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One of the Tricks of the Trade in the June 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine discusses how you can use denatured alcohol to stop crumbling end grain while chopping out dovetails.

The trick states it’s best for softwoods, which is where you see the most crumbling.

As my students are always worried about this aspect of their dovetails, I decided to give it a try today in some finger joints I’m cutting by hand. After sawing and coping out the waste, I soaked the end grain with alcohol, as per the trick’s instructions.

Then I chopped.

Note that I used the same chimpanzee to chop both joints. And the chisel had been sharpened by said chimpanzee.

After a few joints in each – teetotaler and sodden – I compared. I couldn’t see much difference in the crumbling. Both crumbled about the same.

The alcohol-soaked joint was noticeably easier to chop out, however.

The photo above shows my typical results. The alcohol-soaked socket is the lower one.

I am working in Douglas fir, which is a softwood. But it’s not a “soft” softwood. I’ll try it again in white pine and see if the results are the same.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 6 comments
  • skiggety

    I often reach for a bottle of grain alcohol when working end grain. I especially like it when I’m using the shooting board. Not necessary, just easier.

  • msiemsen

    Sometimes that crumbling can be attributed to dull chisels, I tend to blame it on not removing enough waste in front of the chisel. The chisel stops cutting the fibers and becomes a wedge, pulling out the end grain. Since you saw out the waste that is probably not the case here. If you drink the alcohol it will not bother you as much.

  • Joe Powers

    It’s actually my tip. What a treat to see it mentioned in your blog. I started presoaking with alcohol while dovetailing redwood and cedar Which were crumbling about a millimeter below the surface. Hadn’t found it necessary on “harder” softwoods.

  • chasesimon

    Works on the drill press too when cutting corner blocks for mouldings – the kind where you mount the moulding knife into a cutter and spin it around.

  • rwyoung

    If you give a chimpanzee alcohol…

    (With apologies to L. Numeroff & F. Bond, Harper & Row and children and mice everywhere.)

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