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I recently reviewed the saddle-tail from Sterling Tool Works (click here to read).  However, a more economical version (called the saddle-tail2) was just put up for sale that I thought was worth mentioning.

For specifics, check out Sterling’s blog about the new tool here, but here’s a preview:

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Sterling Tool Works makes one tool (so far), but they make it well.  The Saddle-Tail (S-T) can be used as a dovetail marker or a saddle square and is made in America from machined brass and tool steel.  Before I get too far along, let me say I love dovetail markers.  They are fast, accurate, and repeatable and after using one I think you’ll be very reluctant to go back to squares and adjustable bevels.  Now lets talk details.

The Lie-Nielsen dovetail marker (left) and two Saddle-Tail markers (right).

For years I’ve been using the Lie-Nielsen (LN) dovetail marker and am relatively pleased with it.  It’s made from brass and cocobolo, comes with a 1:7 slope and 1:6 slope and costs a reasonable $35.  The S-T from Sterling Tool Works is different.  Instead of two slope options like the LN guide, the S-T has one sloped face and one square face, thus making it both a saddle square and dovetail marker.  In addition to having a saddle square, the claim is that with one sloped face you won’t accidentally flip the tool in use and mark two different slopes on the same board.  Personally, I could go either way on this point.  I like having more than one slope option and with the LN guide you get two options in one tool.  You can get up to three slopes from Sterling but you have to purchase multiple tools.  This would be my only quibble, it’s a matter of personal preference and it’s not really against the tool itself.  If Sterling ever offers a dual-sloped version (and I think they should) there would be no debate on who owns the dovetail marker market… though I suppose a dual-sloped guide could no longer be called a “Saddle-Tail”, oh well.

Now lets get into the things I like… and there is a surprising amount for such a small tool.  First off, the manufacturing quality is top notch.  The fit is outstanding and the finger recess machined in the brass is the first indication of the thought that went into the tool.  There is also a relief notch in the corner to allow a snug fit even on boards with rough edges.

The finger recess in the brass is a very satisfying addition to the tool.

Next, the heft of the tool is substantial.  Instead of aluminum or wood, the body is brass which adds appreciable weight especially when combined with the thickness of both the brass and steel.  This thickness not only adds weight, but gives the user more surface area to register a marking knife against (though you’ll probably use a pencil most often with this tool).

Thicker…

…is better.

Now for my favorite feature, the size.  After all a dovetail marker is little help if it doesn’t mark full lines.  This is my only complaint about the LN guide.  It’s a beautiful tool and works well, but any stock over 3/4″ thick doesn’t get a full line marked across it.  3/4″ is plenty for a single drawer side, but most people cut both drawer sides at the same time, doubling the thickness of the cut.  As a result, drawer sides over 3/8″ thick can not be marked in pairs without going back and extending the line with a standard square.  Dovetailed carcasses are also over 3/4″ in many cases so the additional length of the S-T, as I said before, is my favorite feature.  How much reach do you actually get?  The brass body extends 1-5/8″ and the steel extends 1-1/4″.

This board is just over an inch thick. Note that the LN guide can’t reach the back portion for marking a line, but the S-T still has plenty of length to spare. Awesome.

The length is also necessary for making the tool a useful saddle square.  My favorite saddle square is from Veritas.  It’s inexpensive, large, and comfortable.  The S-T, however, is almost the same size and makes owning the Veritas version unnecessary.

Using the S-T as a saddle square.

The Veritas square functions in the same way.

Compared to the Veritas saddle square, the S-T has the same marking capabilities on one edge and is only slightly shorter on the other.

Finally, the slopes being offered by Sterling are somewhat unique in themselves.  When cutting dovetails in hardwood today, a slope of 1:7 or 1:8 is suggested, softwoods use a steeper slope at 1:6.  However, pictures and existing pieces of older furniture suggest steeper slopes were often used.  Sterling decided to offer slopes at 1:4, 1:6, and 1:8.  As you can see in the first picture, between my LN and two Saddle-Tail guides I can choose from 1:4, 1:6, 1:7, or 1:8 so I’ve got plenty of options.

In closing I’ll say this, the Saddle-Tail guide from Sterling Tool Works is an outstanding tool I highly recommend and one you will be proud to own.  However, premium tools are never cheap and the S-T guides run a hefty $75 a piece.  If you can’t swing that for a layout tool, the LN guide is well worth the $35 (though be aware of its length limitations as I mentioned above) as is the Precision Dovetail Template from Wood Joy. And if you’re really pinching pennies you can get the aluminum guides from Veritas (just don’t buy this version, they’re useless in my opinion).

If only cutting dovetails were as easy as laying them out. -WMT

Update: click here.