Thursday, October 4, 2012

Learning to dovetail well

I have been working to improve my hand tool dovetailing over the past several weeks with some success (I'll post some results shortly), but I can't help thinking about the time it has taken, the false starts, the frustration because I lacked a clear idea of what to do to get better, etc.  Surely there was a better way.  In the process, I've done a lot of research and I think there is.

Something I am sure of:  it is not helpful to watch the many videos of highly skilled, very experienced woodworkers cutting a dovetail joint in three minutes.  In fact, I think it is counterproductive.  The last thing you should do as a beginner is hurry.  The speed will come.  If I really need fast, there's always the router smirking at me from its shelf.  Paul Sellers wrote recently that he has been doing at least four dovetails a day for forty years.  I am fairly confident that if I had been cutting them that long, I'd be quick and accurate too.  Better to start with accurate.

Another thing I am sure of:  to paraphrase something I read, if you are having trouble sawing to a line,  you shouldn't be sawing dovetails.  I thought I was sawing to a line pretty well, and for most things I was.  But very small gaps in through dovetails are very noticeable.  The single best thing you can do is to practice sawing to a line over and over and over.  When you do, unexpected issues crop up.  It's not easy for me to see the edge of a line or a knife mark without adopting poor posture to get my eyes closer.  I'm better at cutting to the left side of a line than the right side.  Were I to teach a two day course on dovetailing, I wouldn't cut a single dovetail the first day.  I'd spend the time on sawing to a line and paring skills.  It's boring, but essential, like playing scales when you are learning to play a musical instrument.

How was dovetailing taught traditionally?  In an apprenticeship.  I don't know exactly, but I imagine the apprentice began with a long series of activities first.  Maybe using a handsaw to cut pieces to rough length and width.  Then he would go on to tasks that required cutting to a line with more accuracy, using a backsaw, etc.  Likely a similar progression with chisels and sharpening.  By the time the apprentice was ready to attempt a dovetail, he was fairly proficient with a saw and chisel.  Then he might be assigned to cut dovetails for a piece where precision wasn't essential.  I suspect the process took many months of full time effort.

The nearest we can get is to enter a formal program or take one of the intensive courses at a woodworking school that lasts months.  For most of us, that isn't a practical option.  The next best thing is to take a shorter course, one lasting a week or so.  This is what I wish I had done.  Here's an example of one that sounds good.  Problem is, the course is $725, which isn't bad, but airfare, car rental, and hotel would likely have been at least that much again.  No classes are available locally.  I talked myself out of it, but I shouldn't have.  If you live close to a school with a good course and have the means, this is the way to go.

The next best thing is to buy a DVD   This is nowhere near as good as being able to receive individualized feedback from a good instructor, but it is a lot better than nothing.  I now wish I had asked for recommendations on a woodworking forum.  Others have done that since and this one is often recommended.  I am inclined to buy it and review it here.  If you have watched it, or alternatively know one you recommend, let us know.

Online video could be good, but I didn't find it so.  There are lots of videos out there, but most of them show a highly proficient woodworker cutting a dovetail in real time with no discussion of skill development.  These videos tend to last just a few minutes and aren't all that helpful.  For what it's worth, this is the best one  I found, although he uses a Japanese saw.  If you know of a better one, please let us know.

Although learning a skill like hand tool woodworking is much easier if you can watch somebody do it, books are another good option.  I have a fairly extensive library but none of my books cover dovetailing in depth for some reason.  I am feeling sheepish, but I just checked and found several that do.  This one looks good.  Looking at the excerpts, I see several things that I could have read rather than learning the hard way.  What was I thinking?  I ordered it.  Know a better book?

Finally, it is important to recognize that the development of hand tool woodworking skills is challenging and takes time.  That's part of the attraction.  There is the problem of rising expectations:  you don't really feel like you are getting better even though you are because your expectations keep pace with your progress.  It is important to enjoy the journey.


  1. I've learned the most from watching Roy Underhill, and he talks through the process pretty well. That was at least enough for me to get started, and practice on my own. His technique of using the saw to mark pins can be tricky if you want a line to cut to, so I switched to a knife.

    There are lots of good books out there, including Roy's, and I recommend taking a look at "Modern Practical Joinery" by George Ellis. The section on dovetailing is rather short, but it's good, and he has a lot of practical tips throughout.

  2. I forced taught myself to hand cut dovetails. First I got rid of my dovetail jig. Then I bought Lee Valley's saw and dovetail guide. I used that until I made decent dovetailed boxes with it. Then I started doing them without the guide. I practiced making whole boxes, not just one corner. I made crap to begin with but I am now making decent tight looking dovetails by hand. The lee valley guide helped/trained me with the mechanics of sawing, seeing the line, etc.
    I try to make one box a week from scraps to keep up on it. I really think making a box rather than one corner or one tail/pin is a begger help with sawing to the line and doing the chiseling. You have more than one to look at/compare. Some will be good and some not so good.
    And I would recommend Paul Seller's dvd on dovetailing.

  3. At the end of the day, I think it is the last point that is meaningful. I have watched many videos on cutting dovetails (Klausz, Cosman, Sellers, Baron, etc) and read a ton of commentary but none of that builds muscle memory. The best line is in Frank Klausz's video - after cutting a joint, his father/master told him that maybe in 10 years he'd be a pretty good beginner.

  4. I hate to add to the chorus of opinions you'll get on this topic but ... FWIW, I've watched many videos on both DVD and on the web and I second Paul Sellers, who has an excellent product. I also enjoy Frank Klausz's video. Rob Cosman is also very good. He is criticized often, but I think that is a shame. Yes, he's a salesman, but he is also an accomplished craftsman trying to earn a living at his trade. There is no virtue in poverty or near poverty, which is how most tradesmen live now and in the past. Not to say the others mentioned in the blog are bad, but these are the best I have seen. And I enjoy watching these men who are true tradesmen, mechanics who work with their hands every day. They remind of the journeymen with whom I trained as an apprentice electrician. They accomplish things you know are difficult and they do it without jigs or trickery. I didn't learn the mechanical side of the trade from books, I learned by working next to experienced mechanics every day of my five-year apprenticeship. Most of them weren't very good teachers, they would just show me how to do something, I would imitate, then I did it a thousand times until I could do it quickly and neatly. That's how a trade is passed on. Anyway, good luck. Dan