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. wgood1209@gmail.com

    Obsessing over your work can get in the way. I’m as guilty of this as many others. Recently, I refocused and basically accepted that I am always practicing and that my work simply improve over time. What I create now is very good, but it will be better next year.

    Sometimes my dovetails are a bit gappy, but still very strong. I can live with this and will strive to make them better the next time.

  2. tedthecowboy56

    If you want new ideas then go to school. I did. I am a 57 year old student at the University of Southern Indiana. We are taught joinery and other basic skills. All of our projects are original. If your local university has a woodworking program, aka 3D art, then please support by enrolling, volunteering, donating money or equipment. The young students having an amazing variety of unique designs and ideas. I have learned a lot from them. Sometimes my projects are built around a joinery skill, sometimes the project is built around trying to use something different. I built a chair using furring strips and cherry, Rich Wood-Poor Wood. Maybe Popular Woodworking could visit some university programs and share the students ideas and work. I think the readers would be very impressed. Thanks. Ted

  3. Farkled

    Process or Project : Journey or Destination. It should not be an OR question. If your desire is to get stuff built, then go for it. If your desire is to make absolutely perfect cuts with a perfectly sharpened saw and to then clear waste with a chisel mirror polished to 97,000 grit, then go for it. You guys are doing great – just keep doing what you are doing (which, IMO, is teach us how and expose us to different styles & quality work) and we’ll keep doing what we are doing. I expect the emphasis between process & project is fluid and changes quickly – often in reaction to external events. Isn’t that pretty much the life model?

  4. JorgeG

    “Today we have little new joinery and even less in new designs”

    Isn’t this the fault of the many woodworking magazines? You can’t pick a magazine (including PWW) where there is not a “new” way to make dovetails, dovetails with a band saw, dovetails with a table saw, tricks on how to fix your dovetails, blah, blah, blah…..
    And lets not talk about design, rarely do magazines stray from that arts and crafts, Greene & Greene, or some period reproduction. About the only author I have seen who seems to try and present fresh new designs is Mario Rodriguez, other than that Popular Woodworking, Fine Woodworking and the rest are all stuck in the same old, same old……You want new design, and less joinery, then look no further than what you publish.
    I realize that the survival of the magazine is by increasing readership and attracting new woodworkers, thus the never ending repetition of the same things, but would it kill you to try something new or a new design and then publish how you went about it?
    If you think I am being unfair, lets examine your last issue….
    Mantel clock…..arts and craft
    William and Mary spice chest….arts and craft
    Carve a linenfold panel…period reproduction
    Mirror stand…..period reproduction.

    If you want new designs, how about you guys lead the way? As the saying goes, you either lead, follow, or get out of the way….no where dose it say you are allowed to complain ….. 🙂

  5. pskvorc

    “if all you want to do is make something, then save the money you will spend on tools and materials, and buy it”

    Pretty much illustrates the incredible “logic” of the above post.

    While people that work for woodworking magazines need to “come up with” things to write about, I really don’t think there is a dilemma between “tied up in detail” vs “getting projects done”.

    I’ve been around the construction and woodworking industry for over 40 years and one of the “great lies” that is continuously renewed is “time is money”. BALONEY! No bigger lie has ever become part of the vernacular. (I wish I had a nickle for every time someone working for me said “We’re not making a piano, here, Paul”.) There is no choice between “do it right” and “get it done”. The RIGHT attitude is “Do it right AND get it done.”

    Personally, I am sick and tired of a search for the ‘perfect efficiency’. DO IT! Do it RIGHT! If you are a professional and you can’t do it RIGHT in the amount of time you need to make a living, then you either need to improve your skills or choose another profession. If you are an “amateur” then the POINT is enjoying one’s self, and the arrogance of the “professionals” with respect to “time” or “skill” could not be more irrelevant.

    “Writers” – of all sorts these days – are constantly TRYING to reduce everything in our lives as some sort of CHOICE. To hell with that! “You” can’t make me make choices where there is not rational need.


    1. REFFI

      The head of our Engineering Department has a sign on his wall that reads: “We do three kinds of jobs here: 1 Good
      2 Cheap
      3 Quick
      Pick any two. If it’s good and cheap, it won’t be quick. If it’s cheap and quick, it won’t be good. If it’s good and quick, it won’t be cheap.”

      To me that also applies to woodworking. You can build plywood boxes and stick them together, or you can build solid wood furniture. I haven’t been at this woodworking thing very long, but I’m being taught to try to achieve craftsmanship rather than construction.


  6. gdtoolworks


    James Krenov said “The best woodworking will always be done by amateurs”. By “amatuers” he did not mean people who don’t know what they are doing. He meant people outside the realm of “customer mind”, a term used by my Japanese arts teacher. “Customer mind” says that the customer won’t know the difference. Get it done and get the money. “Customer mind”, along with robotic price-shopping, has very nearly ruined our national pride-of-craftsmanship.

    Avocational woodworkers constitute the vast majority of woodworkers. They have no plans to sell what they make. Instead, they are searching for a respite to balance their lives. In the process they make some things that can be used by their families and friends. But, because they care, they take the time to practice their skills. It is practice that makes the difference. Projects take time, and a few minutes here or there is not enough time to continue doing anything, except practice. For example, if you practice sawing for just five minutes (maybe while you are waiting for everyone else to get ready to go where you need to take them) then that will make a difference the next time you pick up a saw.

    I have a book entitled “How You Do One Thing Is How You Do Everything”. If that is true, and I think that it is, then practicing-the-process will carry over to and be reflected in our daily lives. So turn off the radio and practice. Without practice their can be no process, and without process there can be no result………. not one you would want your family to see anyway.

    And if all you want to do is make something, then save the money you will spend on tools and materials, and buy it.

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