The Five Minute Dovetail

Dovetails are an impossibility. So it would seem to most new woodworkers. They have all these angles and a tight fit and then finger looking things and which ones are the tails and which are the pins? Which do you make bigger? Why are they bigger? Half tails at the ends or half pins? Lots of questions arise just by looking at them. Fahgettabout cutting them. Impossible, or so it would seem.

I realized some years ago in trying to teach people how to hand cut dovetails that showing them everything at first was demoralizing. There was too much stuff. There was the design and lay-out of your dovetails, do you like a 1:5 or a 1:8 angle? These tails here are bigger than the pins here and angled this way and not that way from this view but not that view. I like half pins here not full pins or half tails. There were new tools like marking gauges and sliding bevels but you set the marking gauge for less than the thickness of the stock not more. And mark this piece all the way around but that piece only twice. And this was all before you got to cutting them which was supposed to be the point of all this.

As a result, I came up with an idea to simplify the process. To get some time in actually cutting the joints before we broke the whole affair down into so many parts. This would be a simple short exercise that let students cut a dovetail without fear or embarrassment at getting it wrong because it wasn’t part of any grand project. It was just a warm-up. I called it the 5 Minute Dovetail. An exercise of cutting one tail and two half pins in scrap wood.

Yet I discovered several things from this exercise. Woodworkers are marvelously inventive and come up with very interesting variations on this joint as they try to learn it. But hey it’s alright if you screw it up, it’s not precious stuff we’re working on here. No, it’s just warm-up. But that’s the other thing. Why is it that woodworkers never like to warm up?

Violinists warm up. Baseball players warm up. If you’re a golfer you can take an impossibly long time taking practice swings and then wiggling your club at the ball as if warning it that a good smacking is about to occur. But woodworkers? Woodworkers walk into the shop, put on their apron, turn on the Stones “Start Me Up”, or the equivalent, and proceed to mangle several board feet of lumber in a hurry. Without slowing down, without cutting a practice piece, without warming up. A curiosity.

So I would urge you, you impatient ones, you too late for the party and so hell bound to catch up in one afternoon, please slow down. Warm up first. Take some time to get into the groove of the shop, not the freeway speed you just came from, or the work place you’ve spent all week at. Slow down, you’re in a hurry. I understand this.

Try your hand at a 5 Minute Dovetail. It will improve several things for you. It will help you to slow to the pace of a woodshop. It will help your sawing, sharpen your eye, and fine tune your fine tuning. And then when you’re done, throw it in the wood pile and promise to do better next time.

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Published in: on March 4, 2008 at 1:26 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] You can also read about the 5 minute dovetail on Gary’s blog here. […]


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