Sweating the Details

Sweat DovetailsWhen I talk to woodworkers about drawers, particularly dovetail joinery, I mention the transition that occurs as we moved from one furniture period to the next. In general, dovetails became a drawer-joinery method during the William & Mary period; woodworkers had used dovetails earlier, but they became more widely used during the period that stretched from about 1690 through 1730. At that time dovetails were large and chunky and not very refined.

As we move into the Queen Anne period, dovetails changed. Pins got smaller and tails began to grow. Overall, the look became a bit more refined as we paid attention to details.

During the Chippendale period, without new joinery methods on which to concentrate, woodworkers focused more on details. Drawer dovetails were more refined. Pins became more narrow as tails again gained in size. You can, in some of the furniture from this period, find examples of dovetails with pins barely wide enough for a saw blade to pass.

Today we have little new joinery and even less in new designs, so we continue to focus on details. We use special layout tools to mark our dovetails, we use dividers to get each socket laid out just right and we stress over the smallest joint gaps – your dovetails best be tight and closed or others will notice.

This focusing of attention is what causes me to wonder about woodworking as a whole.  Are we so tied up in the details – in trying to get everything correct and perfect before we move on – that we’re no longer getting projects built? Have we become “process-oriented” woodworkers instead of “project-oriented” woodworkers? Or do we still want to get completed projects?

I’m waiting to hear your comments.

36 thoughts on “Sweating the Details

  1. Jamie

    Hi Greg,

    Personally, I’m probably an amateur woodworker so just reading the terms “process-oriented” and “project oriented” woodwork gets me stressed! One thing I do have difficulty with is being so keen to start a project sometimes that I don’t think it all the way through.

    For instance in my head I might want to make a coffee table, but once I have the structure I usually end up stumped about the small details. I think my woodworking would advance as a whole if I took some time to sit down and plan what the project I’m making as a whole is going to become.

  2. tms

    Hey Glen,
    I think that ‘process oriented’ is just a new way of describing the old school stress on technique. Traditional apprenticeship programs stress technique because once you can do it correctly, you can apply it at will.

    It’s also a very universal concept. The practice of Zen teaches that process and technique are purposes unto themselves. That is why a mandala is destroyed at the very moment of its completion.


  3. abt

    I don’t know, by the time you draw a line between Bob Lang’s ‘Hand tool wood working project’, Chuck Bender’s ‘Plane Facts’ and Glen’s post today about details, a reader starts to wonder if the editors need to refocus on woodworking, not worrying about how others work, or their success. Even it that’s not what’s happening here, it seems like it is.

    Some of the more successful editors focus mostly on ‘Do’, and minimize the editorial, whether it’s a comedy post, or asking a question. Some of the more engaging ‘Do’ commentaries are the podcasts that another magazine does, and another group of woodworkers from a warm part of the country. These shows, are themselves engaging, appropriately self-deprecating and focus primarily on ‘Do’.

    Don’t worry, I think there’s plenty of room for joking and poking, but when it comes at the cost of (appearing to be) eating your young, it looks well, sour.

    1. Chuck BenderChuck Bender

      Since I’m the new kid on the block, I’m not sure if I’m following the proper protocol or not.

      Abt, there is no concerted effort between the three of us other than to express our individual thoughts on woodworking. If you read the three blog posts, I think you’ll find that all of them have a common thread: do more woodworking and less obsessing on trivial details. All three of us want people to have more fun woodworking. We’re all advocating working at the highest level of craftsmanship of which you are capable. We all want people to do more woodworking because, as people who’ve each worked through virtually every conceivable problem, we know that much of woodworking is not only understanding the process but repetition of the same.

      I’m not perfect and I’ve never made anything that’s perfect (and I don’t expect to either). Do more woodworking, analyze the results to figure out how to correct the errors/problems and then do it all again. Do better than you did last time.

      As professional woodworkers we understand we would have made nothing if we were afraid to make a mistake. To make as perfect as possible is not the same thing as making it perfect. One is an attainable (even admirable) goal the other is not. None of us want woodworkers (of any level of experience) to become discouraged by unreasonable expectations. If you DO more woodworking you will get better, I promise.

      I don’t mean to speak for the other editors, and if I’ve said something they disagree with I sincerely hope they chime in, but I do mean to inspire you (and every other reader) to be a better woodworker by doing not over-thinking (which is in no way the same as not thinking at all).

      1. Megan FitzpatrickMegan Fitzpatrick

        We all discuss different approaches, different tools, different outlooks on a regular basis. I, for example, have several dovetail saws with different plate thicknesses and tpi, ditto on other backsaws and panel saws, joinery planes dedicated to specific kinds of work, two smooth planes (a No. 3 and No. 4), etc. Glen regularly pokes pun at me for “needing” so many different tools to do what he prefers to do with far fewer tools. What can I say – I like shiny tools, and lots of them. We simply have different approaches and techniques to reach the same end results – not that my results always look quite as good as Glen’s…yet 😉

        If we were all exactly the same, life at the office would be far less entertaining – and you’d learn but one approach. Where’s the fun in that?!

        (I do, by the way, obsess about details….but I’ve never been a professional woodworker. If I had to make my money that way rather than by being a word jockey, I expect I’d quickly become OK with a few dovetails that were short of “perfect!”)

        1. abt

          We’ll chalk it up to ‘perfect storm’ timing then. As I noted above, I, like others out here read and listen to a lot of other folks on a lot of other sites out there and I hadn’t seen articles like this come together before. For example, one editor is doing a project, the other teaching a class, the other promoting a new book, and so on, so posts are clearly unrelated.

          Now, as far less fussing, more woodworking, as you’ve noted, I totally concur. The more practice we get, the less ‘Portlandia’ our projects resemble (hopefully you’ve all seen that video, then you get the reference).

          Thank you both for the thoughtful replies.

  4. gdblake

    My main goal is visually appealing furniture. I spend as much time designing a piece as I do building it.
    Still, with limited time I have to make some trade offs or nothing will get built. For this reason I stay away from furniture styles that require a high amount of crisp detail, veneering, inlays, or sculpting to look right. I just don’t have the time. Thankfully, styles like Shaker and Craftsman are somewhat forgiving and quicker builds than other forms. It helps that my wife and I like stuff with simpler lines. I strive to keep my joints tight and everything properly squared up, but I don’t strive for absolute perfection. I’m just not the patient.

    I appreciate the skill and time it takes to make good Federal and Chippendale furniture as well as other complicated forms. Congratulations and thanks to those of you who can do these forms well.

  5. msiemsenmsiemsen

    I don’t know how to separate the two, something worth doing is worth doing right. The techniques toward getting to the complete project(process) vary according to the end result that is sought. A wood shed is not constructed to the same rigors as a jewelry box. As a professional the process also varies with the amount the customer is willing to spend, and effects design(process planning) and materials selection. What we are really talking about here is ability. If you do not have the skills to be sucessful at a given process you need to practice until you have the requisite skill to do the task properly. The more skills you have the more options you will have in the design process.
    To me the process oriented woodworker focuses on how to improve the process in order to be more efficient, while the project oriented woodworker just gets the job done with little regard to time and materials. The end result could look the same with regard to details. To paths to the same destination, enjoy the journey!

  6. griffithpark

    This year I’m combining process- and project- driven woodworking.

    For my holiday toy build I’m making two boxes a month, handtool-only.
    The box is a scaled-down boarded chest. The construction boils down
    to rabbets, dadoes, hinges, sticking ogee moulding, and milk paint.

    By the end of the year I’ll have 25 boxes and four processes down pat.

  7. Gary Roberts

    It’s all circular. We’re turning around back to the manual arts period, even further to the Slojd training and rediscovering that it’s not the recreation of a piece, or the precision of the joint, it’s the process of doing, the enjoyment of the process and the working of the material along with the final whateveritis that matters.

  8. Albert Rasch


    Next thing you’ll say is we shouldn’t flatten our plane soles! Oh.. Wait… You did tell us that last week.

    On this subject though, I agree with you. I know I am guilty of trying to get it all correct, and end up using a Spanish windlass and wedges to torque it all into shape.

    But my planes are flat, and my chisels razor sharp!

    Albert A Rasch
    Three more days and a wake up!

  9. Christopher Hawkins

    My nature is to do fewer things very well rather than a lot of things at lower quality. In my 27 years as a scientist, I’ve often paid attention to details that some thought were unimportant. This has sometimes slowed me down and has frustrated my supervisors. However, my desire to understand the intimate details has allowed me to undercover truths that other scientists have overlooked and have been commercially important. Taking the long view, this has served my employer and myself well.

    I bring the same tendencies to woodworking and make no apologizes for it. I work with wood because it brings me pleasure, not to make a living. I’m not a very skilled woodworker, but the things I’ve made I’ve done to the best of my ability. Would I like to make dozens of fine pieces? Sure. However, I’m not that good and don’t have the time to do it. In 3 years, 9 months and 19 days I’ll be a full time woodworker. Until then, I’ll have to be content with practicing my skills and building a few pieces.

    1. esincox

      That is very much in-line with something Frank Klausz said to a group of us one time many years ago, when he was doing a seminar for our local woodworking guild. Paraphrasing, he said, “You guys try to do too many things. You try to make kitchen cabinets, you try to make fine furniture, you carve, you turn, you make chairs; by not focusing on one aspect of the craft, you do not become very good at any of it.”

      Obviously, you have to take Frank with a little grain of salt. There are certainly people out there who can do some or all of the above, and do it very well. But for the typical weekend-only woodworker, I think he is pretty dead-on. We lend great support to the theory of, “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

      For the record, I’m with you. I’d rather focus on one aspect of the craft and try my best to do it well than be mediocre at a multitude of things. I’m grateful I heard him espouse his opinions on the matter very early on in my woodworking hobby.

    2. tjhenrik

      As someone who has had the pleasure of attending a woodworking class with Christopher I can say he not only finds pleasure in woodworking but is also a pleasure to work with. Congratulations on your much deserved retirement (I assume?). I wish you the best.

  10. jim childress

    I am definitely project oriented, and I am constantly trying to improve my processing ability. Recently I built
    my first dovetail jointed step stool from a plan by the Shakers. With this success I proceeded to modify the
    Thomas Jefferson ‘Book Box Stack’, and I built six with a plinth for my wife and three more for my woodworking
    office,etc. Now I witnessed the Frank Klaus video——-now I am back in first grade. Everyone is correct the
    project is most important,but the process is a lot of fun too. Thanks a lot Glen for all your input; your videos
    really get down to the how to which I hope helps others as much as me.

  11. David RandallDavid Randall

    Process and project go together, but process can be harder if you want to pass it on to others.

    Anything you make as a one-off project can start with an idea and a sketch on the back of an envelope. Whether you go on to do detailed plans, or start picking out the wood and seeing how the parts will go together, and in which order, you have your idea in mind for the finished product, but the fun is in getting there and overcoming problems on the way.

    Only if you want to pass on how a project went together to other people do you need the added burdens of writing clearly about and photographing the process, and maybe adding a dimensioned drawing and/or Sketch-Up plan afterwards for good measure. These parts I find harder work, and I take my hat off to Popular Woodworking’s staff for the great job they do, conveying so many processes to readers to copy or provide inspiration for their own work.

  12. gumpbelly

    I think I`m in real trouble here Glen. I wasn`t able to complete the article, and had to read it in 5 sessions because of the sTrEss of completely understanding every vowel, and each intended nuance. I mean sheesh this reading woodworking articles is hard stuff. Hows a guy expected to read an entire article in one setting? I guess, hangs head dejectedly, that I am a process oriented woodreader. Please tell me there is a class I can attend for help with this.

    Good write. 🙂

  13. oakripper

    I do woodworking to learn and i have found that trying to make that joint your working on,( if it be a dovetail or a simple butt joint ) appear flawless is not as important as doing the work and pleasing oneself with the results.
    Most of the time, nobody will notice the minor flaws and little mistakes unless you point them out, so if you can live with them then what is the big deal. I also make wooden hand tools and i believe, that if the tool is made by hand then is alright to have tool mark on it, and the same goes for many of my other woodworking projects.

  14. Cliff

    I am in full agreement with your analysis of process focus as the primary objective in completing a project. However, it is important that most of us come to that innocently as we challenge ourselves to be a good as we can be in an effort to grow in skill level. Our personal evaluation of how well we are progressing on that journey to become better woodworkers is manifested in the quality of our work. So, at least for me, while I am interested in getting the project completed, I am also very interested in doing it very well. As a self taught woodworker, it is that feeling of a ‘job well done’ that keeps me coming back to project after project and that, along with how well others appreciate the level of craftsmanship, is the only yard stick I have for evaluating my progress on my journey of skill improvement.

  15. BLZeebub

    The best answer I can come up with is to watch Frank Klaus make a drawer. AMAZING how efficient and quick the guy is. I emulate his techniques now… FREEDOM!!!

  16. John Hutchinson

    If the “we” you’re referring to is the current group of folks at PopWood, I couldn’t agree with you more. I can remember when Popular Woodworking used to be, well, popular, and wasn’t afraid to trot out original designs and ways of working. That’s what attracted me to the magazine in the first place. If I want “fine”, I’ll read Fine.
    I was excited to see Bob Lang let it all hang out with what I thought was a funky, original clock, and then a little disappointed to read that it was basically another historic reproduction. There is a place for popular culture and I wish you’d get back to those roots.
    And then there’s the tool thing. Isn’t any tool that requires hands for its operation a hand tool?

  17. cagenuts

    It’s a Catch 22 situation.

    Let’s put it this way, if there weren’t glossy magazines we wouldn’t be intimidated by the ‘perfect’ examples and would be more focused on the Project.

    However, without the glossy magazines, we wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to different methods, tutorials and in general a motivation to copy a great design or project. As a result we worry about getting the steps 110% correct.

  18. Bernard Naish

    For me working wood is about my enjoyment of it. I do not have to do it to make a living though I hope I will be able to sell some pieces when I have completed my “apprenticeship”. I remember that it is the enjoyment of the process that is important rather than striving always for the completion. After all if we strive in this way our lives might have no joy until it is completed!

    I do not want to rush when I make anything but to savour the process…the hiss a plane makes when cutting well or how a saw sings as it cuts itself through the wood…the smell of newly cut timber and the shine from a plane smoothed surface. Some of us enjoy making jigs, restoring tools and improving methods others only in having a portfolio of completed work.

    I suspect their is a process here with developmental stages as we grow as wood workers. We begin by buying lots of machine tools and we may then realise we do not like so much noise and dust so we learn to reduce this by using hand tools. So we buy a lot of hand tools until we realise that we have so many that we work very slowly because we must use the “correct” tool for the job and we have nowhere to put them all. Then we get rid of the tools we do not use make a container that holds all we do use. I think we can then graduate as journey men ( I cannot bring myself to say journey people) and our focus shifts to making completed objects and passing on what we have learnt to other people.

    Let us all enjoy our consuming interest in working wood as well as we can.

  19. DanWyant

    From what I glean of certain message boards, ‘Process Oriented’ never jumps the hurdle of sharpening your tools. It sort of reminds me of the ‘Anal-Retintive Chef’ sketches on SNL.

  20. Bill Lattanzio

    I think “Process Oriented Woodworking” is as scary a term as “New World Order” or “Room 101”. We are led to believe that it really doesn’t matter what the finished product is as long as the process is correct, or whatever. Maybe there is some truth to that, but I also say the same thing to my daughter when she is coloring. In the end, I woodwork in order to make furniture out of wood, not collect tools, or cut endless arrays of joints, or make countless jigs. Process Oriented Woodworking…sounds to me like a term invented to sell woodworking books.

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