And Where Do You Put Your Hand?

One of my favorite woodworking books is Cabinetmaking and Millwork by John L. Feirer. I listed it as one of my three choices for “Must Have Woodworking Bibles” in the Autumn 2006 issue of Woodworking Magazine. It was a high-school shop textbook; my well-worn copy carries a copyright date of 1967, and it is an incredible source of jigs, fixtures and techniques for using woodworking machines. I know I’m not the only one who values this book because many of the jigs described in its pages appear over and over again in other books and in magazines, published after this book.Nearly all of the jigs and methods in the book are safe, efficient time savers. In my way of thinking, this is what a jig should do. If it takes longer to make the jig than to perform the process another way, what is the point of the jig? One of my gripes about most jig articles is that they give the impression that building the jig will replace the need to develop the skill needed to complete the task at hand. In my experience, you need at least as much skill (often more) to make a workable jig than to go jigless and just make the thing. The jig exists to make a repetitious task less of a chore, and a potentially dangerous task safer. A jig can’t make you more capable than you are.

Tapering legs is a case in point, and the illustration on the left, from Cabinetmaking and Millwork, is an excellent example of a jig gone horribly wrong. I googled “table saw tapering jig” and came up with 9,650 images. About half of them were variations on this jig, including several commercially made ones. The other half of the images were a collection of generally complicated ways to work around the problems inherent in this device.

This subject came up the other day at lunch. Chris, Glen and I were out visiting a local reader’s shop, and the reader mentioned that he had a method for tapering legs using a jig he made and his surface planer. His motivation? He didn’t like the table saw jig shown here. None of us like the jig either, and we each have a quick, reliable method to taper legs. Glen uses the jointer, and there is a video of his technique on the “Videos” page of the web site. Chris (as you might guess) cuts them on the band saw and removes the saw marks with a handplane, and I use a simple sled on the table saw that takes about five minutes to make, is simple to set up and keeps my hands a safe distance away from the saw blade.

So what don’t we like about the ubiquitous jig shown above? As commonly illustrated, it is only good for short legs with large tapers. Make one long enough to put a 3/8″ taper on a dining-table leg and you’ll have an unwieldy mess dancing in the air a couple feet behind the saw. There isn’t a good way to hold the work to the jig and the jig against the saw’s fence at the same time. And, if you get far enough along to begin the cut, where will your pushing hand be at the end? Apparently, the model for the drawing wasn’t quite sure on his first two or three attempts at using this thing.

The four people at lunch the other day were each in possession of 10 fingers, many years of woodworking experience, and enough common sense not to order the fish. There are a couple things we’ve been doing here at Popular Woodworking to stop the repeated publication of dubious jigs and techniques. Just because something has been in print doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. We question these things, try them in our shop, and if they don’t work we’re willing to say “the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.”

Our new column “Jig Journal”, which premiered in our August 2007 issue, is dedicated to showing simple, effective jigs. In our November issue, Marc Adams began a seven-part series of articles on “A Better Way to Work.” As the owner of the largest woodworking school in the country, Marc is especially concerned about safety, and this series is not a rehash of the same old rules. We’re proud to publish this type of article and think that’s what makes us a little different. We hope you do, too.

Bob Lang

3 thoughts on “And Where Do You Put Your Hand?

  1. Bob Lang

    I think it’s a case where the photo looks scarier than it really is. The key to making this cut is the tall auxiliary fence, which gives a solid bearing surface for the piece being cut, and a zero-clearance insert that gives support for the narrow edge. If you consider Marc Adams 3" and 12" rules, the hands are at a safe distance from the blade. Controlling the work all the way through the saw is the main thing I look for when evaluating whether any set-up is safe or not. Bad things happen when the work gets away from you.

    Of course, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone make a cut that doesn’t "feel" right to them. If you don’t understand the dynamics involved and where the control points are, you might want to try an alternative method.

    Bob Lang

  2. Samson

    Hi, Bob. I sent an e-mail to Megan and Glenn asking them directly, but then saw your post here. In the latest issue (167) on page 69, there is a pic of raising a panel for a drawer bottom on the table saw. I do mine by hand, so I may not appreciate how safe the demonstrated procedure really is, but it looked a bit scary to me – the blade so high and the hands going right above it more or less. Any thoughts?

    Thanks,

  3. Brian O.

    Hi Bob,

    This is a great example! Early on in my woodworking I built this jig and wondered what to hold on to when using it. I even went so far as to put a handle on the fence side rail to push on, but then I had to depend on double-sided tape to hold the workpiece. Very scary!

    This jig is also hard to hold against the rip fence and any little deviation is a big boo boo in the table leg. My jig was also quite long and unwieldy in order to get a 36" blank, the jig had to be like 40" long. This jig is also hard to use for legs that taper on all four sides.

    I used this jig for one set of table legs and have never used it again. Bandsaw and handplane (or jointer) for me, but I am interested in trying Glen’s "wheelie" method on the jointer from the video. Hogging out that much waste on the jointer is not something I would want to try at the end of a long day either!

    Great post!

    –Brian

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