In Chris Schwarz Blog, Joinery

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Like most home woodworkers, my dang day job tends to get in the way of my woodworking. Despite the fact that our magazine’s woodshop is exactly seven paces from my desk, getting in there has been a monumental struggle. Gerunds, appositives and dangling participles have all conspired to keep me chained to this keyboard.

But there has been progress: During the weekend, I did get some time to dovetail the drawer. I almost always cut my dovetails by hand, and that’s not because I’m some kind of hand-joinery snob, I just find that my head is ill-equipped to deal with router-based dovetail jigs. In fact, the only one I’ve ever been able to master (mentally) has been the Keller Jig.

I’ve fought with many of the classic router dovetail jigs, with the notable exception of the Leigh Jig. I find myself incapable of adjusting them to get the results I want: tight, perfectly aligned dovetails. If I had to build entire kitchens, I feel sure that I’d find a way to set up a jig and router and leave it that way in perpetuity so I could bang out standard drawers quickly. But for my work, every drawer is different. So cutting the joints by hand is honestly time-efficient at my bench. Plus, I’ve been cutting dovetails by hand for 15 years now. There’s nothing intimidating about it , but I can sure remember being freaked out about the prospect of cutting the joint.

I got over this anxiety after I vowed to cut one set of dovetails every day for a month. On the first day of the month I milled all my stock for the self-improvement plan , about four boards that were 5″ wide and 36″ long. After dinner each night, I went down to the shop and did two things: First, I closely examined the set of dovetails I had cut the night before and tried to diagnose what went wrong or what could have been done to improve the fit. Then I tried to cut the next set of dovetails with my analysis in mind.

This bit of self-examination turned out to be as valuable as the practice I got in cutting and chiseling to a line. Too often it’s too easy to hide or forget about our mistakes. It’s much better to stare them straight in the face for a while.

After I assembled the joint, I’d cut that corner free, scrawl the date on it and place it on a shelf in my shop. After a couple weeks, my joints were consistently tighter. By the third week, my routine started to feel…¦ routine. And by the fourth week I was fooling around with spacing the tails differently and increasing my speed.

Since that month, my dovetail anxiety has evaporated. I just do it and know that the joints will be dang tight. One caveat: I always cut the joints for the back of a drawer first in case I need a warm-up.

My only regret with the joints on this particular drawer is that I should have spaced the tails a little closer together. They look a little too regular, like I used a jig.

Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 6 comments
  • Alan DuBoff

    Chris,

    A funny thing about Frank Klausz’ method of using few measuring tools. Although Frank starts out with pins, the method actually works fairly well to start out tails also. It’s only a matter of understanding how the tail sides are angled, and angle the saw when one cuts. One can still cut the tails first and use Klausz’ method though.

    Some folks advocate placing the stock so that you’re saw cuts are vertical, or 90 degrees to the floor (i.e. the Joyce book). Others like to have the stock vertical, or 90 degrees to the floor, and angle the saw blade (i.e., Cosman). I’m not sure I have a preference, but want to feel comfortable being able to accomplish both, so that given any situation of a project (wether clamped or on the floor), the cut can be made with assurance.

    Since the fitting of the dovetail is almost completly dependent on the marking of the second piece from the first, one can still get tight fitting dovetails, even if the proportions aren’t correct. Klausz’ method still allows one to get a perfectly fitting dovetail, even if the angles are not perfect and I have always strived to get the tightest fitting joint as my goal.

    I too like layout, but I find I get involved in it too much to practice. While practice doesn’t make perfect, It certainly brings one closer to that goal. Woodworking wouldn’t be as of much interest to me if it was perfect, and at that point could be done completely on a machine.

  • Alan DuBoff

    Chris, I used to do similar. I had a lot of t&g scraps as I got interested in dovetails, and I would practice dovetails with the scraps.

    What it did for me by cutting one or two joints each night was that I became much more comfortable with it, and I could start to see similarities in what I did and didn’t do correctly.

    I’m far from a master craftsman, and as a hobbyist I find myself spending more time than a professional would, but since I don’t calculate my time in the woodworking I do, I don’t need to justify getting a specific task done. I can cut a dovetail much faster these days, and I mostly attribute it to practicing and understanding what does or doesn’t work for me.

    I highly reccomend that folks practice in the style Frank Klausz describes, where you don’t use a lot of measuring tools. This removes the person from having to futz with the layout, and get right down to the meat and potatoes, so to speak. Being able to adapt Rob Cosman’s layout techniques has been helpful for me in actual projects, but there is something to be said for Klausz’ method of minimal measuring tools and practice is a good place for that.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Alan,

    I agree that people should try Frank’s methods. They really do work. I’ve had the great priviledge of watching him work and seeing the results of his students. My problem is that I’m a compulsive layout artist. And I like my results. So I stick with laying stuff out.

    Perhaps my next "month of dovetails" should be spent without marking out the pins.

    Chris

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Mike,

    Well cutting steel sawblades scares the dickens out of me, so we’re even!

    And Roger, you’re the only one who understands me.

    Chris

  • Roger Nixon

    Crawdad?? You can take the boy out of Arkansas but you can’t take the Arkansas out of the boy. 🙂 I grew up about 30 miles from you on the Oklahoma side of the border. I still want to say crawdad but no one here in Kansas seems to know what that means.
    I have my walnut stock ready to try this table when the article comes out.

  • Mike Wenzloff

    Hi Chris–I agree on the spacing issue. I tend to move the center ones closer in to each other. But then, I’ve had customers comment they like them evenly spaced.

    My main mental block regarding DTs is limited to half-blinds. I don’t know why, but to this day I have to mentally prepare–and then cut several trial joints in scrap. Maybe one of these days I’ll do what you did: practice, practice, practice until muscle memory develops.

    Take care, Mike

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Although it’s possible to drive nails into “green” hardwood without pre-drilling, thoroughly dry hardwood requires pre-drilled holes – that is if you want to avoid split stock. The through hole should be nearly the same diameter as the shank of the nail. The hole that penetrates the second piece of stock should be a bit smaller in order to give the material a good grip on the nail.