While teaching a class on handsawing a couple years ago, one student lost his cool. He was cutting a tenon for his sawbench, and he strayed over the line and the result looked rough to him. He grunted, threw his saw down with a clatter and stomped away from the bench.
The classroom got real quiet. This student was a big fella , he probably had 100 pounds of muscle on me, a ZZ Top beard and a short fuse. As he angled toward the classroom door to leave, I wasn’t sure what to do.
So I picked up one of his uncut legs, marked out the joint he needed and sawed it out without saying a word. I didn’t do it like when I teach (history, blah, blah, joke, blah, technical detail, blah, sidebar, blah, blah) where it takes 20 minutes to make a tenon. Instead, I cut it like I do it at home with the radio on. One tenon. One minute.
I left the tenon on the bench and walked away. I was a bit freaked about what would happen next. I was out of ideas. The other students walked up to see my work.
“I get it now,” one student said. “That’s what it looks like , from start to finish. That’s what the joint looks like at the end. That’s what I needed.”
The big guy came over for a look, too. I got him a new workpiece to replace his ruined one. The rest of the day went smoothly.
It’s easy to get intimidated by hand joinery. We expect it to look like router-cut joinery, or some trumped-up bit of fakery by photographers. The truth is that in some cases hand joinery looks better when compared to joints made by power tools and worse in others.
In my work, for example, I don’t go for slick end-grain surfaces. What’s the use? They offer little gluing strength. I focus on the getting the gluing surfaces flat and smooth. And I try to get the fit as close as I can.
But don’t we all? What does this really look like?
Now that we have a macro lens at the magazine, I’ve started taking photos of things that our lenses couldn’t show before, such as close-ups of joinery surfaces.
Here’s what a casework dovetail looks like that I cut two weeks ago. It’s for a sideboard for the Summer 2009 issue of Woodworking Magazine.
In the first shot above you can see how things are pretty clean, but nothing like a router-cut surface. I cut that rabbet on one of the faces of the piece to make it easier to lay out the mating socket.
In the second shot, this is how things looked right before I knocked the dovetail home. Yes, the end grain looks rough. Yes, that’s some junk in the corners. I could pare it with a chisel, but why bother?
And third, you can see the end result. The fit is OK around the dovetail , nothing like you see on a magazine cover. There’s a gap at the back shoulder I could slip a playing card into. But the joint is tight at the front shoulder, which is all that will ever show. I am done and ready to move to the other side of this joint.
I hope this helps you , like my frustrated mountain man student , to relax a bit when it comes to sawing joints.
– Christopher Schwarz
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