Dovetail Layout Part 4: Moving Towards Simpler

I'm continuing a series discussing dovetail layout and attempting to relating it somewhat to design process decisions. I'm also hoping to prove that layouts do not have to be mysterious, difficult, or complicated, like I was lead to believe when I was beginning to teach them to myself. If you're just getting started reading this series and want to catch up you can find all the posts collected in one place HERE.

I chose a good foundation to start this exploration from using the dovetail layout technique Frank Klausz's wrote about in the October 2005 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. With that behind us It's time to branch out and stretch our wings a bit.

To me, the key is simplicity and repeatability, Frank's method has that in spades but what if we were to expand on the idea? Be inspired by it instead of just try to repeat it? What can I do to make it even simpler? Can we get good results with less steps and less tools? What if we were to remove dividers from the equation? What tool do we have that we could also use to achieve repeatable measurements?

For years now I have used my chisels when I need to set a measurement at a specific depth or length. I choose a width and use it to set my marking gauge, to set the rip fence on my bandsaw for resawing, to judge the fences on my rebate plane, to judge router bit depth. I don't know when I started, or where I picked it up from but I've been doing it for nearly as long as I've been woodworking. I know I could order some set up blocks from Lee Valley for forty bucks and have them machined to a tolerance of 0.002". Before I do that though I have to ask myself, when have I ever made a cut, checked it, and thought, "Dammit, this cut is off by 0.005" I think I"ll have to throw this piece out. If only I had some insanely accurate set up blocks to remove all human error and make my life perfect." (insert longing gaze and daydream here)

I have never had that thought cross my mind and if you ever have, then you need to get some help and medication because your Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has taken over your life, stop woodworking and go back to washing your hands for the hundredth time today.

Accuracy is important in woodworking but it is nothing next to consistency. My chisels my not be insanely accurate in their measurement, but if I use the same one, it will be consistent. Why make a thing harder than it has to be.

So lets follow through on this step towards simplicity in making our next set of pins and tails.
This set was a very simple layout using only a 1/4" chisel.
I line it up on each side for the first marks. You can see by the white of my fingertip that I'm applying pressure to help line up the edge of the chisel with the edge of the board
 The first marks made. Are they square? As square as the edge of the board and the edge of my chisel, and that should be square enough for woodworking.
 Now to the ruler. Here is where I start making decisions. This time I want even spacing and sizing to the joints and as luck would have it I can easily divide this board equally into four sections.
 I go about making marks at each of the inch markers.
 Now I go back to the 1/4" chisel again. (you thought we were done with it didn't you) I eyeball my inch marks to fall in the center of the chisel and I mark on either side of it. Does this result in perfect 1/4" measurements? Of course not! The consistent spacing here is much more important to how it looks than the precision of a 1/4" versus a 5/16" measure or a millimeter variation to either side.
 For these lines I do get out my small try square to extend the lines square.
 Can you pick out variation or inaccuracy by looking at this picture? I guess I can't, so not bad. I think it's important to stop at these moments and take a deep breath. Step back and look and where you are, make sure you're achieving the appearance you're after. If it looks good, then shove on forward my friend.
 I then use the bevel gauge to define the angles. Pay attention that you are angling them correctly.
 You can see some faint lines telling me which direction to mark the angle. If it's been a while since I've cut this joint I will sometimes do this to help protect me from my inner idiot. It helps me to not get turned around when I'm focused on holding the bevel gauge tight and making a good mark. What I haven't done yet is mark my waste.
 I then make those cuts, clean out the waste, and pare to the line. Then I use what I cut on one board to mark the mating board.
 Good, even, and flexible spacing to this one with minimal fuss and measurement.
 A little clean up with the plane and I like how this one turned out. As far as I'm concerned this is a good ratio of the pin to tail width, but I know there are some who prefer very skinny pins. They can provide a very aesthetic appeal at times as well so we'll explore laying out those next time we talk dovetails.



  1. Well I was catching up on some other blogs I follow and had some time to read some entries by Jamie Bacon on his great Blog Plane Shavings. He was writing about a class he attended at "The Woodwright's School" with St. Roy teaching Dovetails and Mortice and Tenon Joints. (I would so love the chance to take one of those classes) In his article he talked about Roy using a chisel to set the widths, so it got me thinking, maybe I picked up the trick of measuring with my chisels from him a while ago. If so then Thank you Mr. Underhill.

  2. I took the class you mention in your comment, and it was great!

  3. You can also use drill bits a set up bars for some applications. Being round makes it a bit tricky at times though.


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