cuts

Not an ancient torture method, but a useful practice exercise.

So much in woodworking can be made easier through muscle memory. Drilling perfectly plumb with a bit and brace, planing a flat and consistent surface, sawing to a line, these are all things which can be done on a first attempt if you take your time and measure plenty. But with good muscle memory  you don’t have to measure half as much, because your hands know where plumb is, or how to move pressure from the toe to heel of the plane as you traverse a board.

But how to develop muscle memory? Practice.

There is a not a huge amount of sawing involved in lutherie – once rough stock has been broken down to dimension only a couple of specific operations require a hand saw. As a result I’m less practiced, and less comfortable, with a handsaw than I am with my planes. Given that my big project this summer is going to be the Anarchist’s Tool Chest (a project which contains over 100 hand cut dovetails) I thought it was about time I improved the accuracy of my handsaw skills.

Enter the Night of 100 Cuts.

This simple exercise features 5 sets of 10 rip cuts, which are repeated twice to hit the 100 cut mark. I’ve found this exercise to take between 1 and a half, and two hours, so plenty short enough to build it in to a workshop routine (or even sneak in some extra practice after work). And this is an exercise which rewards practice with noticeable results after only a few repetitions.

Where to start? With your favourite dovetail saw, and a piece of practice stock (I’ve been using 3/4″ thick pine and my Badaxe Toolworks 10″ dovetail saw).  Use a marking gauge to mark on both sides of the stock a base line 3/4″ from the end. The first set of cuts is square across the width, and straight down. Make these, and then with your cross-cut saw of choice cut along the baseline to reveal a fresh end on the stock, and mark up for the second set of cuts.


The second set of cuts is slanting to the left across the width of the stock, and vertical to meet the baseline (as you would for cutting one side of your pin board for a dovetail). I use my Sterling Tool Works dovetail marker to lay these out, although a sliding bevel, or free hand, works just as well. Make these practice cuts, and then trim off the stock with a cross-cut saw.

The third set of cuts is the mirror image of the second set; slanting to the right, and straight down.


The fourth set is where things get fun – square across the width, and slanting down to the left – the “tail” cut for your dovetails.


The fifth set is a mirror image of the fourth – square across the width, and slanting down to the right.


After running through this exercise a couple of times I noticed a significant improvement in my ability to saw to a line, especially on the slanting cuts. These pictures were taken on my second Night of 100 Cuts, and I have run through it a couple of times since, each time with visible improvement. The next stage of preparation for the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course will be some practice dovetails (my aim is to cut 30 practice joints during June and July), and I will write about those in a future post.


Apron Strings and Interviews

I’ve been looking for a good workshop apron for some time now, but nothing I found quite fit the bill. That was until I came across Artifact Bag Co and promptly ordered a No.235L Artisan Apron, which arrived a couple of weeks ago. I’ve spent a couple of days in the workshop wearing the apron and it is everything I had hoped – hard wearing but comfortable, close fitting but still allowing ease of movement. And the pockets are of a good size, but close good and tight so that they don’t collect wood shavings. In short this is the perfect workshop apron for my needs, and I have every confidence it will last me a great many years.

Over the course of a number of emails yesterday, Chris at Artifact Bag Co asked if I would participate in an interview about lutherie for their site. Which was incredibly flattering, and I set my mind to answering the questions Chris had posed to me. The interview is now online, and can be viewed (if you so desire) at the Artifact Bag Co Blog.