Saturday, July 21, 2012

[Schoolbox] Dovetailing Is Like My Golf Swing

Ok. So maybe I'm reaching a little bit with this analogy. But I'm going with it, and I'll try to make it work. In hitting a golf ball, it's what you do before actually making contact with the ball that determines a good shot from a bad one. How are you aligned? How far are you standing from the ball? Is your backswing too slow? Too fast? On the right plane?  You hit hundreds, if not thousands of shots that are off just a fraction of an inch, and all you can do is live with hopefully a reasonable result.

However, there are times when it all comes together and you connect with the ball perfectly. You hit it so well that it's effortless and nearly perfect. It's those few elusive great shots that keep you coming back. It's the perfect shot that golfers chase. But it starts with the attention to detail before you actually make contact that's the thing.

Preparing to chop out the waste between the first set of tails for the Schoolbox. I use a fret saw to saw out most of the waste between the tails, but I tend to play it safe and leave a bit too much waste still. My mallet is from Blue Spruce.

Dovetailing seems much the same for me. Like hitting a great shot, great dovetails are a result of careful attention to detail before attempting to fit the joint together. More attention to detail in layout, sawing, and chisel work leads to nice tight, gap free joint. Most times there is a slight gap here, or a little tear out there. You are happy with an acceptable result. But it seems every once and a while, everything comes together and you fit the joint together and it fits perfectly. Like Golfers, it's what woodworkers live for.

I've read many books and many articles on how to execute the dovetail joint. I've taken classes and practiced layout, sawing, and chisel work for many hours. I'm certainly not an expert, and learn a little something each time I cut a dovetail joint, but I know enough now to knock one together and make it come out ok to this point. And I'm not fast either! Nor do I care to be! I do this for enjoyment! Plain and simple!

I wont bore you with every detail of putting the joint together. There are plenty of resources out there if you're inclined to look them up. So what I thought I'd do is list a few tips and tricks that I've learned that work for me that might be of interest.

Tip #1. Start with square and flat stock.
Every reference you will read will mention this from the start. I've tried to overlook it from time-to-time in an attempt to get started faster, but it always seems to come back to bite me later on. Spend the little extra time it takes to make sure your boards are square and flat. You'll thank yourself later.

Tip #2. Invest in a quality Marking Gauge
In order to make clean and precise baselines for dovetails, you need a gauge that you can trust. I've used cheaper ones thinking that they're all the same. But then I tried the Tite-Mark Wheel Gauge and I'll never go back. The locking mechanism and micro-adjustment are well worth the investment.

 Tip #3. Use a Strop to Freshen Up Your Chisel Edges! Often!
When I began learning how to dovetail, I skipped this step. I was a bit of a snob about using a strop even though many recommended it. I thought it was way better to sharpen a chisel on the 8000 grit waterstone every time it needed it. Trust me, if you use a strop you'll be amazed at how quickly you can get a chisel cutting cleanly again without having to mess with sharpening jigs and waterstones. I was amazed at the difference in the quality of my chiseling with a strop. You will be too.  

Here's my sharpening strop which is nothing more than a piece of leather glued to a rectangle of mdf, with some diamond paste rubbed on it. I'll work until I sense the chisel isnt cutting easy and then take 10 swipes to freshen the bevel and then another 10 on the chisel flat. 

Tip #4. Treat youself to a good set of Dovetail Chisels and a Chip Carving Knife
Ok. So dovetail Chisels aren't really a necessity. You can get crisp, clean corners from other chisels for sure. But nothing beats a chisel made specifically for dovetailing. I highly recommend the dovetail chisels from Blue Spruce Toolworks. Expensive? Perhaps. Someone said "If you pay for quality tools once, you'll only have to cry once!" The Chip carving knife is indispensible in claening out the corners of the tails and pins. The one I use is from Pfeil

First completed tail board for the Schoolbox and my trusty Blue Spruce Dovetail Chisel and Chip Carving knife.

Tip #5. Use a task light to help with marking out pins
A bit hard to pick up, but if you look closely you can see a little bit of light shining at the bottom of the gaps for the pins. I forget now where I picked this trick up, but if you use a task light and shine it across and underneath the pin board, it's a very helpful reference to make sure you are aligned correctly before marking out for the pins. You are aligned when you see just the sligtest amount of light shining through. Works for me!
I'm using a task light to shine under and across the would-be joint when marking out for the pins. I find that using a task light is invaluable for seeing what you're doing. 

Tip #6. Use micro fine chalk powder to see the lines for your pins
I learned this tip from Alan Turner while attending Philadelphia Furniture Workshop. Spread a littler podwer with your finger on the pin board and it will ensure you have a clear line to saw to for your pins. This is especially helpful when working with darker species woods, but I've gotten into the habit of using it on everything.
Chalk powder to highlight the knife lines for the pins.

A bit tough to see, but you can pick up the chalk powder that has clearly  highlighted the marking lines for the pins.

Tip #7. Always mark out your waste!
Probably should be closer to Tip #1. But if you do this you almost never will need to recover from sawing on the wrong side of the line.

The waste is clearly marked so I won' cut into the wrong side of the line 

So there you have it. Some of the tips that hae helped me on the road to dovetailing. Everyone will have their own methods, but hopefully some of these you might think of  on your journey.

I'll end with a few more pics of the first corner of the Schoolbox

Cutting the pins in progress. So far so good I think. But you don't truly know until you fit it and hammer it home.

View of the first corner of the Schoolbox. I'm pleased with the fit.

Looking good. Only issue is the top corner of the bottom tail. I got a little blow out while fitting, Not to worry though. I picked up a new trick that I show you to fix that right up.
View of the pins, which are slightly proud. The fit is good and tight and I think will clean up very nicely when I get the box ready for finishing. 

So there you have it. The first dovetailed corner of the Schoolbox. And like my golf swing it's not perfect, but acceptable. However, I did feel a great sense of accomplishment when the corner fit snugly together.

Going forward I'll only write about interesting things that happen while completing the sides of the box. Only 3 more sides to go!


  1. Nice looking set of dove tails. Using a strop is a must for freshening up a chisel edge.
    I have to get moving on the next corner.

    Looking forward to the next post.

    John T

    1. John. I'm a believer. I figure I can probably join all of the sides of the box before having to re-sharpen. We'll see.

  2. Hi dad

    Very nice way of explaining the tips step by step.I would give you an A.I can't wait to see the finished boxes!I know they will be great!!!


  3. Hi dad!
    Cool entry.I liked how you explained it step by step.I would give you an A.The boxes are looking great.I know they will look great!!

    Your little editor,

  4. Looking good! Have you chosen lock and hinges yet?

  5. Yes. Just saw your post upriver. Since this is the first School Box I'm making, I went with the lock and hinges that Chris Schwarz recommends from the Joiner. He's since gone away from these, but it was too late. Already purchased them. Got them from Lee Valley. I'm also planning on adding the lifts that Chris recommended.