The Next Challenge – A Dovetail A Day

Several weeks ago I came across a one of Chris Schwarz’s blog posts where one of his reader’s had followed his path in cutting a dovetail joint each day. This struck me as a great idea for my crazy self-challenge of the year. Cutting dovetails by hand is a skill that I’ve wanted to improve for some time, but had only made minimal time to actually practice. As Frank Klausz has said – if you want to be good at cutting dovetails, go cut dovetails.

For the first dovetail of the year, I found a suitable piece of scrap red oak I had about the shop and cut two half pins and a single tail:

A few thoughts on this joint:

  • The Lie Nielsen dovetail saw I bought at this past Woodworking in America cuts so much nicer than the crappy $20 big-box store saw I had before. I expected that to be the case and am pleased to have confirmed as much.
  • It was nice to use the new bevel gauge that my wife got me for Christmas. I didn’t measure the angle, I just found something pleasing to my eye and marked it on both sides.
  • I don’t have a marking gauge. I need a marking gauge. I do have a “Happy Birthday” coupon from Woodcraft burning a hole in my pocket, so this might be the use.
  • The fit is decent, but not great. It took more than hand pressure (i.e. my mallet) to snug together.

Some thoughts on this exercise as a whole:

  • I will use up this scrap of red oak. While those joints are getting cut, I’ll go buy a board of poplar or pine from the BORG to use as practice stock for the remainder of the exercise.
  • I don’t plan on creating a blog post for every day’s joint, but I will establish a separate page on the blog to display all the joints and the occasional thought.
  • I’ll move through a progression of single through dovetails, to multiple through dovetails, to half blind dovetails.
  • In no discernible pattern, I’ll play around with the size and angle of the pins.
  • I started this joint cutting pins first. At some point I’ll cut tails first too. I refuse to engage in a religious debate about this.
  • I need to sharpen my chisels.
  • My current work-holding options suck for cutting dovetails.  I don’t have a bench, so I have to resort to clamping a hand screw clamp to my table saw to do the sawing. I haven’t figured out a good way to hold the piece to chop waste yet. This will have to get remedied.
  • I don’t know how long I will run this exercise. At least a month. Maybe longer.

I know I’m just adding to an already lengthy to-do list, but I think it will be worth it in the long term. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Design a Week – 15/52

I know what you’re thinking – two designs in the same afternoon? Well I wouldn’t believe it either if I wasn’t writing this, so enjoy this design for candlesticks:

The impetus for this design is the set of candlesticks I’m already working in the garage. I’m having some trouble getting the mitered corners to come together. It is too late to change the joinery on the current project, but I started brainstorming on possible solutions if I want to build another set. That lead me to dovetails for the joinery.  In the picture above, the tails are supposed to be evenly sized, but I thought of some other possibilities:

The drawing on the left has the tails getting bigger from top to bottom.  The drawing on the right has the biggest tail in the middle, with tails getting smaller the further from center. I’m not sure which I prefer, but I’m pretty sure I like both better than having the tails evenly spaced.

I like the idea of contrasting woods – especially at dovetail joints, but I didn’t want to have each side be just one species. As designed, the center stripe cut from one side would be the center for its adjacent side. This will also add an element of uniqueness to the piece, a little flair – like two of the sides being shaped like a pyramid. I would want to build a set of three, two being shorter than the third.


Cleaning, Space, and Dovetails

I didn’t really build anything today, but it was a productive day in the shop.

I did a lot of cleaning and rearranging in the garage. I got all of our house paint cans off the floor, on to a shelf – which allowed me to sort and neatly stack all of my larger scraps of wood. Getting those pieces stacked opened up a space in the front corner of the garage for my new jointer. This in turn gave me enough room to walk around the garage easily, something I haven’t had since the jointer and planer arrived.

Speaking of the planer – now that I had room to maneuver I could attach the infeed and outfeed tables to it. For anyone who has to level cast iron tables, try this method:

1) Joint one side of a 2×4 sized board flat, then cut it in half
2) Clamp the jointed sides to the fixed table
3) Clamp the wing you are attaching to those boards
4) Apply the bolts and set screws

With enough clamping pressure and a flat/jointer surface, you should get the wings perfectly lined up.

With all this free space, I was able to actually vacuum up the floor and provide my aunt with another bag of sawdust for her compost heap. There’s something a little zen about a clean and organized shop – I just need to work on doing this often, instead of a whole lot of work every couple of months.

I didn’t want to leave the shop without creating some sawdust, so on my organization bent I decided to create a simple rack to hold all my recent router bit purchases. I had a piece of 1.5″x1.5″ pine that was part of the crate that housed my planer. I drew a crude center line down the length of one side and set to marking the hole locations.  I was going to use a forstner bit to drill the holes, so I used it to lay them out as well.  Because I have a varied/piecemeal set of bits, I couldn’t just drill evenly spaced goals if I wanted to maximize the space on the board. I think the results turned out nicely and it was nice to use some of the scrap I had lying around:

After the router bit rack, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the shop, but I didn’t want to work on the candlesticks, because I knew my remaining time in the garage was short. I decided I needed more practice cutting dovetails.  I wanted to cut more than one, so I grabed a short piece of 3/4″ plywood that was about 4 inches wide.  My previous practice dovetailing was only a single tail, two half-pins and I wanted to cut a couple of tails.

I’ve done a few of these “practice” dovetails and the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I need to take them seriously if I ever plan on improving. Nonetheless, practice is better than no practice. I’ll get there eventually!

Slowly Taking Over

Last night I finally got back into the garage after a long hiatus, traveling for Thanksgiving and for work over the past two weeks.


Over the past couple of weeks I’ve really come to realize that woodworking isn’t just a passing interest for me, but something I’ll be spending my time on for quite a while.  We traveled to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving. It was great to see family for the first time in a while, but I was continuously drawn to noticing the dovetailed kitchen drawers and the rolltop breadbox, wisely using the corner countertop space. I found myself constantly looking at details I hadn’t noticed before.

Then this past week I was down in Dallas for some training. Instead of paying complete attention the whole week, I found myself daydreaming about the projects I have on my “bench” and all the work I have to complete by Christmas. I also spent some time scouring Criagslist for wood (more on that tomorrow) and taking the advice to keep up with what others are doing in their shops.

To be honest, I’m not really sure what I was thinking when I first bought my table saw; I certainly didn’t have a first project in mind.  Somehow I knew that woodworking would keep my interest and be a creative outlet. Two years later, I’m encouraged that I’m fulfilling that inkling.

An Ugly “Holy Grail”

Many woodworkers consider hand-cut dovetails to be the end-all, be-all, holy grail of joinery.  It is easy to understand why; they are simply beautiful, while being highly functional and strong. Matt Kenney of Fine Woodworking shared a fine example earlier today.

I’ve  never cut a dovetail joint before.  The closest I’ve come was a plan to use sliding dovetails for this bookshelf, but that ended up not coming to fruition. I haven’t put a whole lot of time into the study of the art of this joint (yet), but I’ve read several forum posts/blog entries and I’ve watched this video a couple of times. So here was my first shot:


Not the prettiest joint in the world, but to get anything beyond “Yep, it looks like dovetail” would be a coup in my book. Here you can see a nice gouge I created trying to clean up the tail:


Thankfully it looks a lot better from the “interesting” side of the joint:


Overall I’m happy with how things went.  You can’t get better without practice and you can’t be practicing without the first practice.  I know there are places for me to improve in my technique and tonight was the first step towards being able to actually use this joint in a real piece.