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!

What’s New in the August Issue

We publishing folks live and die by the “master calendar,” and according to ours here at Woodworker’s Journal, the August print issue is off the press and in the mail. You should be receiving your copy any day now. So, in between cutting the grass, angling for bass or getting those summer woodworking projects going, be sure to give your new magazine a close look. It’s chock-full of summer sizzlers you won’t want to miss:

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Challenging My Own Claim

A few weekends ago, I ended up proving a point to myself without really setting out to do it. I needed to make a couple of boxes, and I wanted a quick but elegant solution for joining the corners together.

As it turns out, I’ve been a little delinquent lately in getting my tool test tools returned to their proper owners. It’s been pretty busy here in the shop since Christmas, and those shipping tasks keep getting pushed further down my to-do list. So, I still have the Keller 1601 Pro Series Dovetail Jigs here from our December ’09 dovetail jig review. My bad, but actually, a good coincidence.

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Getting it Done in ’10

Ah, resolutions…

Depending on how you look at them, they could be the best or worst part of flipping the calendar to January.

Here are my plans for 2010: instead of vowing to drop 20 pounds or remodel my basement—both of which are equally unlikely—I’ve made a couple of woodworking-related resolutions this year. The first one should be easy to pull off:

1. I’m gonna tame my tangled mess of air compressor hose.

Sounds ridiculously easy, doesn’t it? Right now, it lays on the floor in a pile where it gets in my way, because the hose has a memory to it and doesn’t coil up easily. I kick it around and shove it here and there, but I need a better solution. Retractable? Maybe hung from the ceiling? This year I’m going to figure something out. (Advice anyone?)

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Holiday Countdown Has Begun

Holiday projects are prime time for brushing up on some skills while churning out the seasonal cheer.

Holiday projects are prime time for brushing up on some skills while churning out the seasonal cheer.

It’s official. Halloween is behind us and crops are coming out of the fields. Home Depot has the artificial Christmas tree display up right now, so the harbingers are all around us: December holiday season is right around the corner.

You know where I’m gonna take this, don’t you?

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In Defense of An Old Friend

Sometimes the first tool you reach for points out an instinctive favorite. One of mine is Porter-Cable's 690 router.

Sometimes the first tool you reach for is a personal favorite. One of mine is Porter-Cable's 690 fixed-base router.

Lately I’ve been churning out a lot of router dovetails, and that, of course, means choosing a router. I’ll be honest with you: I’ve got several different routers on the shelf. But what did I reach for first? My good old Porter-Cable 690LRVS with a fixed base.

And that got me thinking about favorite tools.

Now, you’ll notice that Porter-Cable isn’t sponsoring this blog post. They don’t even know I’m writing it. It was just me, alone in the shop as usual on a Monday morning, and the thought process was about this simple: “Gotta rout dovetails this week…need a router…grab the 690.” My gut drove the decision.

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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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Tools Don’t Replace Talent or Time

rockerOne of perks of being Woodworker’s Journal’s “field” editor is that, every now and then, I actually get out into the field. Sometimes I’m headed to trade shows, but the trips I enjoy even more involve getting together with other woodworkers to see how they do things. In addition to meeting some really fine people and taking care of a photoshoot, I often learn a thing or two about myself in the process.

Case in point: A while back I had the pleasure of spending a couple days in the shop of a world-class woodworker. Since he’s not the sort of guy who would probably want the attention, I won’t name names. But, he’s truly a master of the Shaker and Queen Anne traditions. Over decades of woodworking, he’s built numerous juried pieces, taught classes extensively and has written many books about woodworking and craftsmanship. But, in spite of that resume, he’s a humble, unassuming guy. Here’s the sort of fellow who speaks only when he has something thoughtful to say. He’s salt of the earth and gracious, through and through.

And boy oh boy, can he build furniture…

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