In Shop Blog, Techniques

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Question: I often see dovetail layout lines left showing on the exterior of pieces. As I’m in final cleanup up of a blanket chest (yes, the Union Village chest from your article) the layout lines are still visible after I’ve got the piece smooth.  However, the lines do not uniformly show on all edges.

What to do? Get rid of them all, re-establish lines consistently around the piece, or just leave it as is with faint lines of inconsistent depth around the piece? It doesn’t look all that bad as it is.

– Rick Bowles

Non-answer: The question of leaving tool marks behind seems thorny at first. There are those who say that removing marks, such as your layout lines, is what a pre-industrial joiner or cabinet maker would consider “neat and workmanlike.” And there are those who say that leaving tool marks is what separates you from the giant CNC mills that poop out almost-adequately sanded highboys every two minutes.

Here’s how I approach it. My opinion is only that, but you asked for it.

Unless you roll a stump into your living room and call it a coffee table, every aspect of furniture is a tool mark. Sandpaper, for example, is a tool and leaves a distinctive surface. A router-cut moulding is almost always different than one cut with moulding planes.

So the question of tool marks is which ones you choose to leave behind. When I build a piece that is a reproduction or is in the spirit of a past style, then I try to get a feel for the marks that were typical.

So what is appropriate for a Union Village blanket chest? Let’s take a look. The following shots were taken only to document this piece’s construction details, so you’ll have to forgive the photo quality. They were never intended to be published.

Let’s start at the back of the case, near the lid. In this shot you can see that the baseline has been erased by the maker’s plane (all the surfaces of this piece are planed). And this is a secondary surface that will likely be against the wall or a bed. Hmmm.

Now let’s look at the base of the chest, still at the rear and still on the same corner. Here you can see toolmarks everywhere. The baseline is there, as are marks from laying out the dovetails on the plinth (aka, the base).

OK, now let’s look at the front of the chest. This chest features half-blind dovetails, and the tails are on the ends. Though the photo is a tad grainy, there are faint baselines up and down the end pieces.

My conclusion here is that this maker wasn’t really concerned with the baselines. When they were removed (such as at the back), that was OK. When they were left behind, that was OK, too. Bottom line: The baselines on this walnut piece are not distracting.

So Rick, I think you are done. If the piece looks good to your eye and the toolmarks are neither sloppy nor distracting, then I think you can call it a day and start finishing the piece.

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Showing 8 comments
  • Steve Hilton

    I relish tool marks. They create a distinctive character that warms the heart of anyone who appreciates hand made pieces, an art less and less prevalent with the passing of time. I have always cut dovetails by hand, purposely leaveing marks left by my cutting gauge and lay-out lines. Marks left behind on primitive furniture add to historic value in 150 year old homes. I personally feel that marks removed from century old pieces are an attempt to "uncover-up" flaws left by lazy craftsmen. This is only my opinion.

  • Stan Erwin

    Mr. Bowles, in my oppinion(and we all have one)if you are making it for yourself, and it pleases your eye, then do as you please. If you are constructing a piece to sell, your customer is the one you have to please.That being said,build what you want you want to, the way you want to, and the snobby purists that say you shouldn’t do this or do that, can take a flying leap at the nearest running buzz saw.Yes I have sold pieces that were not up to the standards of some,but the ones who paid there money liked them, and that’s all that mattered.

  • Ron Boe

    I think context is important too. If you’re going with a Krenov style piece then tool marks are a given. But for other pieces a high degree of polish hiding all tool marks are a given. Some work almost demands it (rustic cabin furniture for example) while others not so much (modern scandinavian designs as another.

    My two cents anyway. 🙂

  • PAUL (But I'm Much Better Now)

    I agree,
    There is a time to do as you please.
    My backgroung is toolmaker, most of the jigs, and or tools may show layout lines. However As a Stock maker I never leave tool marks, everything must appear as to have grown there!


  • Mike Siemsen

    I and others I have worked with always referred to hand tool marks as tool marks and power tool marks as machine marks. I suppose technically they would be properly referred to as power tool marks. Though a marking gauge is a tool I would probably call the marks left behind by them layout lines as a more precise term. I have seen layout lines that were almost incised decoration they were so deep, and others just a bare whisper left behind. You gave a great example and a good answer, Whatever blows your skirt up!

  • Christopher Schwarz

    David, David, David,

    I already got this question. I was thinking of a stump that had been felled by rot or lightning. Though I suppose for some dieties, lighting *is* a tool mark.


  • Rob Porcaro


    I think you are right on with your response. Further, I think the general idea can be applied to lots of other woodworking questions.

    This is a subjectively appreciated art. The piece should be crafted to the maker’s informed and honest standards, with the exception of work done for a client under agreed requirements. Rick, make it as you damn well please, so it has meaning for you, and enjoy it!


  • David Cockey

    A stump would have very noticeable toolmarks where the tree was cut.

    "And there are those who say that leaving tool marks is what separates you from the giant CNC mills that poop out almost-adequately sanded highboys every two minutes."

    How soon until the first "leaving appropriate layout marks" article? Any reason layout marks couldn’t be added to dovetails cut with a jig?

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