In Chris Schwarz Blog, Joinery

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The words “always” and “never” will get you in trouble , so you should always endeavor to never use them.

During the early stages of learning to cut dovetails, I foolishly tried to read everything I could on the topic. It was foolish because it would probably take two lifetimes (in dog years even) to get through all that material. And it was foolish because that time would have been better spent practicing the joint.

In any case, several of the accounts I read sternly stated that you should never saw past the baseline when dovetailing.

Not even when cutting the half-blinds on a drawer front? Those overcuts will never show.

No, not even then.

Of course, the historical record begs to differ. Today we measured four pieces of furniture belonging to the White Water Shaker Village in Hamilton County, Ohio, and I spent a lot of time pondering the drawers.

All three drawers in one stepback cupboard we measured had drawers where the craftsman overcut the baseline by as much as 1-3/4″ to make it easier to clear out the waste.

Like all drawers, this Shaker one has its own personality. Check out the through-dovetails at the rear. On the right side you can see there’s a straight tail to house the groove for the bottom. I’ve seen that detail before, and I use it in my work as well.

On the top of the drawer there is a very unusual partial tail , about 1/4″ wide , that overlaps the back of the drawer. I don’t think I’ve seen that one before.

And if you think that’s an unusual drawer, here’s a peek at what I like to call the condor-tail joint.

– Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 24 comments
  • Mike Siemsen

    Chris and all,
    A few small points. The bottom dovetail on the back of the drawer doesn’t house the groove for the drawer bottom. The square portion is in line with the top of the groove.
    I am with Dean on the obsession with dovetails, it gets to the point where people don’t cut them by hand because they believe it is difficult and they fear failure. Like Chris said stop reading about them and practice making them.
    As to the metric system I must agree with Chuck that 1877 is pretty late in Shaker history. I must disagree with his comment about their practicality, "We are talking about an extremely practical people, you know…well other than the fact that they relied solely on conversion to perpetuate their religion." I do not believe that the Shakers aim was to perpetuate their religion. My understanding is that their goal was to enable individuals to focus on god, not market or perpetuate a belief system.
    Most Shaker woodworkers learned their trade in "The World" before becoming a Shaker.
    Heresy that it may be, not all Shaker work is well crafted and certainly not visually well designed. Many times function trumps form for the Shaker. My understanding is that Shakers were assigned work as much on what was needed by the community more than on their skill set. There were many skilled crafts people in their ranks and I like how they were free from convention which allowed them to think outside the box in so many ways.
    good discussion,
    Mike

  • Jim Linn

    Dovetails are fascinating because, as Steven said, we amateurs think it shows off our prowess if can cut them by hand. It takes a lot of practice to get them exhibition quality – or you can just go on David Charlesworth’s course, in which case it takes a week.

    In Britain SAE means "Stamped Addressed Envelope" from ancient times before computers if you wanted a brochure through the post; now consigned to the olden days – like feet and inches (Fractions? Aaaaaargh! My brain doth poppeth a gasket.)

  • Steven McKinley

    Though it has been said before, and probably more eloquently, I think the reason we "agonize" over dovetails now, is due to the fact that many, would I be incorrect in saying the majority, of us now (attempt to) make fine furniture as a hobby. As with any hobby you strive to improve and show your skills in the best light. Being able to produce a near perfectly hand sawn dovetail has become one measurement for hobbyists. I admit I fall into this category.
    The craftsman of yore was also a business man and had to pump out a quality product as fast as possible while maintaining quality. Time is money! Yes, it was just a sturdy joint for them. If it wasn’t visible, it was produced as fast as possible. Many of us have the luxury of time while building our projects. Though I haven’t built any projects with truly hidden dovetails, say behind a molding, when I do, I’m sure it won’t be as carefully conceived as those on the drawers of the piece.

  • Mike D.

    Like Dean J. said

    When did this everyday method of joinery become such an obsession of perfection?

  • Bob Lang

    Tom,

    I think you’re correct. I read measure and thought "tape measure" but your take on it makes more sense. I still think it was a product order, not a change in the way the Shakers themselves measured things.

    Bob

  • Tom Bier

    " By the mid-1880’s, the Sabathday Lake, Maine, community was producing wooden metric measures with a license from the Boston Metric Bureau."

    My guess is these would have been measuring scoops or cups for measuring out volume – back in a time when measures included drams, pecks, barrels, and bushels which could vary depending on the contents and which state you were in. In the early 1800s New York, Connecticut, and the rest of the US had 3 different definitions of a bushel. Look here for more timewasting info – http://www.sizes.com/units/bushel.htm

    The fastener section of that site is a good place to figure out what size is the missing screw in that old Stanley plane.

  • Jonathan Hartford

    I took a class on hand-sawn dovetails with Michael Wheeler, of Tomorrow’s Antiques, who has done a great deal of restoration work on period antiques, and he actually taught us to overcut, and said, based on the volume of antiques he’s done, that it seemed to be standard practice.

    In fact, in general ‘show surfaces’ were the only places, on period furniture, where you saw any kind of commitment to looking good. I saw various backs of pieces, including trim work, that seemed to never be hit with anything harder than a scrub plane.

  • David

    Chris – A comment about the White Water Shaker village. According to your write-up, there’s a long road ahead to get the buildings completely restored, and you specifically mentioned about $2000 each to repair or replace the sash windows.

    My thought is that while there’s no doubt that hiring a professional woodworking firm to reproduce wooden sashes with sash planes, in-cannel gouges and mortise chisels might cost this much, I’m betting there are quite a few retired folks that have jumped on the hand-tool bandwagon that would jump at the chance to do something like this. Making sashes by hand is covered fairly thoroughly in Roy’s Woodwright books, and even if the conservation group can only recruit one or two interested guys in the local area, every one of these that they can turn out is another $2k that they don’t have to raise.

    Food for thought….

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Frank,

    I won’t be reproducing the sideboard. I imagine Glen or Bob will be doing that project. We haven’t discussed their plans for the drawers.

    The overcuts on the tail boards have a use to, by the way. They make cleaning out the corners of the tail waste very easy and fast. It could be sloppiness. It could be for speed.

    Chris

  • Frank Vucolo

    Chris,

    Great photos and information!

    I just read your Lost Art Press blog and learned that you will be building some reproductions of White Water Shaker Village pices.

    Will you be doing any of the pieces that contain the drawers you have shown here? If so, how faithful will you be to the design and technigue used?

    For example, will you stop the groove in the drawer front on that single tail drawer? Or will you run it through and let it show like the original?

    With regard to sawing past the baseline, it seems there are two situations in the examples you have shown. On the tail boards, the overcuts seem accidental – or just a matter of indifference or sloppiness – where the overcuts on the half blind pin boards seem purposeful. That said, would it be appropriate to attempt to reproduce the purposeful techniques of the original craftsman and avoid the accidental overcuts?

    Frank V
    NJ

  • Chuck Bender

    Chris,

    Bravo! I alluded to this practice of oversawing in a post sometime back that Glen had made in his discussion on dovetailing. It was not limited to the Shakers. A great majority of the 17th and 18th Century pieces made in this country were oversawn. Certainly on the back of the drawer front as you have shown and quite a few were oversawn past the base line of the tails (but not as many). Dovetails were merely a method of joinery. Something to be made sturdy and strong and quickly not like today where we glorify them beyond reason. The single tail is also not uncommon in American furniture. Most of the Hadley and Hatfield chests had but one tail, though not usually as large as the one you show.Even the partial tail on the top of the drawer side is not uncommon.

    As to the Shakers using the metric system, the date cited by Liam is nearly a century after the Shakers got their start. I can’t imagine that they shifted gears after all that time. We are talking about an extremely practical people, you know…well other than the fact that they relied solely on conversion to perpetuate their religion. I think Bob’s line of thought is probably more likely than a complete conversion to the metric system.

    Chuck Bender

  • Bob Lang

    The United States "began to adopt" the metric system when I was still in high school, which was a long, long, long time ago. Forty odd years later we don’t use it much,only when somebody makes us. I wouldn’t take Becksvoort’s statement even as proof that the Sabbathday Lake community was using the metric system. Sounds to me like they had a contract to make some rulers.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Liam,

    I’ll also check with John Kirk’s books on Shakers. The 1877 date is fairly late in the history of the Western communities that we’ve studied.

    Thanks for the cite!

    Chris

  • Liam

    Hi Chris,

    Haven’t spoken with my lecturer yet but have done some research in the library at uni, a quote from ‘The Shaker Legacy’ by Christian Becksvoort:

    "Because the Shakers lived more or less independently from the outside world, they were able to make at least one advance that still remains elusive to the average American: They began to adopt the metric system in 1877. The logic and simplicity of the metric system, which is based upon factors of 10, surely appealed to the practical Shaker mind. By the mid-1880’s, the Sabathday Lake, Maine, community was producing wooden metric measures with a license from the Boston Metric Bureau."

    Ok, so that doesn’t imply that all Shakers used the metric system, just some, from a certain time onwards, I guess. I will try to find out more.

    Regards

    Liam

  • Christopher Schwarz

    David,

    We divide our tools into metric and SAE in our shop — when I say SAE I mean a series of inches and feet once known as Imperial. Sorry if that’s unclear.

    Chris

  • David Cockey

    SAE as in Society of Automotive Engineers?

    The White Water village furniture was built before SAE was founded in 1905, and I didn’t know SAE had ever developed standards for furniture or lumber.

    Perhaps you meant the dimensions were dead-on the customary fractions of an inches.

  • Rob Porcaro

    Chris,

    I notice a couple of other features of the drawer that maybe you could comment on.

    The side is grooved, I assume from wear. I’m guessing that the joint was assembled with the pins proud, then trimmed by only planing the first 1 1/2" of the side. This area was then a bit lower and so did not tightly contact the carcase side over the years. Seems like just the opposite of the classic English method (which I like) of leaving the whole side a bit proud at assembly, then planing it down to acheive a good drawer fit in the carcase.

    It looks like a sort of drawer slip was added on to the side to house the bottom. This appears to be an unusual, and maybe rather cheesy, drawer slip design.

    Do we know if A team craftsmen made this piece or if it was intended to be a top level or a workaday piece?

    I agree with Dean’s comments but I admit that I’m too punctilious a creature to work that way. Oh well…

    Rob

  • Patrick Secord

    Maybe me, but instead of going all CSI on the items, perhaps the simple truth is that the brother/brethern/sister were on a learning curve when the articles were constructed. The communities must have began as a range of "worldly" or secular folk from outside of the Shaker group, being a celibate bunch. Also being self reliant and communal, perhaps it was this Joe’s/Jane’s (Kari) kick at the wood shop duties.
    The drawer back I have seen in today’s hand crafted construction where the back is a little shorter than the sides so the back does not get hung up when withdrawn (see Rob Cosman video Drawer Making the Professional Approach). The half pin on the back, and the whole upper edge of the back for that matter, does not get dragged across the underside of the top, and only the sides are the bearing surfaces where friction and wear are generated.
    Does that make sense?

    Patrick

  • Liam

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your response. I’m currently studying Furniture Design at RMIT in Melbourne (Australia) and we covered the Shakers in our design history class recently, it was mentioned that they used the metric system. I will clarify with my lecturer his source for the information.

    Many thanks again,

    Liam

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Dean,

    I couldn’t agree more. That is why I do posts like these. I hope it makes people come to their senses and focus on the form instead of the details.

    Liam,

    I’ve never seen any reference to Shakers using the metric system. Could you perhaps share the source of that comment with us? All the pieces we measured today were surprisingly dead-on an SAE measurement: 1", 7/8", 3/4", 5/8". Despite wood movement, I would not call anything today I saw as metric-based.

    Perhaps the biggest argument against the Shakers using metric were the tools used. Tenons and mortises were definitely SAE. So mixing the SAE tools with metric overalls would be… troublesome.

    Just my opinion. Might be (as always) utter crap.

    Chris

  • Liam

    Hi,
    I read recently that the Shakers used the metric system for their furniture, could you tell me if this is correct?

    Many thanks,

    Liam

  • Robby

    The "condor tail" joint above looks like a father (or mother) letting his younger child practice dovetail joints. We’ll never know for sure, but I would bet that the joint was done by a young child who wanted to "help" his/her parent and the proud parent let the drawer get put into use.

    Robby

  • Dean Jansa

    I’ll never understand how the dovetail became the item of so much obsession. Looking back at how professionals cut them it seems clear they didn’t elevate these simple joints to the level modern woodworkers do. I agree with you, if we spent even half the time in the shop practising this joint as did thinking about it we’d all cut more than functional joinery. I overcut my baselines on half-blind just like the professionals did in the past. And layout is just eyeball, just like the professionals in the past. We can learn a bit from them.

  • David B.

    I’m feeling better about my dovetailing already! That is one man size dovetail. I recently saw a video where the guy cut his half blind dovetails like the one you showed with all the large saw marks. I thought it was butchery then…and I still do. The furniture I looked at during a stay at Pleasant hill didn’t look like this. I can’t remember which building it is, but there is a building that has attic storage. Just rows of drawers and skylight. While it’s against the rules I couldn’t help pull out a few drawers and take a peak. They weren’t perfect, but they were fabulous compared to the ones you have shown.

    One thing worth mentioning…Just because a shaker built it doesn’t make it a good example of proper woodworking. I’m sure every Shaker settlement had a guy who couldn’t be trusted with the good tools.

    David Barbee

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