Perfect Results, Every Time!

16 Dec

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every episode of The New Yankee Workshop.  When I was younger, that was as good as you could get for Woodworking knowhow.  If you’re just starting out in Woodworking, you can do much much worse than watch those old shows.  But I got a beef with one part of it.  Whenever Norm had to cut a dovetail, he’d whip out a router jig, and show about 12 seconds of setup, 30 seconds of the router whirring back and forth, and 5 seconds of fitting together accompanied by “Perfect results, every time!”

Screw you, Norm!

I don’t get perfect results, ever….  Well, maybe on the practice boards, but usually I’m happy if I can just get it close.  If you look at any of my projects, you’ll never find two drawers of identical length – that’s because I wrecked one or the other and had to try again.  This was after cutting lots of practice pieces…

Then one day I saw a used Leigh D4R for sale – a top-quality Dovetail jig.  I thought maybe I could get that thing to replace the old Craftsman my Dad gave me.  Surely a quality tool would fix it.

Nope.  Not really.


This last project I did has 7 little drawers to do:


I dovetailed them all, front and back.  I did some of them with the jig and the router, and the rest by hand.  I couldn’t tell you which was done with what method right now.  I don’t think you can either.  If you look close, you’ll find I’ve had to touch most of them up to one extent or the other.


Who knows how many videos are out there on YouTube with guys telling you their method for cutting dovetails.  There’s guys out there with clever bandsaw setups, table saw blades with beveled grinds, and I don’t know what all.  That’s not to mention the hand-tool crowd.

I never was much of one for the hand-tool guys.  I started out on the wrong foot with Roy Underhill.  Sure, the guy’s a master and all that, but I never felt like his work was approachable.  When Norm built a lowboy, I felt like I could get out there and make one too; but how many of us would go and boil a dead horse for some of Roy’s hide glue?

I saw Rob Cosman with his 3 1/2 minute dovetail and Frank Klausz with his 3 minute job and I felt like it was more of the same.  I mean, that’s good for Rob and Frank and the rest that they can do this.  I’m not surprised they can – they do this all day long.  I get maybe an hour a day.  When exactly am I going to find the time to build that level of skill?  I got a job, yaknow…

But Marc Spagnuolo, he understands me.  I watched his video and, I don’t know, for whatever reason, I sharpened my chisels and gave it a go.  It took me more than 3 minutes, but if it’s okay with Marc that it takes longer and needs a share of touching up at the end, then who’s to say I’m doin’ wrong?  (On the touching up front, Charles Niel has some good tips for fixing dovetails, around the 30 minute mark).


I should say that I’ve also been heavily influenced by Paul Sellers lately.  I find that kind of strange because I saw some of his work a few years ago, and I felt he was yet another of these pompous hand-tool apostles who thought anything made by machine tools was somehow a lesser form of art just because of the machine touching the wood.  I don’t know that it’s his attitude or mine that changed, but watching his excellent Wall Clock series really got me thinking.

Paul makes a lot of good points, and it’s the same as a lot of other fellows – that hand tools make less dust and are just plain more pleasant and more satisfying to work with than power tools.  Sure, if I was going to batch out 16 of these little cabinets, I probably should have taken the time to work out the kinks in my dovetail jig.  I mean, I get it, it’s a skill thing – the jig’s just a hunk of metal, it isn’t the problem here.

I can tell you, though, I felt nervous, pissed off and angry with the jig.  Not so with the chisels and the gauges.  I felt like that was something I could master and understand; moreover, I can enjoy the process.


All that said, I was also taking stock of the piece and observed that almost every board saw a cut from my newly built band saw.  (Umm, err…  including the tails on the dovetails.)  I’m not giving up power tools.  I can enjoy working with them too.  But I think it’s time to consider getting myself a good #4 plane, a dovetail saw, and some files to keep it sharp.


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