Learning the Dovetail Part II

You can create perfect dovetail joints time and time again if you don’t mind spending a few dollars on a router and jig.  It is a really tempting proposition, because as I have been discovering, to execute a dovetail well by hand requires a lot of practice.  Saws drift and chisels can get away from us.  Making the dovetail by hand is intriguing though because for all its strength and beauty it can be effectively executed with just a few basic tools.  In other words, if you are willing to practice, and willing to accept something a bit less than perfection, you can build beautiful and strong joints without purchasing a lot of expensive equipment.  The other thing I’ve learned is that the dovetail joint rewards patience and punishes the impatient so if, like me, you need to be reminded on occasion to slow down and act deliberately and patiently then it is worth spending some time learning how to handmade the dovetail joint (and skip the router). Like many woodworkers, I can attribute my learning to Chris Becksvoort whose many articles and videos were my guide.

Tools of the trade

There are a few tools that are critical to a properly executed dovetail, and a few that are nice to have because they make the job a bit easier.  I’ll start with the necessities:

  1. Dovetail saw:  A dovetail saw is simply a back saw with a thin kerf that is designed for rip cuts.  There is a wide range of prices on these from a few dollars used to a few hundred for one from Bad Axe Toolworks.  I purchased mine from Lie-Nielsen tools and can attest to its quality.  Beautifully made and razor sharp this saw effortlessly cuts through hardwoods and leaves a clean, straight cut.
  2. Chisels: A couple of sizes for removing material between the pins and tails. I use Stanley 750 socket chisels.  They do O.K., though an upgrade to Lie-Nielsen chisels may be in my future as the hard maple I favor does a number on the edges.
  3. Marking gauge (or two):  I use the Veritas marking gauge.  It does exactly what it supposed to do and does it well.  I have used, but don’t like, traditional marking gauges that rely on a pin or nail to do the marking.  I have found that they often tear or chatter when marking and are harder to keep on a straight line. The marking wheel on the Veritas cuts nicely and leaves a thin, straight line.
  4. Square: You need to be able to transfer markings and so you need a square.  It is helpful to have a couple sizes
  5. Sliding bevel or dovetail layout tool: This simply helps you lay out tails that have consistent angles.
  6. Marking tools: To layout the tails I use a mechanical pencil with .007 lead. When marking out the pins I like to use a knife.

These are mostly basic tools that any woodworker–even a beginning woodworker–should have laying about.  The only new tools I acquired were the dovetail saw and the Veritas dovetail saddle marker.

Nice to have but not necessary
  1. Veritas dovetail saddle marker:  This thing makes transferring line a breeze
  2. Fret saw or coping saw: Some instructional videos have you use a fret or coping saw to remove the waste between pins and tails.  I tried this approach but was not terribly successful in defining a straight and clean shoulder.  I prefer to use a chisel

Making the dovetail

Before attempting my first dovetail I spent about an hour practicing with my saw.  I laid out several angled pencil lined on the ends of scrap wood and cut over and over until I had a real feel for my saw and could consistently cut a straight line along the pencil marks.

In terms of layout and execution, I will refer you to the sources I used rather than recount the steps here.  Chris Becksvoort‘s articles and videos are really goodBecksvoort instructs one to cut the tails on two boards at a  time. I found that I cannot cut as accurately when I do that so I cut one set of tails at a time.  Other than that, I followed his instructions closely and after cutting away at lots of scrap poplar I was ready to give it a go on some nice hardwood.

My first project was a gift for a good friend of mine who is a fellow Scotch aficionado and camping enthusiast.  I built him a toasting box. Tradition holds that a successful day in the field, on the stream, or a quiet evening gathered around the campfire should be celebrated with a toast among friends.  The toasting box and is designed to safely hold and transport a favorite libation and glasses from home to the field. This one is made of maple and finished with Danish Oil.


The dovetails aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good and overall I’m happy with the outcome, as was my friend for whom I made it.  I am certain my next effort will be a little better as will the dovetails I cut after that and after that and so on and so forth.  Practice and patience.  IMG_0875


A gentle reminder…

…that nobody is perfect.  As I teach myself to hand cut dovetails (with the help of Mr. Becksvoort’s excellent articles on the subject) and prepare to use them in some projects I encounter the same frustrations every woodworker encounters: splits, miscuts, and the sinking feeling that you have ruined a beautiful and not so cheap piece of hardwood (and set back your project timetable).

The feeling of inadequacy in one’s own work is often exacerbated by reading blogs and articles by modern masters or about past masters.  I recently watched a video by Chris Becksvoort on how to hand cut a dovetail.  Pedagogically it was a really good video–I walked away with a lot of tips that made my dovetails better.  However, I also found myself seesawing between saying “hey I can do that” and “man, my dovetails will never look that good.” Seeing the precision produced by woodworking machines and router jigs deepens the sense of a lack of skill for those of use that work mostly with hand tools. Machine cut dovetails are incredibly tight and precise.

I read with delight and some sense of self pardon an article on Eclectic Mechanicals about uncovering mistakes in pieces of Shaker furniture, a style of furniture that has long inspired woodworkers and stood as an apogee of American furniture design and construction.  I, for one, really appreciated the reassurance.  I am working on a gift for a friend’s birthday that involves dovetail joinery.  My dovetails are getting pretty good.  Not perfect, but pretty good.  I am certain my friend will appreciate the gift even with some errors here and there.

Workmanship of Risk

I recently started following the blog over at Lost Art Press. Given my interest in both craftsmanship and the philosophy of technology I was intrigued by two recent posts discussing the work of David Pye, specifically his distinction between the “workmanship of risk” and the “workmanship of certainty.”   Christopher Schwarz over at Lost Art argues that this is a meaningless distinction, and in a later post argues that the language we use in making these distinctions disparages the work of those who employ woodworking machinery.  I disagree that the distinction between workmanship of risk and workmanship of certainly is unimportant: there is a difference and as a philosophical construct it is worth discussing, though I think Pye misses the mark.  As to Mr. Schwarz’s larger argument, he is spot on: the important thing is making, and the distinction that Pye makes cannot and should not prompt us to value some making over other types of making.

Mr. Schwartz author claims that if someone is writing about craftsmanship, you can bet that there is  a copy of Pye’s book is nearby.  Well, I have to admit that for all of my interest in craftsmanship and the role of technology, I have never read Pye. So, I looked for a copy at my university’s library, but they did not have it so I got through interlibrary loan from a local art school. My own thinking about the philosophy of technology and the role of technology in woodworking and my life in general is more informed by Albert Borgmann, David Strong, and Carl Mitcham. So, I got my hands on a copy of The Nature and Art of Workmanship.

Workmanship of Risk vs. Workmanship of Certainty

Pye’s project is to draw a distinction between what he sees as an essential difference between production by the hand of a skilled craftsman vs. those produced by mechanized or automated processes. Pye describes the workmanship of risk as:

“workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works.”

Pye contrasts this with what he terms the workmanship of certainty:

“With the workmanship of risk we may contrast the workmanship of certainty, always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state in full automation.  In workmanship of this sort the quality of the result is exactly predetermined before a single saleable thing is made…but all the works of men which have been most admired since the beginning of history have been made by the workmanship of risk.”

Schwarz argues that this is a false distinction:

“I think the amount of risk between things Pye describes as “risk” and those that are “certain” is so small in reality that they are useless distinctions. In general, making things involves risk. We try to control it at the workbench and on the factory floor. But ultimately – and this is important to me – hand processes and machine processes are ruled by the same narrow factors.”

Mr. Schwarz makes that case that all making involves some risk and that certainty is illusory.  His argument is based in his own experience as a woodworker and press operator.  I am with him thus far.  I’ve known and worked with my fair share of machinists and millwrights and have repeatedly marveled at their precision and nuanced understanding (dare I say Zen like?) of the subtle feedback they receive from the machine.  That being said, I’m not convinced that Pye’s essential project–attempting to differentiate between hand work and machine or automated work–isn’t important.  I just think he has philosophically missed the mark in failing to 1. recognize the skill and input that automated processes require, and 2. differentiating between skill types.

I won’t claim to have a position worked out on this issue, but I can speculate what it may look like.  I think there is a difference between interacting with the raw material in shaping the final project and interacting with a machine that interacts with the material. Here I will lean on Mathew Crawford’s take on the stochastic arts which, i think, better captures the skill of the production line operator:

“Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitive and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration. I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating”

More importantly, those who engage in the processes that Pye calls “workmanship of certainty” are no less engaged with means and ends than the craftsman that works with hand tools.  I think of Borgmann’s device paradigm. Though Mr. Schwarz does not make direct reference to Borgmann, he nevertheless demonstrates that the incursion of technology into production processes does not necessary result in the divorce of means and ends that are often the concern of philosophers of technology.

The Work of Workmanship

There is, it seems, an historical inevitability to this conversation.  Most if us who work with our hands are not professional woodworkers or furniture or cabinet makers.  We are hobbyists (or perhaps better put, enthusiasts).  Here is the interesting historical piece: the birth and popularity of the home workshop arose in no small part as a critique of modernity and modern technology.  The popularity of handcraft as an antidote to the dehumanization of scientific management and the cleaving of ends and means that was engendered by the birth of the modern assembly line (this legacy is touched on by Matthew Crawford in his excellent Shop Class as Soulcraft).  Indeed, the growth of home handcraft found its genesis in the antimodernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century (For a more in depth perspective on this I recommend the compelling No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture by T.J. Jackson Lears).  So, we should hardly find it surprising then that over a century later we are still debating the moral and philosophical significance of the machine.

Years ago, I was a member of the rec.woodworking newsgroup.  There was the divide between the Normites (name derived from Norm Abram and his machine heavy approach to woodworking) and the Neanderthals (traditional hand tool folks). Most of the ribbing was good natured.  The reality was this: 1. most of us were a mix of both rather than a pure expression of the species, and 2. it would have been arrogant and ultimately futile to make a claim about which of us derived more joy from the work we did in our basements and garage workshops into the late evening hours after our regular daily labors were done.

Mr. Schwarz is right that the language we use in discussing the distinctions between hand tools and machines can be–even if unintentionally so–disparaging to those who find joy and fulfillment in using a piece of machinery.  I have been guilty of this myself, and if I’m honest, I must admit that I find both joy and amazement at the precision and efficiency of a piece of modern equipment.  There is also a deeper issue here, which is that our American culture disparages (both implicitly and explicitly) people that work with their hands, and I for one do not want to contribute to that. I also think about the amount of time my father and I have spent bonding over episodes of the New Yankee Workshop or marveling at some new machine her purchased–that, my friends, is a whole world of making and engagement that I would never want to minimize or marginalize.

I predominately use hand tools because it is what I have room for in my small shop and I enjoy the historical connection.  Consequently, it is also what I write about, and I will continue to explore the differences between making with hand tools and making with machinery.  I really believe there is an important philosophical distinction to be made without privileging one over the other. I will also heed Mr. Schwarz warning and try to be thoughtful about the manner in which I extol the virtues of a hand cut dovetail or my love for my Stanley #8 joiner. The important part is to build.