Setting the Tone.

A couple weeks ago I was reading an entry in Peter Follansbee's blog, Joiner's Notes and I had to chuckle as he wrote the line "just what the web needs - another knucklehead writing about cutting dovetails." OK maybe I have an odd sense of humor but I found it funny because I guess I can't argue with him. There is a lot on the internet out there about cutting dovetails by every method conceivable, and though I'm not completely innocent about writing about them, on some level I have always shied away from going into the standard "This is the best way to cut dovetails" take on a blog post.

Instead I've tried to just illustrate my day in the shop mostly in pictures, like THIS post, or just wrote my way through the process as I tend to do when I'm documenting a day in the shop, like HERE. But I don't think it's the fear of being another knucklehead that has kept me from writing about them, I think there are a couple other reasons. The biggest being that I'm no Rob Cosman or Frank Klausz I will not dazzle you with blinding feats of speed, I'm not slow at cutting them, but I have no desire to refine myself to such a high level. The other reason is I think you see dovetails written about everywhere and though cutting them is one of my favorite ways to spend the day in the shop, I just didn't feel like I had much to offer in the way of a new voice.
Marking one board off the cuts made on the other.
One of the cool things about writing this blog is getting to visit with other woodworkers from around the world. Sometimes I get simple comments, sometimes good conversation, and sometimes I get questions. A little bit ago I fielded a reader's questions about laying out dovetails. He was able to find a whole mess of us knuckleheads talking about splitting the line when sawing and arguing things like pins or tails first, and whether to chisel, drill, or saw out your waste, but he couldn't readily find someone saying, "Here is how I decide how to layout my dovetails before I cut them."

Now before everyone floods the comments with 1000 links, I know the information is out there, I did a little searching and I found some info scattered about, but I have to admit I didn't feel that what I found was overly clear, illustrative, or even discussing in depth some thoughts on the WHY of dovetail layout. I think the truth of it is that the decisions made in laying out your dovetails is more of a philosophical debate than it is a specific skill set. Layout can and should be design and situation specific
Chopping the waste from a half blind dovetail.

The question posed to me of how and why I choose my dovetail layouts intrigued me. The issue of the how and why took my memories back several years to when I started seriously playing around with sawdust. I decided I wanted to build furniture, and I had read enough woodworking magazines to believe that the perfect dovetail joint was akin to the Holy Grail, I know better now, good design is the Holy Grail for me now, but I think we each choose our own specific Grail Quests to fit what we need at that moment in time.

At that time the quest was dovetails and I desperately wanted to learn to make them because I naively equated the ability to cut dovetails with all around proficiency, and I just could not get them figured out. I tired and failed, tried and failed, over and over again until I was dismayed and discusted with the process. I was a poor sailor out on the treacherous seas of sawdust and dovetails were the Siren that lead me to repeatedly crash upon the rocks of failure. Now I know I'm not necessarily a fast learner sometimes but I believe I was a little handicapped from the beginning.
The zen moment that is splitting the line sawing. I love using my Moxon Twin Screw Vise for cutting dovetails, It's become one of those "gotta have" bench accessories for me.
For one, I started learning woodworking watching Norm Abrams, He is still a hero of my and I respect him a ton, but in my budding, learning mind, I really thought to make good dovetails you needed to own a Leigh Dovetail Jig. The trouble was I didn't have between 500 and 800 dollars to spend. So I bought a super cheep dovetailing router jig for 20 dollars, and I soon understood why the Leigh cost so much.

So I tried cutting them by hand, which, at the time, I thought was an inferior way of doing it, but I was desperate to prove to myself I was proficient. I did some reading and tried to study up as best as I could for the task. I collected the tools I was supposed to need and followed the mystical recipe for laying them out just like I read it in my joinery book. I worked my way through cutting a set of tails and began to go about transferring the marks to the pin board only to stop myself. First I was confused, then slowly the reality of my stupidity dawned on me. I had paid so much attention to "laying out" the spacing by the book that I had lost myself and cut the tails upside down.

Recreation of the botched tail cuts, go ahead and laugh a little, you'll feel better, I know I

A pine board has never flown so far and so fast...

Thank God I missed the window...

I gave up on the idea that I could dovetail for a couple years after that and instead drooled over those ridiculous miter lock router bits. Thank God I never had money and opportunity in the same place when it came to those.

Frank Klausz was my savior, In the October 2005 issue of Popular Woodworking called "Frank Klausz's Final Word On Dovetails" It was very simple and straight forward and it finally gave me the confidence to pick it up again, this time with success. Did my success come from the time I had spent in the shop actually getting more proficient? Did it come from reading his article? Was it Divine intervention? Ok I'm pretty sure the last one was not part of the equation. Maybe it was just that I was ready, at any rate I finally cut a set of good dovetails by hand, they weren't perfect, or even up  to my standards today, but I had done it by God. Grabbed that bull and held on for the full 8 seconds. It felt great to exorcise that demon.

A couple of case sides for the plane storage shelf marked, prepped, and ready to cut,
Maybe I enjoy cutting dovetails so much now a days because it was such a struggle for me at that time. Because of the high price and self worth I equated with them. If I were teaching someone to cut them today the first thing I would stress is to not put them up on such a pedestal. It is an important joint and an important skill, but so are the other varieties of joint that don't get the same modern day fanfare the dovetail does.
I spent a day in the shop laying out and cutting some sample joints. Some were layouts I hadn't even tried before.
So what I mean by "Setting the Tone" is a little pre-warning so everyone understands what I'm getting into for a while here. If you haven't guessed it, I'm starting a short series on dovetail layouts, what I've learned, how I lay them out, and a little on my philosophy when it comes to them. Like most things I like to make the process simple and straightforward and I hope I do a decent job of translating that.
Spending the day cutting these joints was an excellent exercise, a good meditation on the skills I had began to take for granted, I recommend the exercise to anybody.
When it comes to the project I've been working on, the Plane Storage Shelf, have no worries I have made progress and you will be hearing updates on that as well.

Enjoy the Memorial Day Weekend.


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