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.

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

I Remember when I First Started or Standards of Craftsmanship

When I first started woodworking, I was so completely in the dark about it. How to build things, how to design the stuff you were supposed to build, which tools to use. Which tools to even buy!

I used to go to the Sears store in town to stare at the wall of tools trying to decipher their meaning. What does a scribe do? It has nothing to do with scrivening, of this I was fairly certain. And what is a backsaw? Sawing which back? Or a butt chisel? How dare you sir. Odd terms. Particularly for a student of Russian literature as I was. I understood angst, I understood concepts of sin and redemption and nothingness and being.

All these tools were so much Greek. And the fact that the actual world which was filled with tools and things and reality, well this was sort of a difficult thing to comprehend. I really thought that most stuff just came out of a factory. I mean when you think of it from a completely uninformed position like my own why not have the telephone pole and the wires and the connectors and oh yeah the electrical current or currency whatever it was, all come from the same factory. It would be a telephonic factory. And they would deliver and voila, you would have a telephone and telephone line connected to your telephone pole and at the other end very much like a can and a string would be whoever you wanted to talk with.

Getting a glimmer of this world that actually was made up of stuff that was made up somewhere else was a revelation. It meant a great deal to me on many levels. Because on a purely spiritual existential plane it was all bunk anyway but if you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurt. If a tree falls on you in the forest, somebody, if only yourself, hears it fall. And again it hurts. [regrettably I speak from personal experience in this tree falling matter. Another story.]

Understanding that the world was made up of stuff that you could be a part of making was the kind of thing that makes you smile very slowly at first and then you realize that you have just, for example, discovered how to make hot chocolate or Scotch. What a trip!

I was self-taught in all this or more accurately self-led. Therefore I think I was a bit self-delusional. I was woefully lacking in knowledge with no mentor to guide me or even steer me wrong. I was rudderless and adrift on my own sea. Go… that way.

As a result I had to develop my own standards of craftsmanship. They were crude.

My one rule, my only rule at the time for everything that I built, my rule of craftsmanship as it were, was that anything that I built I had to be able to stand on. If I could get up on it, then it was good. Resist collapsing underneath me o work of mine and you were considered good. A goodly effort. Jump up and down on it. Ah, that’s good work. [So much for my understanding of wood compression along the end grain.]

My standards have changed some throughout my 34 years of working wood. I don’t climb up on top of pieces so much any longer. Perhaps it’s the old knees or maybe it’s that I have a new yardstick for measuring success. But my standards are decidedly different.

There are times in the shop when my years help me see things clearly, effortlessly. And I wonder why I didn’t see things that way from the beginning. I remember being stumped by techniques that appear so simple now. It of course takes that many years to start to see things this way. It’s no accident. It’s not a mistake. It is just that it takes years of countless mistakes, years of hitting your thumb with a hammer to finally teach yourself.

I know that my students can often find, what are now to me simple concepts, quite difficult. I remember those days when they were difficult too. I remember not being able to figure things out. I can only say that it will change. Practice hard, give it time. It will change. And what a world, with hot chocolate and Scotch in it now.

Published in: on March 1, 2008 at 2:32 am  Comments (2)  
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