Two weeks ago I attended a Hand Cut Dovetails class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. I’ve wanted to write about what I learned ever since, but life has conspired to delay that. A visit from my parents, my son’s chorus concert at school (he was very cute) and a dozen other things — all good, but time consuming.
When I was doing power tool woodworking years ago I couldn’t imagine doing dovetails by hand. I had a router table with a fancy-schmancy Jointech fence and template system. I could make all kinds of fancy dovetails with that, but with a saw and chisel? Uhmm, not so much. The idea of hand made dovetails seemed unobtainable, as if it were reserved for master craftsmen. So learning how to do this has been something of a focus for me. As much as an adult with ADHD can focus on anything anyway.
One of the things I came away from Port Townsend with is that there are basically four things you need to know how to do to cut dovetails. Maybe five if you count stock preparation, but let’s gloss over that for the moment and just say that it’s a given.
There are a number of steps, a cookbook-able process to follow for any style of dovetail joint, and if you can perform these four basic skills you can cut a dovetail joint that will fit. If you can do them with a high degree of accuracy, consistently, then you can be like Rob Cosman and glue them up right from the saw without test fitting. Note that I have no illusions about being Rob Cosman (or John Malkovich), I’m totally a beginner and am just sharing what I’ve learned.
Of these four procedures, sawing was the one that caused me the most trouble, and if you can’t do that accurately then you’re going to be frustrated. I know, ask me. I could generally have the cut square across the end of the board, and follow the line down the front face, but the cut on the back would consistently be off. The instructor, Tim Lawson, even had Jim Tolpin test my saw to make sure it wasn’t bewitched. It wasn’t of course, I’d already anointed it with chicken blood and performed several ritualistic chants. I just needed some critique on my technique and some practice.
So let’s start with what I learned about sawing accurately, then we can move on to the other basic dovetail skills in future posts and hopefully put it all together at the end.
You’ll need a decent dovetail saw. I got a Lie Nielsen dovetail saw for Christmas this year, to replace my cheap gents saw. You can get a cheap saw and tune it up, but if you don’t know what you’re doing why start with an unknown? The LN isn’t cheap at $125, but it’s a solid piece and has a good reputation. It’s beautiful tool too.
At the school they had the Veritas dovetails saw. It worked well too, and it’s half the price (literally) of the LN. I don’t care for the looks personally, but I’ve got an aesthetic hang up when it comes to tools. The over-moulded back just doesn’t work visually, but as I said it cuts just fine.
In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to get caught up in tools. I’m sure I’m the only one that does that, so it’s OK.
Here is the sawing process that Tim coached me through to resolve the Crooked Cuts(TM).
First, we need something to practice with. I’ve been using some squishy White Pine from the local big box store. I pick through the stock and find the straightest pieces. Cut them to length and shoot the ends square. Don’t leave your left thumb sticking out when you’re shooting the ends with your right hand. I’ve already learned that lesson, no point in you having to repeat it.
I’m not sure this is the best material for learning dovetails – it is so soft that the chisel work requires uber sharpness and a careful touch. But it’s readily available and more-or-less ready to go from the store.
Starting with the tail cuts, it’s critical that the cuts be square to the face of the board. If the cuts aren’t square you’ll spend a ton of time paring them to get them square. At best it will waste time, more likely it will be a joint that won’t fit well or will look uneven. Or both. Likewise, the pin cuts must be absolutely plumb. If the sawing isn’t accurate you’re starting out with a big disadvantage. Spending time practicing accurate sawing before attempting to make a dovetail joint will save you a lot of frustration.
Mark a series of practice cut lines on the end of a board. I’ve scribed a shoulder around the part so that I have a target to stop at. These are a 1:6 ratio, but really any angle is OK as long as it’s the same for all cuts. We will look at layout later, right now we just need a consistent set of lines so we can practice making consistent cuts. Spacing doesn’t make any difference at this point.
I’m going to deviate slightly from what Tim recommended. His advice was to orient the board so that the cuts are plumb – in other words the board would be tilted to the left for the first set of cuts and to the right for the second set of cuts. Try it and see if it helps. The idea is that then you just need to learn to saw plumb, and the weight of the saw helps with that. I want to be able to cut without having to re-orient the board, so that’s what I’m practicing.
Aside from the orientation of the board, here is what Tim recommended (seen through a filter of the Ian Kirby Dovetail book and several Rob Cosman videos):
First, use the thumb and index finger to pinch the board next to the cut line. We’re going to use these two fingers as a guide to keep the saw in place as we start the kerf. It also helps stabilize the board, and ties your body, the board and the saw into one connected unit.
Hold the saw gently with a three finger grip, your index finger pointing down the length of the blade. This was described as “imagine you’re holding a baby’s hand”. I’d add, it’s not a newborn, but a baby that is just starting to walk and needs something to hold on to. Your hand is relaxed, but not limp.
Stand in front of the board, to the side of the cut so that your saw arm is in a straight line with the layout line. Your wrist is locked and your arm is going to move forward and backward like a piston in an engine. You also want to lift up on the saw so that perhaps only 20% of it’s weight is on the teeth. I imagine I’m tickling the end grain.
Now gently press the saw against the thumb and forefinger of your off hand. Squeeze your guide fingers to push the blade into position. The blade should be on the waste side of the line, and your eyes should be on the opposite side of the line. Looking on the non-waste side, you should see the entire line with the blade parallel to it. You want to make your cut exactly next to the pen line. If you try to cut on the line it won’t be as accurate.
Begin sawing at one corner, either the front or the back. Try both and see what works best for you. Let’s assume you’re starting at the back corner. As soon as the saw begins a kerf at the corner you want to begin lowering the handle, watching the layout line on the end grain, walking the kerf square across the board. As soon as you have a tiny kerf started, stop. Sight down the sawplate and make sure your aligned with the angled line on the face of the board. Take another few strokes, just enough to bury the teeth. At this point your kerf is perhaps 1/16″ deep or slightly more.
Notice that you can see the reflection of the end of the board in the saw plate. If the reflection is lined up straight with the end of the board you’re square.
Now continue sawing, pivoting the blade around the back corner, and walking the kerf down the front face. Don’t let the saw come out of the kerf at the back, but also don’t saw any deeper there. Stop at the baseline, or just a hair above.
When you reach the scribed baseline pivot the saw around the front corner of the cut, bringing it down level. This uses the kerf you’ve accurately established to guide the cut on the back. Make sure you’ve reached the baseline on the front and the blade is horizontal. If you always saw from the face side or outside of the part then any tiny overshoot of the baseline on the back won’t show. It’s actually not that hard to hit the baseline, getting the cut square and on the correct angle is the magic.
As it turns out, for the tails, if the angle is off it doesn’t matter – as long as the cut is square to the face of the board. That is because when we get to actually making a joint we will use the tails to layout the pin cuts. For now, just mark and cut a few practice boards to get into the rhythm of sawing and practice getting it straight.
Here is the front of one of the practice boards from my 11 year old son. H, I and J look pretty good on the front. Ignore the H cut that is to the left of the line, that’s just miserable. Ditto on A, C and D. F and G fail because the go below the baseline.
A, B, C, H, I, J all look pretty good from the back too. But check out F for example. It looks good on the front and top (other than sneaking past the baseline) but it drifts waaaay off on the back. Using the technique that Tim recommended helps with this, K0lya was mostly just charging straight down – the ones where he worked down the front first came out better.
I’m going to go make some more practice cuts, then we’ll take a look at layout, chopping and paring. I’d love to hear how you do dovetails, as I said I’m just learning and this is what is working for me at the moment.