Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dado the Day Away

Is there anything better than a day in the shop spent cutting joinery? Not many things that's for sure. That's what I got some time at doing in the shop. Not the fancy "Look at me" joinery like dovetails and drawborn mortise and tenons, but the standard bread and butter joinery. Rabbet joints and Dado joints, the behind the scene heroes that really make a piece work well and hold it together for the long term.

I think what I like about cutting these joints by hand is how some modern woodworking product makers would like you to think that this work is unnecessary. Don't cut a dado for that shelf, clamp it in place with our special high carbon steel, cryogenicaly treated three way clamp, drill it with our laser guided, heat seeking, over calibrated pocket hole guide, and secure it with these special screws, the ones you can only buy from us.

Now don't get me wrong, I do own a small pocket hole jig, and there are times when it is the right choice for joinery. I have seen some antique, heirloom pieces of furniture where pocket holes were used effectively. But if you take the product material you get with your Kreg jig at it's word you'd believe it's your one stop for connecting wood of all kinds. Build yourself a whole kitchen worth of cabinets with a mountain of plywood, a table saw, and a Kreg pocket hole jig. So easy my 8 year old can do it!

Seriously, real furniture screams for real joinery, and even though this is a simple shelf to hang on the wall in my shop, there is no reason I see to skimp and scrape on things that I feel are, so elementary, so basic to quality woodworking.

There are a lot a ways to go about cutting this kind of joinery, it should come as no surprise that I prefer to cut mine by hand.
A simple rabbet plane is such a straight forward way to cut the rabbets. For the sides of the case, which are to be dovetailed I cut them as stopped rabbets, leaving the end 3/4" intact. Simply done I use the plane to remove the majority of the waste in the center and finish the clean up to the ends with a chisel.

The stock for the top and bottom of the cabinet is much simpler to cut.

Now it was time to lay out and cut the dadoes, five stopped dadoes per side, ten in all. This is how I go about doing these.
It starts with careful layout according to calculations and plan I've drawn up in my sketchbook. Using my folding rule and making small pencil marks to set the space for the shelves.
A try-square and a marking knife follow connecting the small marks into the full layout. I planned these as stopped dadoes so I used a pin marking gauge to mark the ending line an inch from the edge. For the purposes of taking pictures for here on the blog I then go back and darken in the marked lines with pencil.
I then attack with saws. I start the line with a light cut with my dovetail saw. The reason is that it makes it easier to start the stair saw into the cut and then easier to keep the saw straight. The blade of the saw is 3/8" deep and so all I have to do is cut until it bottoms out. Admittedly cutting to a stopped dado is more difficult that just following the cut all the way across the stock, but this is a truth no matter what method you chose to use. 
I then chunk up the waste in between the cuts with some chisel work.
Then using the same chisel I chip out the waste, I am not trying to make a clean bottom or smooth cuts, I am trying to remove as much of the material as possible as quickly as possible. The clean up comes next.
I then grab for my router plane, I have it set to the full 3/8" depth of the dado cut and I use that to clean up and even out the bottom of the excavation. Sometimes this is a process of moving back and forth between the chisels to remove a higher point and the router plane to set the depth consistent.
I then use a wider chisel to clean up the sides of the cut. I do work hard to keep the joint cut within the tolerances originally laid out. This is where I work to make the joint "pretty" I'm not worried about perfection on a joint like this, I am worried about accuracy and functionality and this is where I finish that part of the process.
After cutting for both sides I lined them up one on top the other to check my layout to triple check that I had gotten it right.

Just a quick work about speed when it comes to handwork. I took my time working on the first side, taking lots of pictures and trying to set myself up for this post. But when it came time to cut the second set on the other side I decided to time myself and see just how fast I could pull it off. With the layout already done I cut five stopped dadoes in around 18 1/2 minutes total. Now at first you may think that seems like a good amount of time compared to what one could do with a router or dado blade on the table saw. But the stop and think about it.

Add in the time it takes to set up any jigs, sliding table, sacrificial fence, parallel clamps. Don't forget the time it takes to do the test cuts, measure, reset the jig and repeat the test cut. Take the cut in steps. Then because it's a stopped dado, still have to grab that lowly chisel and square the ends of the cut, or round over the ends of the shelf stock that is to fit in the joint later.

In the end, I figure it's a wash really, I don't claim my method is faster, I just stand by the idea that working by hand can be every bit as efficient and quick as working with electron. I keep and use power tools too, I just don't believe they are always the answer and for me, when I used to work almost exclusively by electron, I used to hate how almost every operation needed a different jig, and sometimes it seemed like I spent nearly as much time building jigs as I did building furniture. If you ask me I'd rather build furniture.

Cheers
Oldwolf

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