Shoptime and dovetails…

After what seemed to me (someone who’s lived in a state where winter was 3 months–Jan, Feb, March—Florida, where there is no winter and Texas where winter lasts from Jan to Feb) an interminal winter, the garage finally warmed up to 40* today and I could no longer hold back.  I had to make some cuts and smell sawdust or I was going to scream.  I haven’t been out there since early November when the temps started falling.  The natives around here assure me this was still a weak winter but with piles of snow next to my driveway waist high, I’m thinking it was/is one of the top 5 in my coldest/snowiest winters file.

So what was I doing out there in the “warm” (been averaging about 10-20* since Christmas INSIDE the garage) shop you ask?  Practicing dovetails!   I have a big project (my biggest actually) coming up real quick and while it is classified until completed, I need a certain skill set before I start.  Namely, dovetail joints.

I busted out some scrap basswood from my first tentative steps into the world of chip carving around Christmas and hacked up some sides of a new tea box (to replace the first box I ever made with some horrible finger joints).IMAG2673

I used the Japanese saw I received for Christmas and while getting used to the pull-cut motion took a few cuts, this baby cuts like a laser and leaves a great edge.

I tried my hand at layouts following Paul Sellers excellent video on Youtube, and had my first tails cut in no time.  Man, I am really loving that leg vise I added to the bench now!  Too bad my skills with the coping saw are not so hot!IMAG2677

Next I transferred the tails profile to the side end piece and marked where the pins are.IMAG2678  A few moments later and I was putting the two pieces together.  Easy as pie.

A little too easy, actually.  IMAG2679As you can see from the picture, there is a nasty gap between the two pieces.  A mistake on my part: I made my marks, then cut on the line with the backsaw, actually wavering a little and coming inside the line, making the tails too small by a hair and the pins likewise too small…add them together and the gap is big!

Armed with the knowledge that I screwed up and how I did it, I tried again…and the second joint fit better, but was still a little sloppy.  I realized now the coping saw was the problem.  When cutting out the waste, I’m (a) not very experienced with the wierd, loosey-goosey feel of the coping saw vs the back/miter saw and as a result, the kerf wobbled taking more wood off than I wanted.  Result: another gap riddle joint…though not as bad as #1.

For the third joint, I decided to score the waste part to be cut with a knife so the coping saw had a groove to follow.  I also cut the pins and tails slightly big this time.  I figured with the pins and tails big, I’ll use a chisel to sneak up on a tight joint.  Having the splintery basswood scored with the knife let the coping saw leave a smoother cut and helped control the ragged kerf (lol) left by the tiny flexible coping saw.

This joint was better, but trying to trim basswood with a chisel didn’t work and a few chunks broke off…result: more gaps, but best one yet!

Last chance to get it right…I took my time, tried not to cut the tails and pins big, scored the waste and then trimmed it all up with the utility knife instead of chisel and BAM, my best dovetail joint yet!!IMAG2683

Not the best in the world, but a personal best.  I can feel how it would work a lot better on hardwood…basswood is probably too soft to mess with anyway but I had it laying around and it was just the right size for a tea box.

It took all of 45 minutes and once put together, I was grinning from ear to ear.  No glue and it feels sturdy, even with the gaps and all!  Awesome!  IMAG2685You can see in the foreground one of the better joints.  The one on the left is the first one I cut—the gaps in profile look heinous but hey, not bad for a first try, I figure.  Should have used a denser wood but ah well, now I now how basswood reacts to dovetailing!

Next I’m going to chip carve this puppy and get the bottom and top on…

Man it felt great to get some shoptime in.  Woodworking is good for the soul!


About Marcus Richardson

Marcus attended the University of Delaware and later graduated from law school at the age of 26. Since then, he has at times been employed (or not) as: a stock boy, a cashier, a department manager at a home furnishing store, an assistant manager at and arts and crafts store, an unemployed handyman, husband, cook, groundskeeper, spider killer extraordinaire, stay at home dad, and a writer.
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