Scruffy Dovetails – Richard Rants (Video)


This is a short extract from our Hall Table Build.

For the context – read below.

I was in the process of cutting tenons, and at this point deliberately aiming at a joint that was too tight.
We would then show the process of truing the fit.

Not to sound obnoxious, but I came in to a problem.
I couldn’t cut a joint wrong.

Once you know how to cut a joint, you know how to cut it.
And after repeating it many times, it just does it right.

It became a little frustrating as the tenons kept fitting straight off the bat, and led me in to a bit of a rant.

The subject… Scruffy Dovetails.

And why I think historically, gappy dovetails were often the outcome of a poor saw, and not necessarily a lack of care, or for speed, as most think today.

Of course this is one of many reasons.
Many a poor joint will have been cut by a jack of all trades replicating what he’s seen, for example.

But in my experience, dovetails are one of the few techniques in woodworking where you really can blame the tool.
A poor saw will cut poor joints. unless you want to spend hours fettling with a chisel.

Please bear in mind that this is just a spewed out Rant. The wording isn’t perhaps precise, but I’m sure you’ll get the gist.

If you haven’t signed up for the Hall Table Build, then there’s still one last chance to get the discount, before the price goes up tomorrow.
Find the details HERE.

And if you’ve joined us already, then go log in… because Chapter One is now live!

cutting dovetails by hand

10 Responses

  1. Fariborz

    Always enjoy watching your instructional videos. Don’t let Pinnochio leave the house alone unless you are a very good swimmer ūüôā

    • Duncan

      Great post. Thanks.
      Good point about the complexity of a saw. I’m still a bit unconvinced about these scrappy dovetails, though, but I freely admit that I am probably wrong. Certainly, I’m not saying anything new here. Just wanted to get up a bit of discussion.
      Of course, what we think of now as ‘woo hand-cut dovetails’ was just the way a drawer or the edge of a case was made. I agree that once you get it right you tend to go on. and I think that’s a good point not often made. But you have to get it right first. There’s a lot of dovetails out there. There were a lot of lads who had to do this as part of their trade who actually weren’t interested in woodwork. Just a job. Maybe their minds were on other things when they cut not just the joints in the drawer I’m holding now but all the ones they’d cut before them.
      Along comes the router, dovetail jigs, other machines. Crazy to cut all these dovetails by hand. You set up the machine, cut a joint, adjust and away you go. Even dovetails now are a bit over the top – they’re easy to machine to a standard pattern but, given the alternative jointing possibilities, many are probably used more to sell the piece than for practical reasons.
      Hand-cut dovetails are now mostly the preserve of highly motivated craftsmen with reputations to hold up who make fine, single pieces – and even a fair number of joints in these are likely to be cut by machine. Or the amateur woodworker – maybe someone who does, or has done, a job that needs care – who is seriously interested in getting things right. Very different from the apprentice or young journeyman who just needed to get things past the foreman.
      But this old drawer – it’s had a working life and still going. The old woodworker was right after all. His dovetails were good enough.

      • John W Dougherty

        One other possibility is the wood itself. The wood was likely hand ripped, hand thicknessed and hand finished. The bit I learned from woodworkers was that you do each task collectively. All the ripping, then the thicknessing, and cutting to length. Part of that is down to having the gauges set, then reused. So, you couldn’t simply walk over to the lumber store and grab a board all ready to use. Redoing a draw side involved potentially a lot of work that being able to say “good enough,” avoided. So, starting with that, then dealing with a poorly set up saw, and you have Richard’s rough dove tails.

        My wife has a nice little early nineteenth century sewing table amde in the southeastern US. There are true and false drawers in the front. Pulling out the true drawer reveals that the dovetails were cut about 1/16-inch too deep – the marking line itself was poorly set and the sawyer cut accurately to the line. The solution was to added thin shims in each dove tail between the bottom of the cut and the pin. Neither the wood of the drawer from nor the drawer side are remarkable. The front is southern yellow pine veneered in handsawn mahogany about 1/32 thick, and the sides and bottom are “yellow poplar” – tulip tree wood.

  2. Pete the Woodservant

    To the point as usual Richard. On a slightly different note I have similar ideas concerning mortices.
    I’m not sure just how many mortices I’ve made in 60 years but, it must be a few. A couple of years ago I was in the middle of making some when this thirty something, stuttering Dick Head walked in and told me I was not doing it correctly. Well, he wasn’t stuttering when he arrived but, he sure as hell was when he left.
    “I must not!” He declared “bore out the waste before chopping them out.” Even though I was using my faithful brace and bit. Now, quite apart from the fact I have to earn a living and I had 20 of the buggers to do straight off. I asked him why not? “Because I am a Purist” He replied and mortices should only be chopped out using the appropriate chisel, and, possibly a mallet. As they would have been done in Chippendale’s day.”
    Ok. I answered but in Chippendale’s day I would have owned a wobbly old wooden brace and if I were rich enough I would have my bits made by the local Blacksmith. And, no matter how bloody good he may have been his three feet long one inch diameter Boat Augers may have been brilliant but, his 5/16th wobbly little bit would not. this is one inch thick pristine Honduras Mahogany (thanks Aunt Win for the beautiful dining table I’d cut them from) and I’m cutting 5/16th by 2″ by 2″ deep mortices in it. If I was to take my wonky brace and fit my even wonkier bit of 250 years ago I would be out the side of this glorious bloody timber before I’d gone in an inch. So 250 years ago I would have had no choice but to go the long way about it. Or Mr. bloody Chippendale wouldn’t have been bloody MAD!

    • Oakwright

      Now Mr Woodservant,
      I disagree but prehaps not in the way you might think , what you see in most old fashion illustrations of joiners shops is lots of brace and bits , I have several and the bits are not wobbly in the slightist and I have drilled holes down to an 1/8 and they have always gone where I wanted them to go , its all about properly tuned bits , I have also seen lots of evidence in the bottom of old mortices from building right down to furniture that the mortice was drilled out before a chisel was applied .

    • Michael Ballinger

      I’ve seen a lot of USA based videos of people boring out mortices with a brace and bit or in timber framing using those double cranked morticing machines where they sit on the large timbers and bore away like rigging on a yacht. Seems to be a very fast and effective method. It’s like cutting dovetails with a coping saw, really fast. I think the key to hand tool woodworking is to be efficient with your motion and time. In saying that I enjoy cutting mortices with a bench chisel. That would probably upset the purest though because it’s not a morticing chisel.

  3. Gary Breeze

    Also not meaning to sound obnoxious because clearly you are good, but it may have been better to use a harder wood – much less easy to get the fit to work first time. Softwoods will always ‘squeeze’ in more readily.

  4. Russell Holland

    Hey Richard – interesting as always. What I have wondered is how people sharpened saws before mass produced little triangular (sort of)
    saw files.

    Edges can be sharpened on stones, but saws must have been more tricky. And if your saw teeth are all messed up that couldn’t do you any favours.

    Maybe I should do some research.

    And s belated Happy New Year,



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