Last night was the first time I was able to get into the shop for a day or two due to life getting in the way, (it's always getting in the way these days it seems). But just because I wasn't in the shop working didn't mean I wasn't woodworking in a sense. I spent every free second that I did have thinking about the joinery on the bobbin box. How should it be built? Through dovetails, half blind, mitered splines, dovetail keys etc. How should I join the sides, bottom and top together...you see my thinking here?
Ultimately I've decided to join the box with through dovetails, namely because I love working with cherry and any excuse to make a little sweet smelling dust is well worth it. The other reason is that I especially like how through dovetails look in cherry.
So this is where our "Get Woodworking Week" comes into play. I know for a large number of newbies out there, dovetails scare the bejeebus out of you, but honestly it's just another joint; one that can be cut by hand so no specialized pieces of machinery are needed.
I know that for a lot of new woodworkers the dovetail scares them because it's easy to screw it up...and once it goes bad, it generally tends to go really bad. The key is to remember that it's not the end of the world if one is tad loose or your saw kerf goes astray a bit, that's not the important part of all of this, the thing to remember is that cutting dovetails is a skill that can be learned by anyone and as with any skill gets better and better with practice. Unfortunately I can't remember who said it but someone wiser than I would often tell new woodworkers that a hand cut dovetail lends a level of quality to a piece that can never be matched by machine. The joints may not be perfect, but that's what makes the piece so special...the knowledge that it was crafted by hand with love and dedication.
So where do we start?
Well, there's been a surge in debate about the best way to layout dovetails in recent weeks across the woodworking blogs. I chalk this up a bit to Chris Schwarz and a blog post on his Popular Woodworking blog about laying out dovetail spacing using dividers. I have to admit that his post intrigued me quite a bit as this is how I've been laying out my dovetails for quite awhile now. Don't get me wrong, I've run the gambit and have been known layout my joints by eye, but the more OCD side of me really likes the look of a evenly spaced hand cut dovetail. I also have a few vague memories of my grandfather laying out a tool box or some other case work in this manner when I was very young (the only time I ever saw the man cut a dovetail) and it has always stuck with me, but alas without the details/understanding of exactly what he was doing.
Over the years I've seen a variety of examples of how to layout with dividers, but honestly in my opinion the best example that in my mind easily explains and outlines how to do this is from a series of woodworking videos that Chris Gochnour put together for Fine Woodworking. Unfortunately you do have to be a paid online member over at FWW to view the videos, but honestly if you're having trouble laying out your joints or just cutting, chopping etc on your dovetails it's well worth the cost to view the series. Either way I'm going to give you the crash course in Chris's technique intermixed with some of my own, so get out your dividers and follow along.
The first piece to the puzzle, (other than having your work cut and sized to near final dimensions that is) is deciding on your layout for the work pieces. I personally use a combined technique of my own and how Chris lays out his pieces.
In the picture above you can see that I use Chris's suggestion on using a triangle to outline the direction of the pieces as well as which face is going to be inside and outside. The point of the triangle (in the center of the boards) act as your directional guide as well as dictate which face is the inside of the piece. I also go a step further and dictate which piece is going to front, back, right and left sides and place an additional directional arrow as my fail safe (or just to placate my OCD, but we won't go there).
Once you've decided on how you're going to orient your work it's time to get serious and breakout your favorite marking gauge. IF you don't have one don't worry, you can do the same thing with a combination square and a pencil or marking knife or even in a pinch just a ruler and a strait edge. The key here is to get a consistent mark all the way around the piece that is the same distance from the edge of the piece. How far do you mark this line? Well it depends on the type of joint, but in this example we're going for through dovetails so the mark should measure the thickness of the stock.
The key here is to get it as close to exact as possible; the closer you are in this setting the better your joint will fit. Once you've got your gauge set it's time to mark your stock. I will typically mark the tails board all the way around the piece and the pins board just on the faces...why? well for me it's just that many less marks that you will have to plane, scrape or sand out on the piece at the end of the day.
You can see in the picture below what I'm talking about when I say I mark all the way round on my tails board and only the faces for the pins boards.
On to actually laying out the joint.
A great suggestion that I have also incorporated from Chris is to do your layout marking and cutting of the tails on both tails boards at the same time. Take a minute to match up each one, aligning your directional markings and get them clamped into place with enough stock showing to allow you to make your marks without interference by the clamp. Don't have a work bench? Don't worry about it, you can get creative here and use whatever works. I'm currently using a hand screw clamped to the top of my assembly table. The only key item is to make sure that your stock is secure and isn't going to move on you when you begin to cut your joints.
Let's talk half pins for a moment. There's a variety of thinking out there regarding the best way to figure out how thick these should be. Personally, I typically run with about 2/3 the thickness of the stock for through dovetails. In the two pictures below you can see what I'm talking about. The first picture shows me sizing the pin to approximately 2/3 the thickness of one piece of the stock. This honestly is purely an aesthetic vs. structural decision here. If the piece is going to see a lot of direct use and abuse (in a box for example) I will go with this rule of thumb. If the piece is going to see more reserved use I will go even thinner to give an even more dramatic look...again it's purely a personal choice and you should mix it up and find a look that works for you. Once you've decided on a thickness go ahead and mark your half pins by aligning one leg of the dividers to the outside of the stock and marking the stock with the other leg.
Now the fun begins. With the half pins marked it's time to set your tails. This again is purely up to you. Do you want your piece to have more or fewer tails. By spreading your dividers further apart you'll have fewer tails and vice versa with narrower giving more tails. The process can be a bit finicky for those of you just starting out with dividers but once you get the hang of it the process goes fairly quickly.
In the picture below you can see that I've spread my dividers and have begun working my way across the piece beginning at the mark that was made for the half pin on the left side of the screen (not shown), walking the dividers across the piece until I get to the right edge of the stock. The left leg of the divider is sitting where the left edge of the last tail would be marked if I chose this layout. The right leg of the divider is sitting beyond the mark for the right half pin. The distance between the half pin mark and the right divider leg at this point represents the distance between the top edge of the tails. It's important to note that you need to make sure that you have enough space between the half pin mark and where the right leg of the divider is hitting as this represents the narrowest point between your tails and directly impacts how much room you have to a) initially cut the tails and b) to chop out the waste in between. Also the number of times it took you to walk the dividers across the work surface to reach the opposing half pin will equal the number of tails that will be cut. If you're happy with the number of tails as well as the spacing between the top edge of each tail it's time to make your marks.
Clear as mud? don't worry; keep reading and things should become more clear.
The picture below shows the progression of the above process as well as the marking of each edge of each tail.
Stay with me here as it can get confusing. Starting at the black arrow on the left (this is the mark made for your half pin) you will place the left leg of your divider into this mark. The right leg corresponds with the 1st white arrow moving to the right. You will then circle your left divider leg out of the black arrow; (with it becoming the new right leg of the dividers), ending up where the 2nd white arrow is as we move to the right. Is this starting to make sense? (If you're still deciding on your over all layout you will continue on moving your dividers across the work until you end up with something similar to the picture above and it's associated paragraph). As you swing each leg you should be making a small mark with the point of the divider until you reach your half pin on the right end of the stock. Once you've made all of your marks moving from left to right you will reverse your movement and do the same thing starting on the right of the stock and its associated half pin mark (the yellow arrow); then moving from right to left to the first red arrow on the right and so on.
Once you have your marks from the dividers it's simply a matter of making your layout lines with a fine pencil and your choice of combination squares, bevel gauges or saddle squares. I personally use a Veritas 14 degree dovetail saddle gauge and love it. Quick and reliable marks on the end grain and down the face.
So now that you've made your marks it's time for the scary part...actually cutting wood. I know, I know, you're afraid of screwing this up and being laughed at by your peers and wife/husband/significant other...we've all been there, trust me...we've all been there. But don't worry, if you screw it up you screw it up, after all nothing is perfect and you only learn by doing so stop hesitating and get that saw out and get to the doing. I do have to recommend that you do have some sort of finer toothed backed saw at your disposal for this process...not necessary, but will make your life much, much more simple and your joints that much better.
I start my cutting on the left side of the piece (strange...I've just realized that I mark my pieces right to left but then cut them left to right...weird), the key here is to leave your line. To do so I will place my thumb nail on the line, using it to guide the saw. Unfortunately I don't have a pic of that, but I do have a pic from the opposite side of the saw...helpful right?
Remember that you're not only leaving the line at the top (where you're using your thumb to guide) but also down the edge of the piece as well. Progress through each cut, remembering to leave the pencil line and to stop...yes...stop each cut once you reach the layout line that was scribed along the face of each board way back in step 2.
When you're finished you should have something that resembles the above picture. Notice that my cuts are not perfect and that's just fine.
Let's talk a moment about sawing. The biggest piece of advice I have for you and your saw is to not fight each other. Your job is to guide the saw and provide the power, aka the back and forth piston motion. The saws job is to cut the wood...brilliant I know...but seriously, many new woodworkers end up fighting their hand saws and wind up with a poor cut that's off track etc. There's no need to force your saw, an easy fluid back and forth is all that's needed. Let the saw do the work. I like to think of it as this: Is your say saying Shhhhhhhhhhhika, shhhhhhhhhhika, shhhhhhhhhhika, or is it saying Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzupa, Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzupa, Zuuuuuuupa much like a the sound of a file. If you're hearing/feeling the latter than you're not letting the saw track and are trying to force the cut. If you're worried about getting your cuts just right spend a few minutes with a piece of scrap and get warmed up by sawing a few lines from the get go. The key is to get to that sweet smooth feeling and sound of Shhhhhhhhhhhhika, where the Shhhhhhhhhhhh is the saw cutting on the forward cut (for western style saws that cut on the push rather than the pull) and the ika as the end of the cut and you pulling the saw back to its starting position. This is one lesson I do remember with clarity from my grandfather and I remember the exhilaration and excitement I had when I finally got to the Shhhhhhhhhhhhhika...
So now that you've cut your tails it's time for more scary...removing the waste, iiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...
Ok ok, calm down, calm down...I SAID, CALM DOWN. It sounds scary but it doesn't have to be. You have the tools at your disposal to make this job easy. No one said you have to chop the entire amount of waste out with a chisel did they? Nooooope...they didn't so don't hesitate to get creative, use a coping saw to cut out the majority of the waste, hell, use a scroll saw...that's what I do from time to time, so why not this time? The key is to be careful not to nick/damage the edges of the tails and to stay 1/32-1/64 away from the shoulder line. if you do those 2 things this step is easy peasy. Once this is done it's a simple task to chop out the remaining lip of material and by removing that extra amount before chopping it will make your chisel run truer and cut easier as it's not having to plow through all that wood.
When I do my chopping I will also add a slight back bevel to the tail and pin boards. By doing so it creates a void/low spot that allows for a cleaner joint. Just make sure that as you do so you keep the shoulder clean and strait as any bump off mark from here will be visible. The picture below gives you an idea of what I'm talking about...and it's a tad exaggerated just to get my point across
Now that your tails are cut and clean it's time to move to the pins...and baby...the pins are the easiest part of this puzzle if you ask me.
At this point I will also lay out my pieces to aid in matching the correct set of tails to the associated set of pins. To do this I simply pair up my pin boards (oriented front to back according to our layout triangle) and the place the approriate tail board on either side.
The quickest and easiest way I've found to mark your pins is to align the edge of your pin board with a support of some sort...a block plane on its, the top edge of your clamping surface etc. In the picture below I've matched it to the top of the hand screw with an identical hand screw on the table top acting as further support. Once you have your tail stock lined up it's time to mark your pins. Take the approriate tail board that is associated with the pin board end you're currently marking. Flush the ends of the tails to the leading edge of the pin board as well as the sides. Once that's done grab your marking knife (x-acto, etc) and mark each edge.
Once you've marked your tails you can raise the pin board and darken the marks with a fine lead pencil, remembering to transfer the line down the face of each board to the shoulder.
When that's accomplished all the way around your boards it's time to start cutting again...no worries...these cuts are nice and easy vertical cuts, besides after cutting the tails you're all warmed up and this should be a walk in the park. Just remember to let the saw do the work and think...Shhhhhhhhhhika. The processes is exactly the same, using your thumb to guide the saw and leaving the line.
Once everything is cut it's time to CHOP...AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH...
Don't worry about it...pins are easy to chop. Everyone has their own process and thought process for chopping. I personally do the following. With the pin board face down, so the waste looks like a big V, I will drive my chisel in with a few taps to score across the grain about half way down the waste. I will then flip the board over so that the V is now upside and do the same thing on that side. I will then carefully pare out the was that has been cut. The reason I orient the board in this succession is all about pressure.
If you look at the picture above you can see that if you were to keep chopping from this angle the waste is getting wedge into your pins. In doing so it's possible to damage the edge of the pin as well as potentially cut into the pin.
By flipping the board that pressure is no longer wedging into the pins, and if you happen to chop clean through as I've done on the left side you're not in danger of cutting or damaging the pin. Continue with this process until you can easily chop a clean line down the shoulder, remembering to give those final cut a bit of a back bevel to aid in your fitting.
Once you're done with cleaning up the pins, it's time for the initial fitting. This can take a little finesse, but you'll get it by taking shallow cuts with your chisel and exorcizing a little patience. Keep fitting your joint until you're happy with the fit and then take a step back and admire your hard work.
Remember if it doesn't look perfect or fit perfect it's ok...your next one will be better and the one after that will be better and so on. It's all about practice.
Before we wrap up here let's talk about one item I've purposely left out...your chisels. If you don't have a full set Lie Nielsen chisels it's not the end of the world. You can cut these joints with any chisel you can buy at the big box stores in your neighborhood. The key is that they be sharp...the sharper the better...and if you find that your tails and pins are a bit closer together than any of the chisels you can find at the box store will allow you to work without damaging things...well, no worries, you can always make your own. Don't hesitate to grind down a big box chisel to fit your needs.
The above picture is a perfect example. A simple $10.00 1/4" Buck Bro's chisel from a certain home store that loves orange that I ground down to just under 1/8" for those smaller dovetails.
So what are you waiting for? Get out in the wood-shop and get cutting some dovetails, you'll be glad you did.