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. Don Williams

    Chris

    I remember well an exercise I gave to new interns who were trying "to get a feel for working wood." The exercise? cut a corner with two dovetails. One young lady nailed it PERFECTLY the first time, for which I have retained resentment for almost fifteen years :-) she has in fact remained my favorite protege over the years, and we remain close to this day. Another young woman fussed with it for hours, and finally in desperation asked me to show her in real time. I cut a decent dovetail in just a few minutes. Huffily she griped that it only took me "a few minutes." she was a snotty little thang, but I gently corrected her. "No," I said, "it took me twenty five years and fifteen minutes to do it." she bailed, and I lost touch with her the day she walked out.

    Two hours to make a drawer? Pretty good, if you ask me. IIRC the price books for Philadelphia c.1770 allowed 1 1/2 hours per drawer.

    don

  2. Rob Cosman

    Seems this "fast dovetailing" topic has jumped the intended track. The youtube clips I did were intended to first give Frank a little poke (in fun) and second to provide a wee bit of entertainment. On a more serious note, you could almost say I teach dovetailing for a living, average is about 20 people per week. What I try to instill in them is that craftsmanship is about efficient precision. One hundred years ago if you were the best dovetailer on the block but it took you a weekend to cut a corner you propably got paid to sweep the floors instead! It has to get done whether to satisfy the boss or her! (dont think I needed "or") Just as Chris said, the joint is intended to be assembled "saw cut to saw cut". A few years back while shooting a DVD in England with Alan Peters we had a lively discussion on this subject. It was his pet peeve that all the noted craftsman he knew, in his words, "didnt have the guts to put the saw on the line and make the cut". They instead would leave the line and spend precious minutes paring to fit. This is not the way it should be done. In my workshops I don’t let the students pare, they are taught to work carefully, check as they go and learn from the result. A few cracked joints will go along way to improving one’s pre-fit tolerances. It doesnt have to be done in 3:40 but it does have to get done!
    Cheers
    Rob Cosman

  3. imdrmarshall.myopenid.com

    i dont think that there is a such thing as being to "slow" when it comes to wood working. but then again i am one of the ones that "take my time" also. the way i look at it is, take your time and do it right the first time, or you will end up doing it twice most of the time…which equals more time AND money…even though i have all the time in the world, the money is a bit scarce. and if your building something for someone else and you have told them it would be done by a certain time, and you know your a bit on the slow side…just make sure you accounted for that when you are giving the due date. i (for lack of a better term) "blame" my taking my time on my "attention to detail" that i honed while in the Marine Corps…and to tell you the truth i treasure this "skill". i know that when i am finished with a project, i wont be sitting there looking at it wishing i had taken a little more off here, or a little less off there… i have a real problem selling/giving/ even showing someone something i have made, if i am not 100% satisfied with my work. with that said though, i have the privilege of not having to rely on my woodworking as a living/source of income… so if your like some of us, that just takes a little extra time…cherish that and dont fold to the peer pressure.
    also.. thank you to all those who write the articles, and to all those who post comments, from which i have learned so much and look forward to learning more for years to come.

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