My Trashiest Dovetails in 10 Years - Popular Woodworking Magazine

My Trashiest Dovetails in 10 Years

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Chris Schwarz Woodworking Classes, Woodworking Blogs

Today my worst nightmare as a teacher came true during a dovetail demonstration.

As I knocked together the components of the joint under the watchful eyes of 18 students and two video cameras at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, I realized that the joint I cut was probably the gappiest one I’d cut in a decade.

But that wasn’t the worst part. Not even close.

Marc Adams had a photographer taking photos of the class who had instructions to take pictures of my finished joint.

“No way,” I said. “This is heinous.”

But she insisted. So she took them outside and shot them. When she came back inside she told me they looked really nice and showed me the photo on the screen on the back of her camera.

Picture a beautiful scene: Indiana cornfield. Blue sky filled with wispy clouds. And two sticks of wood with dovetails that were barely touching each other because the gaps were so huge.

I hope that the students felt better about their own hand joinery after seeing me crash and burn like that. Sometimes you mess up, even if you’ve been cutting dovetails for 18 years.

Or maybe they’ll be asking Marc for their money back….

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. We also did some work on the English Square today — hence the video.

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Showing 22 comments
  • KC Kevin

    I am impressed by the number of younger maggots(pupai)you have in your class. And they seem to have a good basic grasp of techniques. I tip my hat to you and whoever else is mentoring these youngsters. Bravo!

  • Aeneas

    [What the…? Oh, man, these are #%$&% awful!] “Ahem! Too few teachers assume you’ll always do perfect work and never have to know how to fix mistakes. So today I’ve purposely cut these blind dovetails with gaps here and there, something that I’m sure could happen to any of you. So let’s discuss now possible fixes that you might employ. Who has an idea first?”

  • BillyLatt1

    I’ve just begun a 30 days of dovetails experiment. Yesterday was day 6 and by far the best and tightest joint I’ve made. I use the “Euro” method, meaning chisels, to hammer out the waste. The joint was so tight that I couldn’t tell where it began and ended. I’m not bragging. I just want to see the photo of Chris Schwarz’s dovetails so I can say that for one brief moment I did a woodworking taks better than he did…

  • David Keller

    C’mon Chris – Poplar? Really? I get that you might not want to give beginners a hard wood, or difficult grain, or both as an education project, but at least give them mahogany, or walnut, or if you insist on a soft hardwood, butternut. Anything but the ugly green of poplar. 😉

    Disclaimer: We all want what we can’t have (Brazilian rosewood), and disdain what is common and cheap. And if you’re from the south, poplar is only one step up from Home Despot ugly pine…..

  • djmueller1


    Let’s see the photos.

  • Dusty

    I would have used that rough cut as an example of a inappropriate example in joinery

    Did I say rough cut? Where’s Tommy?

  • donwilliams

    Big Deal. As part of my project to recreate the continuous arm/continuous leg chairs of Samuel Gragg I told folks I would be doing some steam bending today. A surprisingly large crowd showed up, including my Director. Every single stick snapped in half during the bending. (admittedly it was an iffy proposition as it was kiln dried ash with more runout than I wanted, but still…)

    At least I got the guts to fail spectacularly while under the gaze of the guy who signs my pay checks. The day has to get better.

  • DanGar


    Who is the boy? Is he making a good work?

    He he!

  • cgooding

    I keep seeing something over and over that irks me. Perhaps you could teach a class on using more than just the middle three inches of your handsaw:) I know it’s an epidemic and one you are determined to fix. Can’t say I blame them, though. I’ve worked with pros with decades of experience that had no clue how to use a handsaw.

    • watermantra

      Agreed. After taking just a single day of practice a couple of years ago, I can now say that I successfully dull all of the teeth on my saws, and it does grate me to see folks using just the middle third, like watching a movie in which an actor is asked to be an expert at sports or a musical instrument and just succeeds in looking awkward. But, having not long been a sawyer confident enough to demonstrate my skills, I do have empathy for those who are skittish and too careful. Glen-Drake actually has a saw with no teeth on either end for those sorts of people (and it’s actually the only Glen-Drake tool which I feel is utterly silly…everything else they make is brilliant.)

      With Chris’s hand saw Kool-aid getting more potent every day, I imagine that a “saw only” class might be imminent. Am I right, Chris?

      • Steve_OH

        Uh, that’s not why the Glen-Drake saw has no teeth on the ends. Quite the opposite, actually. The intent of the Glen-Drake design is to encourage the use of the full length of the blade. By starting/stopping the stroke in the untoothed portion of the blade, the acceleration/deceleration of the blade occurs much more smoothly.

        And I can confirm that the design works brilliantly: You just set the untoothed toe on your cut line, and make your first full-length stroke. No tentative partial or backward strokes required to start the cut, no juddering at the start or end of the stroke.


        • watermantra

          I understand the reasoning for the saw’s absence of teeth on either ends, and I’ve tested out the saws numerous times. But I still think it’s silly and I was using a bit of hyperbole to poke fun at that perceived sillyness. (The two handed version is even sillier) If one just takes a bit of practice with a traditional dovetail saw, there is no need for this type of gadgetry. It reminds me of the sort of gimmicks you find at golf stores to help bad golfers make their bad swings hit a straight shot, instead of correcting their swings.

          But, to each his own. Certainly one can cut great dovetails with just about anything…Chris talked about a woodworker recently whose name escapes me, that used a hacksaw to cut dovetails through a long and successful career.

          • Steve_OH

            If “good enough” were the only criterion, we’d all still be using stone axes to do our woodworking. We have good tools today because a few of our ancestors weren’t satisfied with “good enough.”

            I believe that the Glen-Drake saw is a significant evolutionary step in saw design. Why? Because it not only helps beginners saw more accurately and efficiently, it also helps experienced sawyers saw more accurately and efficiently.


          • sphotos

            The longtime woodworker who used a modified hacksaw to cut dovetails would probably be the late Cecil E Pierce of Maine.

          • George Dovel

            I own both the Glen-Drake two-handled saw and a lot of silly golf gadgets, and a more accurate analogy would be with the advances in club materials and designs in recent years–improvements that make the golf club easier to control, regardless of one’s level of proficiency. Echoing what Steve says below, this is exactly what the Glen-Drake design does.

            Traditionalist golfers looked down their noses at hybrid iron/wood golf clubs when they came out, but you’ll find them in the bags of many (if not most) touring pros these days. And for us amateurs, we can spend our time trying to control a recalcitrant 2-iron, or we can switch to a hybrid and spend our time enjoying the game.

            The Glen-Drake saw is certainly unconventional, but as Steve articulates, it solves some fundamental deficiencies in the design of a handsaw. Granted, the two-handled configuration is unlikely to go mainstream, even though I enjoy using it. However, I wish more of my saws had untoothed sections. It is simply an easier way to make cleaner cuts, and tradition isn’t much of a reason not to take advantage of improved ideas.

            • George Dovel

              Sorry, make that “Echoing what Steve says ABOVE…”

  • renaissanceww

    I remember having a conversation with Roy Underhill at WIA a few years ago about this. He said, “if the joint doesn’t fit well, keep moving the piece around so the cameras can’t focus on it and use your fingers to hide the really bad parts.”

  • Bob Rozaieski

    Not a mistake. A teaching opportunity. You meant to do that.

    “If you happen to miscut your dovetails like I’ve demonstrated here, this is how you can repair the joint, and save the piece” (as you pull a handfull of small wedges from the chest).

  • woodgeek

    You know the drill Chris, no pics didn’t happen. 😉

  • watermantra

    Well?? Let’s see them! Come on!

    • Peter

      Absolutely! C’mon man, we’re all stumbling Anarchists here … let the halo slip a little! Just think how encouraging it would be for us!!

  • jimk

    It must have been the scorching mid western heat that caused your dovetails to shrink. Besides everything in the mid west looks good in a corn field.

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