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Working on handcut dovetails

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Forum topic by BerBer5985 posted 10-29-2011 10:48 PM 1517 views 1 time favorited 16 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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BerBer5985

445 posts in 1883 days


10-29-2011 10:48 PM

I know doing dovetails by a machine is faster and accurate and what not, but there is something to be said about handcut dovetails. I started to do some research, and then went to town to try my hand. I’m starting to get the idea of it and I’m getting faster time by time, but not quite there yet. Here’s my progress so far:

They are getting better. I’ve just been playing with them as I have time in the garage trying to get good enough to start making some dovetail boxes as gifts. Any tips? The first one was my first attempt and it wasn’t very good, but I wanted to share anyway. I had a few others, but I didn’t take pics.

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One, www.qualitycarpetonecrofton.com


16 replies so far

View bhack's profile

bhack

349 posts in 3183 days


#1 posted 10-29-2011 11:59 PM

Looking very nice. I am getting ready to start a project soon and I am going to cut box joints bt hand. I hope they are as good as your efforts.

-- Bill - If I knew GRANDKIDS were so much fun I would have had them first.

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Brandon

4151 posts in 2414 days


#2 posted 10-30-2011 12:32 AM

They look like they’re coming along nicely—your first one was much better than mine! Hard to give advice without knowing your technique, but for me the most important skill is learning to saw as straight as possible.

-- "hold fast to that which is good"

View pmayer's profile

pmayer

864 posts in 2528 days


#3 posted 10-30-2011 01:14 AM

Congrats on your decision to take this on. I find it addictive. I would have to know more about your technique to give specific guidance, but here are a few general tips:

- get yourself a really good saw and chisels if you don’t have these already. these did wonders for my dovetails. I got a nice Japanese saw and some Marples chisels, and saw great improvement just by stepping up to better tools.
- if you are not good at sharpening chisels, figure it out and get them wicked sharp before each project. Working with dull chisels can make DTs a frustrating process.
- at the risk of starting a holy war here, I suggest cutting the tails first for the simple reason that you can cut them 2 pieces at a time, giving you a longer reference line to cut to, which allows to cut straighter. This will also help you complete the DT joint more quickly, but that shouldn’t be your goal at this point.
- forget about speed. Don’t even think about it, because at this point it will do nothing but cause you problems. After a project is complete, there is absolutely no glory in having completed the DTs quickly. People won’t ask “how fast did you cut them?”, they will ask “how did you cut them?” if they are full of mud, nobody will ask anything.
- Fill in gaps with shavings of wood. Your last photo shows project ready DTs from what I can tell. Fill in the tiny gaps with shavings taking with a block plane, and you should be able to hide the gaps pretty well. Then when you glue them up, pack with find sanding dust while the glue is still wet and the gaps will disappear.
- Its time for a real project. My DTs get better when I do them for keeps, whereas when it is scrap I find myself getting sloppy.
- Once you have good tools, it is really just a matter of practice. When I learned, I just cut one every day for practice, and then did a couple projects that forced me into the deep end (first project was a blanket chest with 18” long DTs, then a pair of dressers with a combined 12 drawers). Once you do a bunch of them in real projects, you will be solid, then if you want to think about speed, you will be able to do so without compromising quality.

Have fun!

-- PaulMayer, http://www.vernswoodgoods.com

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Betsy

3338 posts in 3359 days


#4 posted 10-30-2011 01:45 AM

I agree with Paul – forget about speed right when you start. Work on technique. The sharp chisels are an absolute must have as is a good saw. Practice cutting straight lines and pretty soon you’ll manage dovetails in no time. What I did was draw about 30 lines with my square across the length of a board and started sawing. Pretty soon you see where your technique is lacking and you get better. I cut a lot of lines before I was any good at it.

My first dovetails are on this site somewhere and I can honestly say your dovetails look much better than mine did. Of course, I think the first ones I did and actually posted here were upside down—which thankfully I did not get too much ribbing about.

I have both the Vertias saw and a Lee Nielson saw and I like them both, but the Veritas for the price can’t be beat. My chisels are Marples. Once you learn to sharpen them really well and keep them sharp they are a joy to use.

Everyone has an opinion about tails first or pins first. But again I agree with Paul – tails first is my choice.

Good luck – I look forward to seeing your first dovetailed box!

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

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BerBer5985

445 posts in 1883 days


#5 posted 10-30-2011 03:26 AM

I’ve heard good things about narex chisels and for the price they seem decent but im not crazy about the look. I really love the look of Stanley sweetheart chisels but price is double the narex. Right now I have some cheaper craftsman set I picked up at sears. They seem ok but I have nothing to compare to. Are the marples that much better? I picked up a veritas saw but I havent had a chance to try it out. Any other good suggestions on chisels for a good set under $60?

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One, www.qualitycarpetonecrofton.com

View Arminius's profile

Arminius

304 posts in 3266 days


#6 posted 10-30-2011 03:26 AM

Make your pins narrower – it will increase your satisfaction because you will know it could not be done by a machine.

As for pins versus tails first, there is merit in practicing both. In my view, tails first is better, but as soon as you get into some of the advanced dovetail joints, you basically have to do pins first.

View StumpyNubs's profile

StumpyNubs

6852 posts in 2263 days


#7 posted 10-30-2011 03:36 AM

At the risk of sounding like a Tommy MacDonald nut, I have to say that I never knew what I was doing until I learned to cut dovetails from him. Don’t worry about the sawing. Get close to the line, that’s all. Let your chisels do the work and be patient. Your dovetails will look beautiful in no time.

-- Subscribe to "Stumpy Nubs Woodworking Journal"- One of the crafts' most unique publications: http://www.stumpynubs.com/

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pmayer

864 posts in 2528 days


#8 posted 10-30-2011 05:04 PM

I am not familiar with Narex chisels, but the current equivalent of the Marples set that I have is here: http://www.amazon.com/Irwin-M444SB6N-Woodworking-Chisel-6-Piece/dp/B000RG2Y56/ref=sr_1_4?s=hi&ie=UTF8&qid=1319986197&sr=1-4. This set is considered middle of the road, but is great from my perspective, and I find that I use all six sizes. I could even use one slightly larger than the 1” at times.

Veritas makes a great saw, so you should be thrilled with that. I am not sure about the Craftsman chisels. I will make a guess that they are probably ok when they are sharpened properly, but lose an edge fairly quickly. If they were super cheap, then they won’t take a good edge at all. I have one set that was super cheap, and I can barely get them sharp enough to open paint cans. :) I have a $30 set that takes a decent edge, and dulls quickly. I use them for most everything except for DTs. My marples take a respectable edge, and I can do several drawers before I need to touch them up.

From my perspective, the scary sharp technique is a great way to go for chisels and plane irons. Quick, simple, cheap, and highly effective. When you get those chisels tuned up it is a lot more fun, and much easier to get the tight tolerances you are looking for, especially for paring to the line as Stumpynubs describes. For that process I actually prefer a plane iron rather than a chisel, because it provides a longer sighting plane than a chisel, thereby allowing me to pare to the line more consistently. But sometimes I do this with a 1” chisel and it works pretty well also.

-- PaulMayer, http://www.vernswoodgoods.com

View Betsy's profile

Betsy

3338 posts in 3359 days


#9 posted 10-31-2011 04:36 AM

I only use my craftsman chisels for glue clean up and as pry tools. To my opinion the work it takes to get a sharp edge is a lot and the fact that does not maintain an edge well puts the craftsmen at the bottom of the drawer. A marple set is a good starter set, they are easy to sharpen and maintain ther edges well. I also know that when dropped onto your foot a leather tennis shoe will not stop a truly sharp chisel from finding your toe. So try not to drop them!

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

View BerBer5985's profile

BerBer5985

445 posts in 1883 days


#10 posted 10-31-2011 06:40 AM

One I started working on tonight. I’m going to do this 4 times to make a box. It;s brazillian cherry that was originally flooring made into stock. It’s going to be a first dovetail box. Made the first one and stopped for tonight. I need some beter chisels for sure.

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One, www.qualitycarpetonecrofton.com

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helluvawreck

23157 posts in 2329 days


#11 posted 10-31-2011 08:42 PM

Looks like yourdovetails are coming along ok.

-- If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. Henry David Thoreau

View Arminius's profile

Arminius

304 posts in 3266 days


#12 posted 11-01-2011 04:38 AM

Do you use a hand plane to finish your dovetails? The photos don’t show that you do, but not sure if you are trying to show the ‘in progress’ state.

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile

Smitty_Cabinetshop

13720 posts in 2081 days


#13 posted 11-01-2011 05:09 PM

Coming along very well!

Only suggestion I have is to practice w/ pine vs hardwood scrap. Easier to work with when the primary object is to refine technique and set muscle memory.

The setup of your tools should be the same each time you start the cuts, too. Helps you focus on the work vs. looking for tools. I’m sure you’ve learned that already with the numbers of sets you’ve completed. And I hate to disagree with Stumpy (I really do… backlash is a terrible thing) but work for a fit that is good ‘off the saw,’ that requires little in the way of chisel touch-up. That means not splitting the lines but leaving them. A solid saw technique is really pretty critical to the process overall.

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

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BerBer5985

445 posts in 1883 days


#14 posted 11-02-2011 02:14 AM

Thanks for the pointers. I will finish them with a plane, but I was just showing the in progress parts. The chiselpart is mainly for waste clean out. I haven’t haven’t had to do a whole lot in way of cleaning up the size with a chisel. Any good pointers for cleaning out the waste? I’m interested in attending Rob Cosman’s class coming up to a woodcraft near us. The two classes are focusing on handplanes and dovetails. Seems perfect to me.

-- Greg, Owner, Quality Carpet One, www.qualitycarpetonecrofton.com

View Betsy's profile

Betsy

3338 posts in 3359 days


#15 posted 11-02-2011 04:07 AM

Looks like you are making good progress.

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

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