Follow the Rules, But Know When To Break Them

WJBlog_E_Conover_DovetailBoxIn learning any craft, the apprentice is indoctrinated with a plethora of rules. In woodworking, many are a matter of avoiding personal injury — as in safe use of sharp tools and machinery. Others are crucial to achieving workmanship-like results and producing furniture that will hold up to abuse for generations. (Woe is the practitioner who is ignorant of the laws of wood movement!)

Just such a rule is: “There must always be a half-pin at either edge of a dovetail joint and not a half-tail.” Stated another way, there is never a half tail — and this is true whether you are hand or machine cutting. The reason for this ironclad tenet is that wood, left unto itself, has a proclivity to warp.

A box, drawer or carcass dovetailed together with half-pins at each edge is ironbound and WJBlog_EConover_DovetailIllustrationwill resist any inclination of the wood to warp. However, this is not the case with half-tails at the edge, as we can see in the illustration. Should the wood warp, there is nothing holding the edges of the tail boards, and gaps will form. While I have exaggerated the phenomenon in my drawing, it is nevertheless unsightly.

I recently had a group who wanted to build the box pictured, which is in John Kassay’s beautiful collection of measured drawings, The Book of Shaker Furniture. The 10” deep box measures 11” by 19” but has a 3” drawer in the bottom running the width and divided from the main compartment by a floating panel. The original is nailed to a board with a molded edge to form the bottom.

WJBlog_EConover_DovetailCloseupThis rustic workmanship niggled me, so I moved the drawer up ½” and trapped another floating panel to form a true bottom that would be immune to wood movement. The dovetail layout of this box is asymmetrical, making it a great training piece. However, wood warpage of the front and back tail boards could make the area around the drawer a poster child for Illustration I. The solution is a ½” rail below the drawer to resist wood movement.

The problem is that you cannot put two half pins on such a small rail. It needs a single center pin, leaving a half tail in the pin board. It is time to safely bend the rules as we see in the close-up photo. Although we threw the rulebook out the window, we have a box that will last for generations.

Epilogue: This box brings rave comments from all who view it and is a popular pick for a dovetail workshop. Once sanded and finished, however, it is not a particularly practical piece of furniture. It is too large for tabletops but not big enough for the floor. The drawer doesn’t hold much, and no one knows what the original was used for. Several months later, Susan and I are still looking for a use. Maybe my fungus collection …

Exercising Your Joints

I got an email from a friend this morning asking me what I thought about Festool’s Domino joinery system. I told him I thought it was an incredibly ingenious solution for rapidly cutting mortises and that the machine itself is a marvelous (albeit expensive) tool. When I reread his email before sending my reply, it was interesting to find out that he wanted to buy the Domino specifically because he had to make a dozen or so mortise-and-tenon (M&T) joints for an upcoming project. I asked if he planned to do a lot more M&T work in the future and he said he suspected as much, but wasn’t sure.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by my friend’s readiness to buy such an expensive tool, possibly for a single use. After all, if you have a task to do on your computer, iPad, smartphone or other electronic time muncher, you simply buy the right software, application or peripheral device, right? I suppose it follows that when a modern woodworker needs to cut a particular joint, they buy the machine or device that’s designed specifically for that purpose.

But has modern woodworking really come to this? I remember when I was a teenager just getting interested in furniture making, I read a story about a church on an island in Lake Onega, Russia. It is said to have been built by an anonymous master craftsman using nothing but a simple axe. The story goes that after he finished building this amazing structure, he looked at his hand holding his axe and, unwilling to consider that this same axe might create such beauty elsewhere, flung the axe into the lake! Although the story is almost certainly apocryphal, I found its tale of doing great work with simple tools inspiring.

Making something with only the tools you have on hand is not only challenging, but it can help you to become a better woodworker. This certainly has been my experience. Way back before there were fancy mortising machines, we learned to chop decent mortises with a basic chisel and mallet. I remember drooling over the cool dovetail routing system that the Canadian company Leigh introduced some decades back. As a fledgling furniture maker, I was perpetually broke, so I had to cut all my dovetails by hand. It took a lot of practice, but let me create dovetails in sizes and proportions that fit the furniture I was building — not just the capabilities of the jig.

Speaking of which, lack of money and special tools also led me to design and build many of my own jigs and fixtures. For example, I had a commission to build a sleek mahogany frame for a daybed. I wanted the piece to feature box joints in all four corners. But since the members were way too long to cut on the table saw (using a dado blade), I created a router jig to guide all the joint cuts. The jig worked so well that I ended up using it on dozens of other projects, eventually making miles of tight-fitting joints before the jig wore out.

Such circumstances not only helped me develop better hand-eye coordination, but cultivated my concentration and patience as well. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have acquired the majority of my woodworking skills if I could have just gone out and bought a new tool or ready-made jig every time I needed it. And as an added bonus, you get a lot more physical exercise sawing, chiseling, drilling and planing your joinery into existence than you do simply pushing a router around. That’s a lot more important nowadays, as I’m not as skinny (or as poor) as I used to be!

A Peek Behind the Curtain

Leigh1Because I am a woodworking tool geek, one of the things I really like about my job is that I not only get to see the plethora of new woodworking products as they are launched, but I often get to see them firsthand and get a demonstration of how they work.  (No tedious reading of the instruction manuals for me, no sir!)

A good example of this came recently when Matthew Grisley of Leigh Industries dropped by to demonstrate their new Super FMT Jig ( I have had the pleasure of knowing Matt and his family for many years now, so this demo meeting was a double treat for me. This jig forms both mortises and tenons with one setup, much like their original FMT jig, but at almost half the cost. (A great concept with all of us watching our nickels and dimes even more closely these days.)

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Never Underestimate a Good Trim Job

Definitely a "do over" miter joint here--it's not even close to closing.

Definitely a "do over" miter joint here--it's not even close to closing.

If you’re a trim carpenter by trade, and if you pride yourself on doing high-quality work, here’s a tip of my hat to you. You folks are the unsung woodworkers of the world.

I say this partially out of plain-old respect for the building trades, but also because my house is missing your expertise. This past summer my wife and I finally got around to painting our daughters’ bedrooms. I was in charge of “cutting in” around windows, doors and ceilings, so I spent quite a bit of time examining the moldings along the way. Let’s just say that the trimwork in those two bedrooms left a lot to be desired. To illustrate my point, here are several photos documenting what I saw up close. As you can see, the mitered window casings aren’t even close to touching. The chair rail in one bedroom has a scarf joint smack-dab in the middle of the wall, and were it not for copious amounts of putty, you could drive a small truck through it.  What an eyesore.

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Yellowstone Hotel Shares Marquetry on Grand Scale

1930s cartography, with woodworking panache!

1930s cartography, with woodworking panache!

If Yellowstone National Park is on your short list of future vacation destinations, be sure to stop and see Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel on the park’s northwest corner. It’s a wonderful vintage building in its own right, but the hotel also contains a remarkable example of marquetry you won’t want to miss! I stumbled on it almost by accident while staying there for a night last summer.

On the wall of the hotel’s lounge, just off the main lobby, there’s a huge map of the United States made almost entirely of wood. Designed and assembled in 1937 by Robert C. Reamer and W. H. Fay, the map measures 17 ft. 10 in. wide by 10 ft. 4 in. tall. It contains 15 types of wood from nine countries: zebrawood (Africa), lacewood and Oriental (sic) wood (Australia), Brazilian rosewood, satinwood (Central America), East Indian rosewood, gray and white harewood (England), English oak, Honduras mahogany, teak (India), as well as slash and straight-grained walnut, maple and burl redwood from the United States.

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Stick with What Works

Some might call this tedious work, but repetition is part of what I enjoy about mortising.

Some might call this tedious work, but repetition is part of what I enjoy about mortising.

A couple years ago, I invested in a popular loose-tenon joinery system to see how that would work for me. As a tool reviewer, I’m always anxious to try a new gizmo on for size, and this tool was getting a lot of buzz. Heck, a faster, easier way to make mortise-and-tenon joinery. Sounded good to me!

Well, the product came, and I put it to work on my next few projects. It did the job swimmingly, chomping mortise after mortise in good time. The cuts were clean, the setup was pretty easy and those loose tenons dropped right into place. Really, there was no part of the operation I could complain about.

But as time went on, that new tool got less use than it first did. I ended up switching back to making M&Ts the way I’ve always done them: mortising on the drill press, followed by tenon-cutting on the table saw.


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Dovetail Confessions

dovetailsOkay, true confession time: I’ve never cut dovetails by hand. There, I said it.

It’s probably not a big thing to admit, really … lots of us woodworkers don’t cut and chop pins and tails the “old school” way. Sure, I can steer my router through a dovetailing jig with the best of them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for me, a woodworking editor for gosh sakes, I feel like I’m admitting some deep, dark secret. I’m supposed to know this stuff to be a card-carrying shop writer, right?

Well, wrong.

It’s just that cutting dovetails by hand is one of those “I’d really like to learn that and someday I’ve gotta get to it” kinda things. Who doesn’t want to make sweet-looking dovetails in any shape or configuration you please? A well-made dovetail joint separates a darn-good drawer from one you want to carry around and show off, like a picture of your kids. And, when you can stand back and say that you did the job without ever reaching for a guide bushing or spending three hours dialing in the bit depth…well, you’ve arrived, right? At least that’s what that little voice inside my head tells me.

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Pocket Screw Joints: The Outdoorsy Types

A quick fence gate came together even faster with pocket screw joinery.

A quick fence gate came together even faster with pocket screw joinery.

Summer is quickly slipping through our fingers, so hopefully you’re busy with outdoor projects. For me, it’s always a nice change of pace during these “dog days” to set aside the hardwood and dig into a stack of cedar or cypress! This season, I’ve got a pair of rickety Adirondack chairs that’ll get the heave-ho for something better, plus a garden fence that’s way overdue. (If anyone has a good plan for a removable garden fence, I’m all ears.)

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