Learning the Dovetail Part I

I have been a woodworker for many years but until now I have never set about learning how to hand cut a dovetail joint.  This is really something I should have learned years ago, but for whatever reason it did not happen.  I have a few upcoming projects that require dovetails, which leaves me with two options: I could buy a dovetail jig (which I have used before) or I could finally learn how to do them by hand.  I am choosing the latter.  Before I get to the how of hand cutting a dovetail, I will talk about the why; not just why to use the dovetail, but also why one should learn to make them by hand.

The reason dovetail joints are so popular with furniture builders is simple: they are  aesthetically pleasing and incredibly strong.


There are two main parts to the joint: the pin and the tail; the shape of the pins and tails create a joint that is very resistant to separating, twisting, or racking.  The mechanical strength of the joint is reinforced by the additional glue surface it provides. As the picture above also demonstrates, the joint is downright pretty by creating alternating pattern of end grain.  Many furniture makers will further highlight this with contrasting woods.

Dovetails by hand: A meditation on means and ends

I’ve cut a lot of dovetail using a router jig or a table saw jig.  While I have always cared about craft, I have often been driven by expediency as well.  What I have come to realize though is that as the pace of the world quickens I now value woodworking more and more as a refuge from the noise and hurried pace of everything else.  This is partly why I rely more and more on hand tools; I’m just as likely to use a brace and bit to drill a hole as I am a power drill. In other words, I’m becoming more attentive to the means, and learning to hand cut a dovetail fits with my increasing emphasis on means rather than just working towards the ends.

Obviously the final product matters.  We want to see our projects to fruition and enjoy the benefits of a piece of furniture or pass along a gift that we have made for someone.  There is no doubt that a table saw can rip a board quickly and accurately or that a router can cut the dovetails for a drawer with speed and efficiency.  A mortising machine can give us snug joinery with minimal effort.  But in facilitating the completion of these tasks and speeding us toward the ends (that is, the completed item), we are increasingly divorced from the means.  I would never argue that the use of power equipment doesn’t require skill—of course it requires skill and knowledge.  It does not however require the same degree of skill and knowledge and practice.

Power tools can too easily become a substitute for the craftsman’s skill.  One no longer needs to practice how to sharpen and employ a hand plane to flatten or joint a board or learn how to properly guide a hand saw to produce a straight cut or how to lay out and accurately hand cut a dovetail.  Power tools replace a portion of the energy and skill of the craftsman and substitute it with electricity and the skills of the tool’s manufacturer.  The automation of the process disengages us from means in order to speed us towards the end.  And the means is not just how to use a tool, but also how to sharpen, adjust, and care for the tool.  A world of engagements with skills and practices is subsumed by the machine.  Thus, our connection to the skills of the past—handed down generation-to-generation and master to apprentice and parent to child—are lost to the machine.  The power, literally, taken from our hands.

Hand tools also provide relief from a world that is increasingly loud and hurried and distracting and that demands of us ever greater speed and efficiency.  If my shop is a sanctuary—which it in fact is—then why fill it with incessant noise?  Why should speed and ease be the primary goal?  I like the quiet rhythm and that hand tools for me to slow down and preserve woodworking as a contemplative undertaking.  I’m not claiming to be a purist or a Luddite.  I love my table saw and my routers and power drill.  We needn’t give those things up all together.  Rather, the transition to hand tools occurs not through complete power tool abstinence but simply through seeking out the opportunities the craft affords us to learn new skill and to slow down and engage our hands and our energy more directly.



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