Andrew Brant

There is no scrap of wood, just pieces not yet used

Andrew Brant
There is no scrap of wood, just pieces not yet used

I'm sorry to say after all these years, that I've never cut a dovetail until tonight. I watched videos and read books on making them: Rob Cosman, Chris Schwartz, Will Meyers, Megan Fitzpatrick. Paul Sellers, even if I'm long over his poetry and sense of righteousness. So many more.

Hell, about six months after my first live edge slab table I bought a rusty old Disston that was 100 years old and tried to sharpen it.  Paul Sellers said that everyone should be able to sharpen a dovetail saw and anyway, dovetail saws are expensive. That was maybe my least favorite Friday night: not knowing what I'm doing, slowly destroying an antique, and bloodying my knuckles in the old rust on the way. 

I didn't even do dovetails while I was in the Brooklyn hand tools only shop. One of the big problems was my source of lumber - I had no car, but I could walk Sawkil Lumber. They had beautiful old growth wood - but it was never milled very fine, and was always very very hard. 

So tonight, with the Dutch Toolchest class at the Lost Art Press storefront in Covington Kentucky with Megan Fitzpatrick coming up in a couple weeks I had to practice. It came out pretty alright, but I hope I have time to make a dozen more before I'm in Kentucky. 

Here's the tools I used:

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A bad axe stiletto dovetail saw, a cheap wheel marking gauge from China, a few Robert Sorby chisels, a compass I'm using like a divider, a dovetail marker, a coping saw as well as a bow saw, a marking knife, a square, and a vise. 

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I marked the baseline with the wheel gauge set at the thickness of the wood. 

I marked the lines and put X's on the waste.  Honestly, I remember one thing that got me caught up before was elaborate spacing lessons using dividers.  I love geometry as much as the next, but for some reason it over confused me.  The more I've read up on it, dovetails are really pretty overkill as long as they are reasonably made.  This is also just a test joint.  So I decided to skip all concern about proper aesthetic spacing just to get into the cutting part. I figure, that can come later once I'm confidant in cutting strong joints. 

It's really two different parts of the mind - I want to develop the muscle memory of how to cut these, like learning how to backhand a tennis racquet. The designer, the artist in me will wait. 

I also remembered that a lot of people use blue tape to mark their dovetails. I forgot and added them late.  One of the benefits is that you can use a knife to cut out the tape, leaving razor accurate but very bold marks.  So I just slapped one on the baseline and moved forward. Next time. 

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I cut a rabbet on the side like Chris Schwarz and Rob Cosman suggested - I understood when I put it all together that the final lockup sits in this groove, but honestly, I just got this rabbet plane and still am not sure what the benefit is while transferring the marks from one board to another. Sometimes learning is just about doing what you're told the first time and seeing if it makes sense once you try it. Not one of those times, but one more thing to dig in on. 

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I tried both my bow saw and my coping saw for the waste.  I tried to get as close to the line as possible, but now I see the benefit of a fret saw. Something even smaller here would be nice. These are really for larger work, though it's also fine and I don't think I'll spend more money on another fairly redundant tool for now. 

Here's where I really goofed: I cut the wrong part of the waste. Luckily for this practice piece it didn't matter, so I just cut all four board shorter, squared them up with a jack plane and went back to work. It was a big wide for a first attempt anyway. But that would have been really annoying on a finished project. 

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I chiseled out the waste after that. This is where I notice that my practice boards are Douglas fir and very soft - I needed a very, very sharp chisel not to just smash the grain. Good thing I got that all set up and working well last week. 

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I transferred the marks to the next board, again fairly quickly. I liked Rob Cosman's suggestion of using a plane as a quick, easy reference flat to support the board. I remember the first, aborted time I tried dovetails I couldn't figure out what to do there. This is the problem of being totally self-taught. This, or a trick like it, is something anyone with any experience at all would be able to show you in no time and you would get it from the beginning. Part of the reason I'm looking forward to this class coming up is to finally learn a lot of those tricks. 

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Cut the pins. Pretty easy.  Marking a lot of those mitre cut triangle shelves, by hand, out of exotic hardwood that then sat as part of the Coney Island Boardwalk taught me a lot about how to cut angles with a hand saw. Switching to Douglas fir makes this a breeze. I feel confidant. 

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Cut out that waste with the coping saw, then chiseled. I'll need to work on this part - chiseling the angled walls is tricky, and this super soft wood is making it a lot, lot harder. Maybe I'll practice the next in Poplar, like the class is going to be using... 

Now the moment of truth:

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Hell yes! It fits pretty tight, and actually goes together! Hey, it's far from perfect - a lot of blowout at the end that I need to learn to manage. Sharper chisels, better control.  But my saw work was the best part. 

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And here it is after I took off the tape. 

I did make one crucial mistake after this - I went in and tried to clear them up more.  Nope, unless it was out of square, I shouldn't have done that. I can't correct for mistake really, at this point, if it's going all the way together. All I'm doing is introducing more gaps. 

Also, when I was done, I planed over the top to clean it up but some of the gaps were large enough that I took a corner off one of the pins. I filled it was white glue, sawdust and plane shavings, and after a little sanding tomorrow when it's dry, I'll cut it small to keep it. 

I'm not much for keepsakes, but I think this one I'm going to hold onto for a while. Its a step up from any joinery I've ever done before. It's the step away from simple, hairpin legs on live edge slabs (though all those butterfly keys helped me understand how to use a chisel). 

Anne of all Trades wrote today that she wished that she could skip all stock prep and millwork and go right to joinery, that that is the best part. After this, I feel the same. Tonight, I finished the bathtub caddy, made an earring stand out of walnut burl and a branch from the pepper tree in the yard, and this joint. It's only the first, but finally one that gives me the confidence to do a lot, lot more. 

artist, printmaker from chicago