Chris Schwarz's Blog

Dovetails in Real Time

I’m think I’m a decent dovetailer. My joints are tight and I get things done. Heck, I can even teach dovetailing to others when pressed.

So why don’t I post a video of how quickly I can cut a dovetail joint? Because we’d likely run out of videotape.

Truth is, I think I’m a bit slow. When I was a wee lad my parents took me to a doctor because they thought I was, ahem, mentally challenged. Praise Jebus that I beat that rap. But yet, I admit I am still a bit slow with some things.

When I build a drawer for a piece of casework, it takes me about two hours. That includes dimensioning the stock, planing it flat, plowing the groove for the bottom and dovetailing all the corners.

Is this too slow? Should I reserve a spot on the short bus of dovetailers? Truth is, I don’t care. I love cutting dovetails so much that even if it took four hours I wouldn’t buy a dovetailing jig. I enjoy the process of building things with this joint because it’s straightforward, mechanical and a bit physical.

So you are probably wondering if I’ve knit a little cozy for my marking gauge. Or if I pare every joint to perfection using feeler gauges as a guide.

Neither is the case. I work with joints where the walls are cut with the saw and the floors are bashed out with a chisel. I don’t find myself tweaking every surface with a chisel or a paring guide. So I cut my dovetails like the big boys, I just do it at my own pace.

Perhaps I should be ashamed. I cut my first dovetails in 1993 , that’s 17 years ago. I should be better, right?

- Christopher Schwarz

23 thoughts on “Dovetails in Real Time

  1. Sean

    What’s the hurry? I’ve always wondered why it was taken as a given by some hobbiests that we must work quickly. I suppose that quick can be short hand for skillful – hance leading to a better result. There does, for example, seem to me a distinct difference in some cases between the result obtained by a master making sure skillful strokes versus a mediocre worker making many tentative ones full of tweaking and such that shows in the product. I don’t think dovetails are really an example of that. I’ve seen it more in things like turnings.

    As for thoughts of being able to hold my own in 18th Centruy shop – laugh out freaking loud. No dabbler is ever going to equal people who do it all day every day for a life’s work as far as efficiency and skill. To think otherwise is delusional.

  2. DT slowpoke

    Try deliberate practice.
    It was suggested in that other ww rag a few years back. A couple of pieces of scrap once a week or something. Time yourself and I think in the course of a year you’ll be faster AND better.

    This reminds me of a fabulous article in the Harvard Business Review entitled: "The Making of an Expert." to summarize expertise in any field comes from deliberate focused practice, time, and top tier mentoring.

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    That’s a Gramercy dovetail saw from Tools for Working Wood. Nice saw with fine teeth that is good for drawer work especially.

    I don’t pare my pins and tails unless I really botch things. I can work right off the saw about 95 percent of the time.

    For me, the time-eater is cleaning the floors of the joints.

  4. John Burton

    Chris
    I love the act of cutting them also. 2 questions:
    1. What kind of saw is that in the picture
    2. Do yours fit "off the saw" or do you have to tweak with a chisel?

  5. Luke Townsley

    For hobbyists, it doesn’t matter how fast you cut dovetails. 100 years from now, your stuff will show up in an antique shop and a middle aged couple will stop by and look at it and then shrug their shoulders and say, "you know, Ikea has one of these for cheaper. Let’s go over there."

  6. Derek Cohen

    "Since hand tools rely more on skill there is always a element of competition. Down deep I think most hand tool woodworkers want to think they could hold their own in an 18th century cabinet shop".

    Hi David

    I think that there is truth in this…. for hobbiests, that is. I doubt that the great majority of pro woodworkers would have the same endearment for handtools since time is money and they must be focussed on the final outcome. While I could not give up my analysts couch for a wood bench for reasons that I like to put food on the family table, I admit to fantasizing what it would be like as a cabinetmaker a couple of hundred years ago. It is the romance of this that adds to the privacy of the woodshop since we are not only separated by a door, but also by time.

    These competitive strivings are, I feel, vulverable to misinterpreting the messages from the many DVDs on woodwork, including dovetailing. The presenters are good at what they do (otherwise why buy what they offer), and I think that many forget that it takes not only years to get to this level, but also frequent practice of the craft. And the world is not getting any patienter (is that a word?), with "instant" being the increasing expectation. So when I see speed being used to sell handtool work, you have to recognise that the bastion walls of the handtool shop are being threatened.

    Regards from Perth
    Derek

  7. andrew

    ..boy, this is really like throwing "red meat" to all the philosophers out there :-) eg, what is "Fast" ? …what is "Good" ? I bought your DVD re: Handplanes, and I thought you were working WAY too fast when you were four-squaring that board. you made ME have this harried feeling just WATCHING you. I enjoy woodworking for the Journey, and i’d bet a nickel that you do also ;-) …I’ve accepted that I’m not as Fast or as error-free as I want? should? be… but… i like the pieces after my Journey is complete.. and I think that’s a result of a Happy Journey. It’s not the Elapsed Time that’s important, it’s the Fun Per Hour. ElapsedTime is measured in hours, FunPerHour is measured in Serotonin-levels; (go w/ the Serotonin ;-)

  8. Tim Williams

    When teaching dovetails to students I have five corners that were cut by hand, they represent time intervals of 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 minutes it took to cut each joint. I point out how with each joint that my sawing and paring accuracy increased the longer it took me to cut it. I stress to them that speed is not the point, it’s the craftsmanship that matters regardless of how long it takes. I also end each demo by trying to cut one corner as fast as Cosman, 4:15 is my fastest time, and also some truly ugly joints to boot. Which further reinforces my point!

    Tim Williams

  9. dherzig

    In his book, "The Outliers" Malcolm Gladwin wrote about people being "experts" and suddenly appear from nowhere. He shows that they all spent at least 10,000 hours at their craft to become what they were finally recognized as masters in. He describes how the Beatles perfected their band by playing in the rough bars in the St. Pauli District of Hamburg all night every weekend for several years. Even with all of the time you have spent woodworking, I bet you still haven’t hit 10,000 hours in dovetailing. Hang in there for at least another decade and forget about your day job.

  10. Bill Melidones

    I’m still trying to get to that "magical feeling" or "tickle". I feel a sense of dread just prior to fitting, wondering how much cosmetic work I have to do after I fit it together.

    2 hours sounds pretty great to me.

    Bill

  11. David Barbee

    Derek,
    Since hand tools rely more on skill there is always a element of competition. Down deep I think most hand tool woodworkers want to think they could hold their own in an 18th century cabinet shop.
    When I decided I was going to learn to cut dovetails I watched every video on the subject i could get my hands on. I was looking for a style that seemed to fit me. I watched videos by Kirby, Klausz, Cosman, Kingshott, and many others. Of all the video’s one stuck with me, Frank Klausz’s video. While guys on the other videos were playing with their divider’s, Frank already had the joint cut. He goes on to explain that he does this for a living and that he only charges his customers 20 minutes labor per drawer. This made a lot of sense to me. Today, I still don’t have the skill that Frank does with a saw. I still have to mark my plumb lines. Someday I hope to be able to knock out those twenty minute drawers that Frank talks about. Regardless, I still enjoy the journey. I hope I never loose that magical feeling that I get when a dovetail joint goes together.

    David

  12. John Cashman

    Praise Jebus? Who is Jebus? Is that a midwestern thing, like pop?

    I have always noticed how much faster professionals are than me at most things, but it’s usually because they have so much practice. But I also am usually not in a rush — I’m doing it for enjoyment, and the last thing I want to do is hurry.

    Chris, one of my favorite columns you wrote was the dovetail-a-day theme. That was just fantastic advice, and I’ve applied it to many things. I think it bears reprinting. Most recently, I’ve applied it to carving ball-and-claw feet. I date each one, compare them over time, and see where I’ve improved — and where I keep making the same mistakes. Just as you did with dovetails. I’m still not as fast as a professional, but it’s become good quality work, and muscle memory is something you can’t buy.

    Don’t ever bring a stopwatch into the shop.

  13. Derek Cohen

    Good Grief, Chris. When did we get into handtools for the speed? In my experience handtoolers are almost always there for the journey.

    I am not the fastest either. I saviour the moments that I spend with saw and chisel.

    I’d rather look back on a job well done than remember how quickly I botched it.

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

  14. Alan

    Speed is relative, and it’s not about trying to cut a dovetail faster than the speed of light. As Einstein proved, as you approach the speed of light the saw heats up and slows the mass down. You have the right approach, enjoy the journey. ;-)

    When we get in our cars, it’s a different story, and your clunker Ghia ain’t catchin’ me! lol

  15. J Wright

    Chris, I sense a somewhat veiled (albeit not mean) reference to Rob Cossman and his online challenge (as seen on YouTube) to cut a dovetail joint in less than 3 minutes (or some such short time). I’ve attended some of Rob’s training and he is certainly the dovetail cutting guru. I also learned from Kelly Mehler at on of his classes a couple years ago. And of course I have benefited from your writings as it relates to dovetail making. Whether fast or slow, there are few things that tickle like a well-fitted dovetail.

  16. Charles Davis

    Two hours per drawer is simply amazing. I’m assuming that includes the build time of the workbench that you make to work on each individual drawer (like you’d ever use the same workbench twice).

    If that’s not the case, Don’t be so hard on yourself. We are all special in our own ways. We still love you.

  17. Jeff

    You are much better than me. I have been woodworking for a couple of decades and have only cut dovetails with a router. I quit that only because I messed up the plastic dovetail template when I forgot to put the collar on the router – the bit cut into it. So, I guess I will have to learn cutting them by hand.

  18. Mike Holden

    Chris,
    You are not slow, just average. I did a series of 5 spiceboxes a year ago, 60 drawers. At the beginning it took an hour and 15 minutes to dovetail a drawer (dovetails only), at the end I had it down to an hour and ten minutes. (but the dovetails were much nicer)

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