Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Shaker Side Tables: Snake Handling and Drawer Making

Welcome fans of obscure Appalachian religious practices!  However, your Google search has brought you to a woodworking blog, and the snakes I'm talking about are Shaker table leg snake feet.  Also, if you hang in there, I'll punish/reward you with some blather about half-blind dovetails.

The Single Drawer Shaker Stand is the only one of the three tables in this series that does not have the classic cyma-curved leg found on the iconic Round Stand -- rather it relies on a more stylized snake leg.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the snake leg is much trickier to template rout; it has several changes of direction and there are many times that you are right up against a nasty bit of short grain.  A more sensible approach might be to cut this entirely with a bow saw or with a coping saw.  In either case, the final shaping will need to be done by hand.

While a snake leg can be finished in varying degrees of lightness on the topline, (almost an inverted "V" shape in profile) Shaker examples seem to go from dead flat at the top (no final shaping) to a soft inverted "C" shape.  I'll be creating the latter.

As I see it, you come armed with three weapons in hand to approach this task -- spokeshaves, rasps, and a sanding drum.  Oh, and sandpaper --FOUR weapons to approach this task!  The sanding drum (which I put in my lathe) is tricky to use, too dusty and not fun.  Spokeshaves are great to use, but the aforementioned short grain and tight turns make them time-consuming.  And while going straight for the rasp seems like punting on third down, it seems to do the trick for me.  Sandpaper is a necessary evil for any of these approaches.  I like to increase the amount I round the leg as I go from pedestal to foot -- leaving it flat right at the top where it meets the pedestal.  I don't draw any guidelines for registration (though I could see why they'd be helpful) and I just have at it.  This is "Free Workmanship" at its purest -- contrast this with template routing!  The above picture shows how they look at three stages of completion.

Moving on to the drawer.

For me to talk about making drawers is truly an exercise in the near-sighted leading the blind.  There are many books and tutorials that do a complete job of explaining in great detail the subjects of half-blind dovetails and drawer construction.  I've read many of them, and I'll just pass on the tips I use when I cut these dovetails.  (I'll leave the drawer hanging to another day.)

I really like Ian Kirby's The Complete Dovetail.  It is old school and explains how to go about cutting several types.  I use his method and I like the way he explains the whys of how he goes about things.  He offers no shortcuts and takes no prisoners.  Another good read is James Krenov's The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking.  This book is more about the feel of making a good joint, but he helps you to understand why you do it in the first place.  Of course, as "How to cut dovetails" is to woodworking magazines what "How to cure your slice" is to golf magazines, you can't swing a cat without finding a good magazine article.  Over the years I've tried and discarded the little jigs to guide your chisel for the final cut and boards that help you cut the shoulder square.  I'm not a purist, but they never worked for me -- maybe I'm just dim.

In the end I go with the traditional tails-first approach with a couple of well-known tricks:  (By the way, after re-reading this it sounds kind of pedantic, so please accept that this is just my experience, yours may be better and produce better results!)

The 140 Trick
Named after the Stanley block plane, it allows you to cut a small rabbet along the inside of your tails that mirrors the width of the pin board (except my 140 is a tablesaw and a tenoning jig.)  When you set it on the pin board, it registers things in perfect alignment.  It is the first line of my mantra Mark The Line. In this photo, you can see that I also bevel the hidden edge of the tails to ease in assembly.

My 4 1/2 and Tail Vice
Once "140'ed" I stick the pin board in my tail vice, projecting above the benchtop the width of my 4 1/2 plane.  I use that plane to support the tail board.  In addition, I often attach a quick clamp across the width of the boards to lock them in place.  Now I can mark the pins in a fairly aggressive manor.  Sometimes I go back with a chisel and push down on these marks so I can See The Line (the second line of my mantra.)

Cut the Damn Line
The third line of my mantra.  I try to cut the final line with my saw -- not by going back with a chisel.  For me, I can't abide picking and pecking at my mark.  The final result of chiseling (in my hands) is generally a wiggly ledge, not a crisp edge.  As I use a western saw, I bias my cut to the waste side of line.  Good technique is everything and worth practicing.  The first cut is a gentle thing, like a conductor coaxing a ppp entrance from an orchestra, not a Klitchko right cross. I haven't used a dozuki in a while.  I wonder, does the thin kerf let you start right on the line?

Abuse an Old Scraper
When cutting the pocket on your drawer front. geometry dictates that you will have a 45 degree angle on your saw cut. If you slowly advance an old cabinet scraper, hammering it down to the shoulder as you advance, you can extend the line to its full depth and make life easier.

The Leather Pad and Wooden Clamp
The first decent dovetails I ever cut were ruined by "bench rash" -- those little dings you get while you are flipping and chiseling. It is easy for bits of wood to get between the bench and the piece and  leave impressions.  With a square of leather cut from an old pair of chaps, a wooden clamp set to hold my piece, and a brush, I can make pretty quick work of clearing the waste without ruining the piece.

Stick With A System
None of the above is gospel, and some of it may be dead wrong!  But it is my system and I'll stick to it.  My results are good, but they only progressed from bad to pretty acceptable when I just repeated things. (The above photo shows the first stages of planing the drawer side.  The cracked board you see is a backer board since this drawer is a "push-me-pull-you" with two fronts, which dictates that in order to follow the grain of the drawer side, you will have to go the "wrong way" on one drawer front.  The backer board prevents blowout.)  If cutting dovetails is new to you, faff around for awhile, delve into the resources, get a feel, then commit to a system.  I'm hoping that over time, my results will be what I want them to be -- I'm still a work in process.

I'd love to hear about any great tips or techniques that work for you, so please feel free to post them in the comments.  Meanwhile, I promise to put this thing together next week and talk about a change in plans for the final table in this series.


  1. First of all, I had to look up the word “pedantic” since I had never seen it before. My Dad would like you since expanding one’s vocabulary is important to him.

    Nice post, well written and I’ll take your advice to heart since I am interested in things such as this. If I had time, I would use dovetails to join the case of my current project, but I can’t risk the wood – I am running short on mahogany and a mistake would mean buying more.

    Looking forward to your next post…


  2. Thanks, I have to say that I have never tackled one of those whacking big blanket chests (like the one featured on the Lost Art Press blog, recently.) Staying in the Shaker vein, I wouldn't mind doing a dresser with a dovetailed case (in cherry) -- and then do the sliding dovetail molding a la Mr. Becksvoort.

  3. thanks your article, I like your post