Eye Diy

A dovetail time warp

By Jeff Dundas January 13th, 2012


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I fulfilled my New Year’s resolution in December: enroll in a woodworking course. For quite some time, I’ve gone over magazines and websites, such as CHW, and thought, “Gee, that’s cool. I wish I could build that.” So, in December, I decided to stop wishing. I enrolled into an introductory cabinetry course at Humber College here in Toronto. This week, I had my first class.

The tour of the facility was very cool. I don’t think I’ll be wanting for machines: they have standard shop fare, such as drillpresses, bandsaws and stationary sanders. There are even production-shop type machines, such as a shaper and dovetail machine. The tablesaws are all SawStops, which is probably just as much of a comfort to the instructors as it is to students.

As with most first days of school, things inch along, which was literally the case for this class. We reviewed that venerable unit of woodworking, as well as adding and subtracting fractions. It seems the eight of us in the class still have our Grade 7 math skills up to par. (I shouldn’t be too smug; I’d be up the creek if there were quadratic equations in the shop.)

One thing I am less than keen on is the role of drafting in this course. There’s going to be lots of it. I’m old enough to have used a t-square and set squares in my first high-school drafting class. Of course, the next year everything was on computers. Either way, it was not something I exactly excelled in, mostly because, well, probably because I was a “distracted” student. It seems I’m a bit more focused now.

My class and I were knee deep in our drafting assignments when our instructor summoned us with a large circ-saw gong. The sound of the “musical instrument” carried pretty well over the machines that more advanced students were using. Our instructor was going to show us how to cut a simple dovetail, or as he called it, the five-minute dovetail. Perfect. The drafting could wait.

As our instructor took us through the process for handcutting your own dovetail joint, I wished I hadn’t left my pencil and paper over at the drafting board. He was dropping so many great tips for each little step. How could I commit them all to memory!? Here’s what I remember:

  • when using a marking gauge, don’t press down too hard on the nail or spur. Most of the force should be directed at keeping the gauge’s fence firmly against the workpiece.
  • use a 1:6 ratio for the angle of the dovetail.
  • when putting a workpiece in a vise for cutting, put it deep into the vise to minimize vibration, which makes cutting easier.
  • when using a chisel, hold the tool close to its cutting edge for safety and better control.
  • when striking a chisel on a workpiece, make sure everything is positioned over a leg of the bench, which is the strongest and most stable part.
  • even with a simple one-tail joint, mark the front or back of the piece. Once you put it down for a second, you will probably forget which side you were working with.

I’m sure there were more tidbits of wisdom, but that’s all I’ve retained.

As soon as the demonstration was finished, everyone in the class was off to cut a dovetail of his or her own. Remember I mentioned the instructor called this exercise the “five-minute dovetail?” Well, when the end of class rolled around, an hour later, I was only halfway through the assignment. I must have been caught in some kind of time warp. I am looking forward to finishing it next week.

How about you more experienced woodworkers out there: do you have any words of wisdom for a newbie cutting his first dovetail?

Jeff Dundas is our resident newbie woodworker. He’ll be sharing his insights and discoveries here on the Shop Hack blog as he learns to make sawdust.

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