A Chicken and a Dove Walk Into This Joint

Woodworking is a wonderful avocation because there is an obsessive diversion available for every personality type and every occasion. Usually there are many to choose from, branches you can follow to feed any part of your psyche that seems hungry. You can go down the path of ultra precision and measure everything you own to a million-zillionth of an inch. Or you can concentrate on the tools, not stopping until you own at least one of every plane, saw and chisel ever made. And there is the fluffy shavings route, where the quality of the waste material becomes more important than what you’re making. With practice, you can combine these to exponentially raise the entertainment value of your time in the shop.

Our shop isn’t just a shop , it’s also a photo/video studio, experimental lab and occasionally the shipping and receiving department for other branches of our publishing company. You need to be flexible because deadlines are tight, and someone else may also need the space. I was about to begin cutting dovetails for the back corners of a drawer when our photographer showed up at the door, ready to shoot a project at the other end of the shop. He wouldn’t be encroaching on my space, but he did insist on turning out the lights.

I wanted to stay on schedule, and I remembered reading something written by Christopher Schwarz or Adam Cherubini about 18th-century woodworkers and how they could do good work in dimly lit rooms. As I recall, it’s all about contrast. Natural light from a window is enough to throw useful shadows on the tools and the work. I’m obsessive about many things, but not about dovetails. I believe these are mainly utilitarian joints, and the modern trend to view dovetails as the main means to identify a skilled craftsman is misguided. If I were a better dovetailer I might think otherwise. I decided to try cutting half-blind dovetails in a literal sense.

So I cut the joint for the first corner, following my knifed-in layout lines as I struggled to see. The joint went together on the first try, forming a solid corner. But when the lights came on, it didn’t look so good. There were some gaps here and there and a sliver of wood was missing from the corner of one of the pins. It looked a lot like the dovetails you see in old furniture; maybe the work of an apprentice allowed to practice where the results wouldn’t be obvious.

The photographer went to lunch, so I flipped the lights on to cut the second corner. That was where I fell into a trap that was the opposite of the first; I made up my mind to cut a set of perfect, gap-free dovetails. I did so well that the joint wouldn’t go together at all. To quiet my fear of going past the lines, I stayed too far away and needed to spend more time with a chisel and float, paring here and shaving there. The joint eventually went together, and it looks much better than the first. It should , it took twice as long to make.

I coined a new term for this: chicken tails. It will help me to remember how easy it is to create a new problem while trying to solve another problem. And the problem I was trying to solve was more about my ego than building good furniture in a timely manner. The piece this drawer is going in is chock-full of other show-off joinery. The drawer isn’t going to come apart in my lifetime, and the joints at the back will likely never be seen by anyone but another woodworker. When that happens, I’ll be compelled to point out the difference in quality between the left side and the right side and tell this story again. 

– Robert W. Lang

2 thoughts on “A Chicken and a Dove Walk Into This Joint

  1. Kirk Brinker

    Hi Bob,

    The phrase "Better is the enemy of Good" pops into my head when I start thinking that I can tweek that joint, dovetail, etc, etc. I think I read it in Popular Woodworking sometime back. Does it look ‘good’?. Then move on. I agree with Jim’s comments above. For me, the ‘good’ improves to next level on its own with the experience. And somedays I think "That would look good IN the fireplace…". And thanks for sharing your knowledge. I look forward to every issue that you guys print.

    Kirk

  2. Jim Lancaster

    Frank Klausz makes a similar point in his instructional video on making dovetailed drawers, but I like your term for it: "chicken tails." Over the last couple of years I’ve found that the best way to advance my woodworking skills was to attack the process of cutting dovetails by hand and learn to live with the sometimes less than perfect results. The time I used to spend fussing over them to make them perfect has freed up more time to learn other skills and increase my output. The cummulative effect has given me greater confidence, broadened my skills, and (to complete the circle) I’ve gotten better at cutting dovetails to begin with.

    Jim Lancaster
    Dallas, TX

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