Monday, November 15, 2010

Shaker Side Tables: Of Dovetails and Woodworking Theology

I've long felt that woodworkers can be categorized in the same way that you approach comparative theology.  You'll find Amish woodworkers who use no power tools.  Evangelical woodworkers who believe that their way is the only way, and that all others will be punished with an afterlife filled with MDF and Harbor Freight tools.  Unitarians whose methods and approaches change weekly.  Presbyterian woodworkers who understand that the tearout on that table top was predestined, and that only the elect will make true heirloom furniture.

Look around and you'll find Lutheran cabinetmakers who feel that their techniques aren't important, but that all good furniture comes from the grace of the big sawyer in the sky.  Mennonite drawermakers that feel that they will be judged not by their ideas, but by their actions.  Hindu tablemakers who know that their ruined project will reappear in another life as a piece of baltic birch plywood.  Cultists who follow a charismatic personality (WWSMD -- What Would Sam Maloof Do.)  And most recently, we've seen the rise of what I'll call Samsonites -- Chris Schwarz, David Charlesworth, and Tom Fidgen -- who somehow derive their woodworking prowess from the length of their hair.

And there is nothing that will define these hard-won theological positions like a row of dovetails.

Theoretically, the resurgence of the premium dovetail saw, rip-filed and well-sharpened, has put hand-cut joints, with tiny pins and aesthetically pleasing layouts, within everyone's reach.  It is certainly my first choice and it carries with it an aura of craftsmanship.  If sharpening is a gateway skill, precision handcut dovetails ushers you from the realm of the journeyman to that of an artist.  They are (in spite of the videos that promise "Five-Minute Dovetails") time-consuming and there is a longish learning curve.  To add insult to injury, I've found that it is other woodworkers, not potential customers, who find them most appealing.  But still I persevere.

I have not reached that state of Nirvana where I can, Samurai-like, pull out the saw, pencil, marking gauge, and begin a stream-of-consciousness-mind-straight-to-wood display of artistry.  It is work, and it defines "workmanship of risk."

Still, I have no interest in being converted to a "Normite."  Dovetail jigs define blandness and scream compromise.  I guess they are not too bad for shop furniture, but I use shop furniture to keep my technique in some sort of order for real furniture.  When under the gun I use a hybrid approach, adapted from (I think) David Marks, that is a hand-cut dovetail, with an assist from a machine.

The heart of this "Middle Path" is a set of two jigs, designed to be used on the bandsaw, that cut the tail board and pin board with complete accuracy and flexibility.  My jigs are set to a ratio 1:8 and are quite simple to make.

Tail Jig
Start with something like a 6" x 18" piece of MDF or plywood.  Mark 8" down a long side, and 1" over from that mark.  Make a 1" wide fence from 1/4" plywood and connect it from the top left corner to the 1" mark down the long side.  A check with the dovetail gauge shows that it is a 1:8 ratio.

Mark your stock just as you would for traditional hand-cut dovetails.  Check that your bandsaw blade is running 90 degrees to the table and adjust the fence for any drift.  Set the fence a couple of inches to the left of the blade, place your work on the jig, and have at it.  You'll find that if you slide the work along the fence you can line up the cut line without moving the fence.  Just make sure that the wood stays firmly seated on the fence, and that you advance the entire jig while you make the actual cut.  This setup allows you to cut one side of each tail -- flip the workpiece to cut the other angle.  When the angles are cut, you can take the piece off the jig and hog out the pin waste.

Now, continue with a chisel to clean the half-pins and the pin waste.  If you are making half-blind dovetails, you will mark the tail piece and proceed by hand.

Pin Jig
Now mark the pin board in the traditional fashion -- be sure to mark the waste side and strive for accuracy.

I know that most bandsaw tables tilt, (some in both directions) but I prefer to make a jig that can flip both ways to make the pins.  My jig starts with a platform, with a fence, angled to the 1:8 ratio.  That angle comes from three supports that maintain that angle.  I cut the first support (on the right), then with it in place, put hot glue on top of a shorter support (with the same angle on top) and slid it into place.  I did this while the jig was on the bandsaw table and I could see that the blade would follow the correct cut line.

Just as in cutting pins with a hand saw, the trick is to nip the line you have marked, but not take it out entirely.  Just stay aware of which side is the waste side.  Again, turning the jig around allows you to cut both angles.  Your biggest concern while cutting is ensuring that you do not over run your mark (easy to do with an aggressive blade.)

At the risk of sounding like that Woodrat spokes guy, the obvious advantage is that you have complete flexibility to make the pins as small as you like, as no router bit is used.  You can also stop at any point and finish the work in the orthodox manner.  I guess the downside is that you need a bandsaw.

I almost forgot to mention, in all this meta-woodworking blather, that I did cut dovetails (by hand) for the drawer supports and I made progress with the Single Drawer Sewing Stand.

I write this blog to stay connected with other woodworkers -- so I encourage comments and dissent.  Let me know what you think.  Next, I'll see if I can turn the top to the Round Stand and build the two-fronted drawer to the above Sewing Stand.


  1. great post Chris-
    ; )
    from the Samsonite up here in Canada.

  2. I am Lutheran (a rare thing here in Alabama), so I like your grace connected description.

    A timely post for me since I am feeling the urge to tackle hand cut dovetails. It helps that I broke my mostly plastic Craftsman dovetail jig many years ago.

    I am going to bookmark this page. Good post.

  3. Hey Tom- I was hoping you'd see this! I'd love to do the long hair thing (again) but now I just look like something from Spinal Tap -- and not in a good way.

    Jeff-The theology thing is funny. At one point in my life I seriously considered Presbyterian seminary (which makes me sound a hell of a lot more pious than I am) but settled on doing community-building work in the inner-city.

    It is somewhat ironic that I now attend Quaker Meeting (where there is no or everyone is clergy) On the dovetail front, for me it is all about practice. Even though I've been doing them for a while, I'm considering a dovetail-a-day-approach for 30 days to keep raising the bar.

  4. Great post! Eloquent AND practical.

  5. Thanks, Tinkerer -- I had a chance to look at your site -- great stuff. I'm looking to start some steam bending for chairs soon. I was going to go with an electric kettle set-up. How do you like the gas bottle arrangement and how did you corral the steam into the box? Thanks.

  6. Glad you like the site. I added some notes of the steambox to the blog.

  7. Currently learning/practicing hand cut dovetails for a project. I was thinking of doing exactly what you wrote about the tails. I figured it would reduce the chance of error and get at least half the joint started off right.

  8. Todd, I've found that when I have a dovetail that is too tight or too loose, I generally blame it on shoddy pin marking/cutting. Recently I geeked out and pulled out the caliper and realized that the real problem was that the tails were not cut square. Cutting them on the bandsaw certainly corrects that.

    I'm always on the lookout for sawing and chiseling biases that I have and work on correcting it -- I was surprised to see that my natural tendency was to cut every line angled to the left. It does take me a long time to get used to a new feel that is correct.

  9. your tips very nice, and thanks your share