Thursday, 28 February 2008

Some thoughts on dovetails - part I

For the last several weekends, I have been working on our kitchen drawers. I have just crossed a major milestone - there are more drawers completed than remain (only by 1... but it still feels great!). So I have had “dovetails” floating around in my head quite a bit lately.

There was in interesting thread about dovetails in one of the forums a week or so ago. The thread was titled “Skinny pins in hand cut dovetails”. After reading most of the thread - I started thinking on my own dovetail evolution - and the whys and how's of it. I have also had a bit of an epiphany moment sparked by that thread, and it has to do with the relationship between process and efficiency. I am fully aware that I may to step on a few toes with this one - and I am fine with that.

My goal with woodworking and planemaking is to become extremely efficient while continuing to improve my accuracy... and in that order. I make my living in the woodworking field - I have to be efficient. So everything I do is motivated by using the fastest method even if it means a slow initial learning curve - complete with bumps and errors. Sharpening is a perfect example. I made a very conscious decision to learn to freehand sharpen because once you know how - it IS the fastest way to sharpen. Sure, it made for a lot of frustrating sharpening sessions and the dizzying parade of sharpening jigs were quite tempting - but I can honestly say I am glad I stuck to my guns and learned to do it freehand. I am now fast at it, and don't hesitate to stop work to restore an edge. I will write more on freehand sharpening in another post.

Back to dovetails & efficiency. I believe that the dovetail joint is a functional mechanical joint that can be extremely beautiful if well executed. There are a lot of times when dovetails are used and they are not seen - and in these instances how it looks is less important (though they still need to be tight fitting and designed for mechanical strength). The drawer is usually to blame for all the discussion about dovetails - skinny pins vs fat pins, machine cut vs hand cut, spacing, angles, pin lengths etc. This is because these dovetails can be seen, and rightly or wrongly, have come to symbolize the quality of the piece they live in.

I decided that I would hand cut my dovetails for several reasons (in no particular order). I like the somewhat random and irregular look of handcut dovetails - they tell me that a person spent time making this - and I like that. I like skinny pins - especially in contrasting woods - they make everything look lighter and more delicate. I like irregular spacing. I tend to put narrower tails on the outside edges and gradually increase them as they get closer to the center. It means I don't need to do as much math and is really quite fast to lay out. Here is an example;

The tails on the top and bottom are 3/4", 1/16" pin, 1" tail, 1/16" pin, 1-1/4" pin. It makes for a somewhat rounding effect.

Once I made the decision to hand cut my dovetails it meant I needed to be as fast and efficient as I could be. To me, this means the goal is to be able to fit the dovetails off the saw - no paring. My friend Karen was over a few weeks ago and we were talking about this as we stood in a sea of kitchen drawer parts. I commented that I was going to cut to the line and not intentionally cut inside and then pare to the line. If I overcut and there was a gap - so be it. I would not scrap the drawer but live with it. I explained that I felt this was part of my learning process and working towards maximum efficiency. She gave me an affirming nod and agreed. As we continued to talk we realized that there are many woodworking schools out there that teach to cut well inside the line and to pare to get the right fit. Looking at that now - it seems a little off - it is teaching a process where the outcome is consistently a 10 hour dovetailed drawer! It may be beautiful and perfect - but the process strikes me as questionable - not to mention it is unrealistic to expect a client to pay for a drawer that took 10 hours to make. I would much rather endure the pain, suffering, and disappointment of a few gaps here and there knowing that I am slowly, over time, getting closer to dovetails that fit right off the saw (I am aware that I am building drawers for my own use and not for a client - so I do have the luxury of “learning” through my work). So with that in mind - here are a few examples of dovetails I have produced spanning my entire woodworking life.

This was the first furniture project I made with a drawer. The front is cherry and the sides are pine. Drat... it is a bit out of focus:)

These are the drawers on my left handed, shaker inspired bench. There are 10 drawers in all. The sides are 5/8" basswood and the fronts are 3/4" mildly curly soft maple. They are still a little clunky - but the spacing was starting to feel right on these.

This is a drawer in a table I built for my sister and her husband as a wedding gift. Skinny pins have arrived and are here to stay! 1/2" maple sides, 3/4" walnut front. Note the African Blackwood pull... I shaped them by hand... no lathe:(

Which brings us to the most recent dovetail project - the kitchen drawers. I have just finished 5 more kitchen drawers - here is a shot of the stack.

There was a magical moment that happened while building these 5 drawers - I did actually cut a set of dovetails that fit right off the saw. It is pictured below.

There are a few wee gaps - but after they were glued and planed flush, they were gone. And after this set - there was another set of 1/2 blinds and two sets of through dovetails that fit off the saw. This was most encouraging and confirmed to me that this longer road was the right road to take.

And hey... I have 7 more drawers to practice on!


Blogger angryrock said...

I have been visiting your site for a while and this post triggered me to contribute... I totally agree on this approach where the goal is to become efficient and qualified for a job instead on focusing on short term objectives such as making our first dovetail joints perfectly fit... If practice makes perfect, then some pieces must show practicing scars.

I really appreciate your website.



28 February 2008 at 13:36  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Stephan,

I am glad you enjoyed the post. This theme of process, skill, work, learning, etc., is something that is becoming more important to me as our kids get older. Jill and I are trying to lay the groundwork for them to be able to use these amazing things we have called hands. It comes easier to some than others, but we are all capable - it is just a matter of actually doing it.

Best wishes,

28 February 2008 at 16:33  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best post yet. I can't wait to see what is yet to come.


28 February 2008 at 20:50  
Blogger JL Young said...

Hi there, I've spent the last couple of nights hand cutting dovetails. It took me about 4 hours the other night to cut and pare the pins for the through dovetails on the back of a drawer and the half-blinds on the front of one drawer. So yeah, the process needs to speed up. That being said, this was only my second drawer and my dovetails have improved dramatically since the first drawer.

One thing I felt I did wrong on the first drawer was that after I marked out my pins with an Xacto knife, I highlted the score line with a 0.5 mm pencil. Not good, the pencil is too wide and obscured the mark.

Another thing is that my first drawer had 3/4" sides. However, the added thickness magnifies your errors so I've gone down to 5/8" and intend to go to 1/2".

I use the lee valley folding dozuki saw and was wondering if the thicker blade of a western style push saw would help to keep the cut straight as I find there's a bit too much flexibility in the blade of my dozuki.

Your skinny pins look great and I've been doing this too. The thing about skinny pins is that there's no way to get a router bit that thin, hence a skinny pin is an instant hallmark of a hand cut joint.

Any insights into how to cut pins right off the saw would be appreciated. And by the way, I think your handplanes are pieces of art. It's great to think that someone from Canada makes some of the most beautiful planes in the world.


Jason from Fredericton, NB

29 February 2008 at 15:28  
Blogger Neil....a Furnitologist said...

Like the Angryrock, I've been following your blog. I'm also a big advocate of attaining shop efficiencies and hammer this point at any opportunity, some say I get preachy, but as you have noted efficiency and quality run counter to todays next generation woodworker. When you address the issue with them they will specifically remind you and say, I'm a hobbiest not a pro. I find this such an odd statement. Whether you are a pro or a hobbiest shop efficiency is paramount.

It seems today that the home basement/garage builder looks at quality in terms of spending more time on a build. I have always fealt that you build to your quality level that will continually improves with each build and the more builds you complete the higher the level of quality you attain. I have found this approach to quality/efficiency in conflict with how the new woodworker perceives the construction learning curve today.

Excellent post........Neil

1 March 2008 at 16:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a neat post. Thanks for sharing. One question though, how can you do a half blind dovetail "off-the-saw" Don't you need to come back with a chisel, to clean out the pins?

3 March 2008 at 08:08  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Jason,

wow - our stories are quite similar. That first drawer in the photo had 3/4" pine sides - and 7/8" thick fronts if you can imagine! Now - even 1/2" seems too thick for sides at times. And yes - 3/4" thick really amplifies any errors.

I also use a knife for layout lines - and then saw to the left or right of it.

After using this very think Japanese saw, with virtually no set to the teeth - I am starting to wonder why set is even needed. The saw cuts beautifully and once I have a 32nd" kerf started - it stays on track perfectly. If you are looking to try a western style saw - there are lots of good ones out there - Adria, LN and Wenzloff to name a few.

Thanks for you kind comments on the planes.

Best wishes,

3 March 2008 at 08:36  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Neil,

Thanks for the note. It is a delicate balance between going slow enough to learn precision, while using a technique that will lend itself to speed later on. I am well aware of the traps of limited time in the shop. When I was working full time (pre-planemaking) - it took tremendous restraint to sit at my bench and struggle through sharpening instead of getting to the project at hand.

Best wishes,

3 March 2008 at 21:41  
Blogger Konrad said...

Sorry for the confusion about the 1/2 blinds off the saw. You are correct - you do need to chisel out the waste and the saw only cuts half the socket. My goal was to get that half saw cut perfect though - and use that shoulder as a guide for the chisel work.


3 March 2008 at 21:44  
Blogger Brad in Ottawa said...


I thought your offensive comments were going to be a tip on peining the gaps closed on your DT's with a hefty hammer!


3 March 2008 at 21:50  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hey Brad,

I haven't figured out how do it yet... but if I do... :)


3 March 2008 at 21:52  

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