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Beware “through dovetail centrism”!

I’ve tried to steer away from 2 contentious subjects, sharpening and dovetails, because I have felt too much has been said about both. Everybody and his brother seems to have a YouTube video on 2 minute dovetails. There’s much that disturbs me about these videos.  First is my puzzlement over what the point is:  Are we trying to cut dovetails faster?  Second, is the point to teach a strategy that makes sense or display the presenter’s prowess?  It isn’t always clear to me.  All that aside, my concern is that the techniques used in these presentations seem to be dedicated to through dovetails only (i.e. through dovetail centric). You see this when guys start the cut with the saw flat on the end grain.

On a traditional case piece, 3 different dovetails are used;

1) Through dts used in the backs of drawers and sometimes (but not always) join the case together.  These are often (but not always) covered up.

2) Half blinds are often used for drawer fronts, and sometimes to join carcases together.

3) Sliding dovetails typically join the drawer dividers to the front of the case.  On pieces I have seen they are shallow, often not more than an inch or so deep.  The trick to cutting them is the carcase side (not the tail side).

For half blinds and sliders, the pin side can’t be cut with the saw flat against the piece.  You have to saw the corner out.   I advocate this approach for all saw cuts because I think it fundamentally helps woodworkers saw better.   And if you use the same technique for multiple hand saw operations, I feel you get “bonus experience” i.e. your tenon sawing helps your dovetail sawing etc.

Regardless of the technique you use, I recommend we recognize through dovetail centrism, not only in technique based media, but also tool reviews and advertising.  Saws that start easily in end grain typically have more rake and will cut differently (typically more slowly) for those of us who don’t start our saws this way.   When you see a demo, read an article or review, or test out a new saw for yourself, make sure you are making choices that support all 3 different sorts of dovetails (thru, 1/2 blind, and sliders) so you can complete case projects efficiently.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Adam Cherubini

    Thanks Ryan. My interest is in helping more woodworkers complete projects entirely by hand. I hope this helps prepare folks for the full range of operations.

  • rmcnabb

    Great insight, Adam. I really appreciate the perspective you bring – that of a working furniture maker and not just a woodworking enthusiast. Ditto your advice on starting a dovetail saw cut flat across the end grain versus starting at an angle across the corner and how that effects your saw tooth geometry.


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