Kevan Lear did not invent the dovetail jig. Far from it. In fact, for years he did design work for one of the premier dovetail jig makers, a company that is now a competitor. The problem as he saw it, though, was that there were simple-to-use jigs, and there were versatile and flexible jigs. His goal was to make one that was both. The result of that quest is the AKEDA dovetail jig, a product which he created after a long career in engineering design.
“I was educated in London, graduated in 1967 as a designer craftsman in wood, metal and plastic, and ended up being a teacher in England for a year before moving to Canada and teaching here,” Kevan recounted. “After a couple of years, I was invited to become part of a team designing a ferry system for Vancouver, British Columbia. We designed an innovative catamaran ferry that can be rotated within its length and loads on one side as the other side is unloading. You can unload 400 passengers in a mere 30 seconds, thus making the ferry more profitable since it does not sit idle during separate load and unload sequences. After that job ended in 1977, I became a designer working on a wide variety of industrial and consumer products.
“In 1981, I met Ken Grisley of Leigh Jigs, the inventor of the first variable guide finger dovetail jig. I thought his jig was a brilliant invention. I designed products for him for about 10 years. By then, my design company had grown to the point where I had about a dozen designers. Even after I stopped designing for Leigh, I kept thinking about the dovetail jig. I wanted it to be simpler and more elegant. By 1999, I felt I had it, and applied for a patent.
“I really designed the jig for myself, in a sense. I’ve always been a hobby woodworker, and I was always unhappy with the existing jigs. I’m lazy; I want to be able to pick up a tool, use it and put it down. I wanted something I did not have to think about each time I pulled it down off the shelf. That’s possible with other tools, like a drill press, but dovetail jigs, especially those that have variable functionality, were all too complex and required too much of a learning curve.
“I also wanted a jig you did not have to adjust, and with the AKEDA, there is nothing to adjust. All you do is clamp the wood in by turning the single clamp knob with one hand while holding the wood with the other. The clamp moves in parallel so it clamps evenly across the board. Of course, I also wanted it to be able to make different dovetail layouts for through and stop dovetails, and for box joints. The layout is determined by where you plug in the guide fingers. One set does the pins; to do the tails, you replace the finger with its mate into the same slot.
“The key difference between this and other jigs is that you get the same professional-looking results at the same cost, but simply and consistently with no learning curve. Our jig starts in the 300 dollar range for a 16-inch jig. We sell to both hobby woodworkers and cabinet shops alike. Some shops have told us that even their apprentices can set it up and use it. Some cabinet shops use two jigs: they lay out the pins on one and the tails on the other, and the parts will still fit.”
Don’t let the simplicity and clean lines fool you, though: this is no lightweight jig. The compact 16-inch version weighs in at a hefty 28 pounds, and the two-foot model tips the scales at 38 pounds. Naturally, there is more to this story, since simply inventing something worthwhile does not guarantee an easy path to the market. In the case of AKEDA, there were a couple of false starts that generated a lot of rumors on the online message boards.
“Once I had a patent on the jig,” Kevan explained, “I went back to Ken at Leigh Industries and offered it to him, but he turned it down. I had a patent and a good idea, so I went looking for financing. I was contacted by a tool seller who offered financing in exchange for a short-term exclusive arrangement. I put together a formal agreement for half a million and an informal one for another quarter million. I closed my design firm, launched AKEDA in 2002, and shipped out our first shipment of jigs.
“Unfortunately, the seller changed his mind partway through, and the second-round financing was withdrawn in 2003. A few months later, we had a fire which burned us out of our offices. We shut down and were unable to deliver product until August 2004. One year later, our manufacturer started selling our product to our former financier. Needless to say, we changed manufacturers, a time-consuming process which once again left us without product for a year and a half. It was during this time that the rumors flew. Fortunately, things have been going steady since 2007.
“In case you are curious, the name AKEDA is an acronym for the initials of some of the people who helped get it off the ground. The company consists of me, my wife, and a handful of contractors for manufacturing, detail design refinement and sales. We don’t sell direct, but if you go to the website, you’ll find a list of dealers.
“Now that we’ve come this far, we plan to develop more products. We’ve got some innovative ideas for other router-based woodworking jigs, so it’s worth your while to keep your eye on our website. They will, of course, be high quality, simple yet versatile.”
With all the jigs on the market, that still leaves us woodworkers wondering which is the best to buy, and on that score, Kevan has a wise suggestion. “Do your research,” he insists. “Learn about all of our competitors so you make the right choice. We’ve sold over 10,000 jigs, but we’d rather you get the right jig for you, even if it isn’t ours.”