Friday, November 2, 2018

Trombones and dovetails

When I was in high school, I was a very good trombonist but not a great one.  I had plenty of talent and a good instrument, but I didn't practice consistently.  Take the summer off and it feels like starting all over in the fall.

I have this same problem with dovetails.  I don't cut dovetails often enough that I retain muscle memory and top-of-mind feel for what I am doing and I find it very annoying to spend time practicing every time I want to.  I was facing exactly that issue as I prepared to make the drawers for the Stickley sideboard.

By coincidence, YouTube recommended a video to me about a new dovetail guide.  It looked intriguing and is only $35, so I decided to give it a try.  When it arrived, I decided to cut a quick practice joint to get a feel for it and, to my surprise, it came out great. This is straight off the saw and as close to a 5 minute dovetail as I'll ever get.

The guide is made from urethane (like skateboard wheels etc.) and has two embedded magnets on each side.  There is one side for tails, two for pins and one for right angle cuts.

It is extremely fast to cut dovetails this way because all you do is mark the baseline and add some tick marks on the top for the layout.  As you can see, it is translucent and that helps to position it accurately.

The cuts for the half-pins were dead on with no trimming at all.  One thing that is a bit unusual is that, unless you are ambidextrous, you end up cutting tails from both sides of the board but that didn't end up being a problem.

I tried it with both western and Japanese saws and found the former much better.  The magnets are strong enough that my Japanese saw wouldn't work without applying downward pressure on the handle.

So, is it a good idea to use a guide?  Certainly if you are a beginner it is.  I'm not but I still found it very useful for two reasons.  It's very fast for those of us who would otherwise mark out the pins and tails.  Second, if you haven't cut dovetails in a while it is a very good way to re-establish muscle memory and remember those little things that make a difference.  I found myself sawing with a very light touch.  If you are cutting a lot of dovetails I think you could use this for awhile and then cut the rest by hand.  I am not bothered by using a guide and I think I will keep using it.

The guide doesn't work for half-blind pins but I still found it useful for making the drawers because you can cut out the tails very quickly and precisely and, of course, you can use it for the dovetails on the rear of the drawer.  They came out well:

I know that using guides is frowned upon by some and I respect their position but I don't feel that way.   A plane is a guided blade, a shooting board is a guide...


  1. Andy,

    I do not think you lose your man card by using a guide, I wouldn't want to rely on it forever but it can show you the path to righteousness :-).

    In other words, purity is good but getting stuff done is better.


  2. I used the Lee Valley dovetail guide when I first started doing them. I still have it somewhere in the shop. I don't see any problems at all with using a guide even if you can do them without it.