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I’ve been teaching classes on building “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” for two years now, and with every class I find some way of goosing the students a bit further along. Last year at The Woodwright’s School we actually got two of the 12 students completely over the finish line.

This week, I hope to shatter that record in Australia.

Today we finished the second day of the class, and eight of the 12 students have already glued up their carcases with the other four on standby because of other factors.

What’s the difference between this class and the others?

I decided to be a bit of a dictator and insist that the students work more like I do in my shop at home. Here’s what I did – and it might just make you a faster dovetailer.

  1. Gang-cut the tails. In earlier classes I discussed gang-cutting the tails for the tool chest, which is what I always do at home. But I never insisted that they do it. This time, I didn’t give the students a choice. Gang-cutting speeds the process and makes beginners more accurate. It is my experience that it is easier to cut square across two boards than one.
  2. Use one standard dovetail layout for all the chests that has fewer tails. In all my classes I show how to use dividers to lay out dovetails, which is my favorite way to work. In the past I always allowed them to choose how many tails they wanted on each corner. This would range from 10 to 18. This time, I insisted on six. I showed them the layout process, but I insisted on six tails and fairly sizable pins (no London dovetails).
  3. Change the order of operations. In earlier classes I let them cut and fit each corner: Cut the tails, transfer the layout, cut the pins, fit the corner, move on to the next corner and repeat. This class I pushed them to focus on one operation for all four corners before moving onto the next operation. So they cut the tails on all for corners, coped out the waste for all four corners, transferred the joints for all four corners and etc. This – I hoped – would let them develop each of these skills faster because they would spend about two intense hours doing each process.

So far, it seems to be working. We had the first chest glued up after lunch. By 5:30 p.m. we had glued up the eighth. We could have finished at least two more, but someone had a conference call, someone had a split thanks to a case-hardened board and so forth.

— Christopher Schwarz

This chest is from my book “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” which discusses how to build a traditional tool chest and pick the tools to go in it.

Oh, and the Australian idiom of the day: It’s too ribald for the blog (again). It is used to describe a very small distance and uses a fraction of the reproductive anatomy of a bee.

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Showing 22 comments
  • BlackDog

    The expression is “It’s within a Bee’s D…..”

  • Aztecking

    I recognize a few of those blokes in the video! I spent 9 months down there and spent a lot of time at the Guild. It’s an awesome place to learn and a great group of people there. Even Bern is an ok bloke. I also miss tea time and Jaqy’s homemade treats. Please tell them Jeff Smith said hi and I miss them all. I wish I was there.

  • whintor

    In any process, such as dovetailing, it makes sense to batch, i.e. do all the repetitive tasks together in sequence, rather than doing each part of the process from start to finish.
    This was the foundation of mass production. It is also ergonomically sounder & quicker.

  • Christopher Hawkins

    Sigh…. I never hear of gang cutting tails before. Great idea.

  • dpaul

    Love that gentleman wearing the ear muffs for chiseling out the tails. Those whacks can get pretty loud.

  • Kevinmad

    Gang cutting tails First, is – Why Tails are cut First. It has Always mystified me why anyone would cut pins first, which of course doubles the time for a portion of this process. If there is a Good reason to cut pins first, other than – I learned to cut pins first – I would love to hear it.


  • Phil Spencer

    Has the weather been to your liking?

  • pmcgee

    Chris, can you give us some feedback on whether you think our timbers are as hard as we think they are … and how they compare to the timbers you use in the US and Europe?

  • bubbainmiss

    Give us a hint, Chris. What’s the first letter of today’s idiom?

  • pmac

    I’m honestly surprised that ‘gang cutting the tails’ isn’t another Austrialian idiom.

  • hereswhatidid

    Do you still use the shoulder-plane method to create a registration line when you gang-cut the dovetails? If so, do the slight gaps cause any issues with the tail cutting?

  • tommy

    Is anybody else drooling over the legs and stretchers/carcass of those workbenches? What kind of wood is that? How is it fair to be able to make a (many) bench out of it?

  • Clay Dowling

    I’ve got a big stack of dovetails in front of me. Gonna have to try your method. Speeding the process will make me happier and make my customer happier. If the dovetails gets better that’s an extra bonus.

  • DanD

    Melbourne is a great town Chris, I was lucky enough to spend a few days there last year. If you like odd little out of the way bars (and especially if you like Absinthe) make sure you get to The Croft Institute. And for a good vegetarian meal in a funky neighborhood try The Vegie Bar (yes, they spell it with one ‘g’ down under).

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