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The clock tower in the Old Town Square in Prague.

When I joined the Popular Woodworking team I had 14 years of editing and publishing experience. My woodworking experience was a bit more lacking – let’s say… level zero. But, I was eager to learn and Megan knew it. She asked me what I wanted to build first. I think the first thing I told her was a grandfather clock. Only not just any grandfather clock – my clock was going to be an art piece that incorporated some different antique measurement tools with an astronomical clock face like the one on the clock tower in Prague.

She laughed at me.

“My wife wants a dining room table…” I said.

She raised an eyebrow, agreed it was a better place to start and recommended some smaller projects first – you know, to actually learn a few skills before building something big.

I settled upon a hall bench. But, I wanted my hall bench to incorporate a bunch of different joinery. Something that would allow me to learn a few different things within one project. So Megan took me to Paxton Lumber and let me pick out some nice hard maple. “Why don’t you dovetail the sides?” she suggested.


I quickly did my rough cuts and ran my wood through the planer and then after staring at my pile of thick, hard wood decided to allow it to acclimate to the shop. For about a year.

I started work on small projects to learn a few of the things I would incorporate into my “big furniture project.” I made a skateboard. I practiced sawing tails and pins. I chopped some practice mortises. I tried to build a dovetailed beer caddy and got mad at it and scrapped the whole thing (really, how far is my beer gonna get caddied before I drink it?). It began to dawn on me just how much more than I could chew I had bitten off with my original project idea. But I kept working on things and finally I built a small box that I was fairly proud of.

Back to my hall bench. It’s going to be a custom entry way thingy that fits under a window sill but allows room for a heat return while incorporating egg crate shelves for shoe storage. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, except that I kept those dovetailed ends in the design and added a through mortise-and-tenon for the joinery for the middle leg. I started out planning to dado the sides for shelves, but decided I’d reign myself in and pocket-screw those. So yeah, I still feel like I have enough to keep me busy.

I’ve started sawing and chopping my dovetails and I’ll go ahead and admit it – I should have built my first furniture project out of pine. I’m starting to think Megan might have decided to let me “run my devil” – as my parents used to say – on this hard maple. (Whenever I was on their nerves my parents made me go outside and run laps around the house.)

coping saw

Hard maple is hard – trying to cope.

Needless to say, this project has been an eye-opener. A few things I was told but for some reason, I had to learn for myself:

  1. Start with soft wood.
  2. Use a marking gauge with conviction – trying to chop with a light registration line makes things even harder.
  3. Start chopping the waste between the pins from the narrow gap side to avoid chopping into the pin itself.
  4. Sharpen. A lot.
  5. Start with soft wood.

But I’m getting close to a milestone with it. I’ve got my tails chopped and I’m currently working on the pins. I’m daydreaming about putting the sides together and moving on to working on the middle leg. Surely the mortise-and-tenon will be easier. Right?

But that’s a post for another day. If you’re a fan of doing things the hard way, stay tuned.

There will be blood.

– Scott Francis

Need some help with your own dovetails? This compilation of technique articles from the pages of Popular Woodworking Magazine, covers cutting dovetails by hand or by power. You’ll find instruction for through dovetails, half-blinds, sliding dovetails and more.


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Showing 6 comments
  • Jon Russelburg

    That box looks great Scott! Glad you’re getting some shop time in.

  • mbholden

    Back when I worked as a patternmaker, the saying in the shop was: if you haven’t bled on it, it’s not done.

  • Nancy Hiller

    “Use a marking gauge” [or cutting gauge] “with conviction.” Heh. Love it. Wonderful post.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    At least you didn’t use purpleheart (which seems the favorite of many first-time furniture makers).

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