I’ve been busy in the shop this past month building another toasting box for my friend Jay. The box is built out of solid mahogany; there is not plywood or laminates. There is a humidor compartment that is lined with Spanish cedar and held closed by maple toggles.
This is the first time I have used mahogany in a project. It has its challenges: open grain and it splinters and splits easily and it also loves to cup. It is a softer wood and so easier to work with hand tools–I met little resistance while sawing and chiseling the dovetails. When you add an oil finish, the results are stunning.
Just waiting on a few final bits of hardware and this one will be all wrapped up.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Square: You need to be able to transfer markings and so you need a square. It is helpful to have a couple sizes
Sliding bevel or dovetail layout tool: This simply helps you lay out tails that have consistent angles.
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
Veritas dovetail saddle marker: This thing makes transferring line a breeze
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 good. Becksvoort 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.
There are a handful of cocktails that every aspiring sophisticate should know how to make: the Martini, the Old Fashioned, the French 75, the Sazerac, the Sidecar, and my personal favorite, the Manhattan. Popular lore tells us that the cocktail derives its name from the Manhattan Club and was invented for a party hosted by Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of the British Bulldog Sir Winston Churchill. Origin stories are often suspect and this one especially so…but I choose to believe it. There are lots of variations based on the type of whisky used: I’ve had them made with Bourbon, rye, Scotch, or Canadian whiskies. When I make them, I stick to the classic formulation that used Rye. Rye fell out of favor after Prohibition but has been thankfully revived. Another sin against American taste was that our pallets had been forced to endure cheap, mass produced Vermouth like Martini & Rossi that ruined Manhattans and Martinis; there are thankfully high quality alternatives now available.
After substantial experimentation and trial and error (you’re welcome) I have arrived at the following ingredients and ratio for what, to my taste, contains the proper mix of bitter, boozy, and sweet with a smooth mouthfeel.
The Manhattan Cocktail
2 oz. Bulleit Rye Whisky
1 oz. Carpano Antica Formula (Sweet) Vermouth
2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
Luxardo Maraschino Cherry for garnish
Fill a cocktail pitcher or shaker with ice and add the first three ingredients. Stir (never shake!) for 30 seconds or so. Gently strain into a cocktail glass or coupe and garnish with the cherry. A nice variation on the above recipe is to substitute Averna Amaro for the Carpano Vermouth, thus making a Black Manhattan. However, what I really want to talk about is the old clock on which I recently did a mini restoration.
I am often delighted by the strange threads that tie us to the people of the past. Restoring objects often revels these threads if we are fortunate enough to know a bit about where the object came from—this is why collectors are so attentive to documenting the provenance of valuable pieces of art or jewelry, or furniture. In my case, I tend toward more modest objects; partly because of my pay grade, but also because I am far more interested in the lives and objects of everyday folks. The latest such object to come my way is a Telechron clock, model number 7H79 produced sometime between 1932 and 1938. It belonged to the grandfather of a dear friend and colleague of mine and was in need of some light restoration. This restoration also involves the Manhattan cocktail.
This is the Telechron 7H79 “Sexton”
The one that was passed along to me was originally owned by Joseph Brotherton Maclean. Mr. Maclean immigrated to the United States from Scotland, traveling steerage from Glasgow with his brother Alec. He received his diploma from a Scottish high school where he demonstrated an aptitude for numbers. He went on to land a job as an actuary calculating life expectancy after arriving in the United States. He returned to Scotland to fight on behalf of the land of his birth in the First World War. Surviving the war, her returned to the U.S. Later in life he would stroll around Central Park in New York City with his daughter quizzing her on algebra and trigonometry and referring to her as “Bonehead McGluck” when she got a wrong answer—she went on to earn a degree in physics from M.I.T. His granddaughter is a fellow social researcher; we are both stats nerds. By all accounts, Mr. Maclean could also handle his booze, and had a special affinity for the Manhattan cocktail. He employed said cocktail against his future son in law, getting him stumbling drunk on his first meet and greet with the family into which he would eventually marry.
Overall, the Telechron was in decent shape. The case was a bit scratched and grimy and the cord was worse for wear, but the motor still ran and alarm still rang. I disassembled the brown plastic case, cleaned the glass, and soldered in a new cord.
I purchased a fabric insulated wire (in keeping with the original) and was able to find a new plug that was identical to the one it left the factory with—thanks to the fine folks at Sundial Wire for providing both.
Image courtesy of Sundial Wire
Image courtesy of Sundial Wire
I hit the plastic case with some No. 7 rubbing compound and No. 7 polishing compound. I am very happy with the results.
I love the Art Deco design of the case and number font. Whenever I look at the clock I think of Mr. Maclean who fought for his country and with whom I share a love of statistics and the Manhattan Cocktail. If it were not for him, I wouldn’t get to work with one of my favorite colleagues who a few weeks ago brought me a clock.