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This article originally appeared in the June 2013 edition of Popular Woodworking

I know I’ve been lucky as I’ve learned to work wood during the past eight years. When I started at Popular Woodworking Magazine in 2005, I had little woodworking experience (writing, editing and project-management expertise were the job requirements, not shop skills). But I was intrigued by the machinery and awed by the work that Christopher Schwarz, Robert W. Lang and, a few months later, Glen D. Huey were turning out – not to mention the drool-worthy work produced by our many expert contributors. It was made far better than anything I could buy at a store and it looked a lot nicer to boot.

I began to tag along whenever anyone headed to the shop, to watch and ask questions. And I asked lots of questions (still do). I learned everything I could from anyone I could (always will).

Glen was the first to show me how to cut dovetails, using his pins-first approach and a combination of hand and power tools. Then I went to Kelly Mehler’s woodworking school in Berea, Ky., for a class on making a hinged-lid candle box, where Kelly taught me how he cuts hand-tool only, tails-first dovetails. Someone taught me to undercut – but I don’t recall who. Chris taught me tails first, and added a coping saw to the mix for waste removal.

Then I started cutting dovetails sans tuition, trying each of the approaches I’d learned. They all worked – and I could soon produce picture-worthy joints using any of those methods.

Now, I cut them using a combination of the methods I learned early on, adapting them to suit my own tools and preferred methods of work – and I’ve picked up more techniques along the way (dividers are your friend).

But the most important lesson I learned was not the joinery (or that dovetails really aren’t that difficult); it was that for every woodworking operation, there are multiple valid approaches, whether you use only hand tools, only power tools or a combination of both: dovetails, hinge installation, mortise-and-tenon joints, panel-raising, panel-flattening, rabbets, dados, edge joints, furniture design, mouldings, handplanes, ad infinitum. While there are certainly wrong, dangerous and foolish ways, there is no one single right way.

While you might not have the luxury of walking through an office door to find a handful of great teachers, you can easily find a great many valid approaches to anything woodworking you want to learn – and lots of stuff you didn’t even know you wanted to learn – on the Internet, in books, at woodworking schools, at Woodworking in America and, always, in the pages of this magazine. 

I don’t need to learn more ways to cut dovetails – but that doesn’t mean new ways aren’t worth considering. I’ll always explore new teachers and new techniques, both for my edification and yours. And in our pages, we’ll continue to introduce you to new (and new-to-you) ways of going about things, so you can try them out for yourself before settling on what’s “right” for you.

I might not like every technique we print. I might prefer to use a different tool or approach for the same end. But how can I know that until I give it a try – until I know what dovetails best with my experience?

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Showing 2 comments
  • Bill Lattanzio

    Am I the only guy out there (who uses bench planes) who also thinks they are overrated? This may be off topic, but the saw is the most important woodworking hand tool. Give a woodworker a nothing but a saw and he or she can make a piece of furniture with it (in theory); give a woodworker a bench plane and you can do little but make shavings.
    Obviously all woodworking tools have a place. I think you can get away with having just a #4, or a #5 if you want to, or if you have to, but if you can afford “the big three” then they are certainly worth it.
    Discussions like the one on SMC are why I no longer subscribe to woodworking forums. There’s a lot of unnecessary bashing and arguing for no apparent reason.

  • Fraise

    Done nothing before 2005 – that is a really impressive journey!

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