Fitting the Dovetails


Thanks for stopping by today, a fine and snowy Thanksgiving in the rocky mountains of Colorado.

Over the past two days I’ve continued working on my closet cabinet, starting with cutting the pins on the bottom of the cabinet carcass.


Before the fitting for the dovetails I pared by hand to the line on the mitered edges. Although I managed to pull off this task with accuracy it certainly wouldn’t hurt to make up a 45 degree paring block that would act as a miter jack and guide the chisel.


Here is the first set of dovetails coming together, no problems yet.


The second set had to be put together with taps of a hammer. I’m wondering if I should lighten the fit a bit, because I know it may be too tight when the glue swells the joints slightly. I’m nervous about the assembly of these dovetails because both sets will have to go together at the same time to be clamped properly, I’ll be moving at light speed for glue up, which leaves too much opportunity to start hitting shit with a heavy hammer when the glue locks half way. Have you been there before?


Ugh…too much turkey. What is it with people going to more than one thanksgiving? Forgive me, I had to have a lie down by the fire. Thankfully I have a nice glass of whiskey to fortify my health after sitting before the cornucopia.

Anyway, if you’re not asleep yet from too much food I can continue telling the tale of this cabinet joinery. With the dovetails finished and satisfied with the fit I finished the stopped rabbit on the side panels that houses the cabinet back. I still have to finish the mortises, but that will happen after the tenons are scribed.


For the corresponding through rabbit on the bottom panel I pulled out my skew rabbit plane. This plane can cut cross grain rabbits, but I wish it had an actual knife to score the grain in front of the cutting edge as opposed to the wheel knife. Its a great plane though, good for batch cutting kumiko tenons. I just wish I knew about the Japanese version of this plane before buying the Veritas.


Stopped dado present much more of a challenge. The alignment of the guide rods on my electric plunge router is a joke, I won’t trust it to plunge cut without wobble, so its back to the hand tools. I ran into the problem of cutting square sided grooves with my router plane when making my fuigo. A factory fence for Veritas’ router plane is less than fifteen bucks, but it looks so insubstantial I decided to rig up a home made version.


In addition I used a stop at the end of the work to keep me blowing through the grain at the end of the dado.


Three small grooves 3/8″ for three small sliding doors.


And then finished the top with the grooves that house some of the internal carcass shelving. Its starting to look a bit more organized, maybe you can get an idea what the finished piece will look like. Unfortunately the joinery on the bottom is not finished yet either, it still needs the mortises cut on the bottom for the keyed sliding dovetail that hold the skirt boards on the bottom. The skirt boards are only there as a cosmetic addition to hide the caster wheels the unit will roll on.

IMAG1686For tonight no worries of ethics and sustainability, enjoy yourself and the people around you.

Well friends, to your health. Stay warm!

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With my best wishes,


A Fine Clutch of Dovetails


More along the lines of, “A difference that makes no difference is no difference”. I recently received a set of bits for my brace from my father, most of them look never to have been used, so its like having a brand new antique. But I wanted to compare the speed of the brace compared to a cordless electric drill for drilling the waste on my cabinet side mortises. Well, no difference really. Not in speed, I do find it easier to drill a hole where I want it without a bunch of drift compared to twist and Forstner drills. The obvious advantage of the brace is being able to work quite carefully and deliberately.

I also compared chopping the mortise purely by chisel or first drilling as much of the waste as possible. Interestingly my speed was also almost exactly the same. The difference was in ease, that to be fast chisel mortising requires a good deal more sustained effort that paring back to the line on a mortise after drilling. Do the math too, nine minutes a mortise, twenty-two mortises. I drilled the mortises.

That said, I don’t regret all of the chisel mortising I’ve done. That practice is simply indispensable to developing the smooth technique that leads to speed and accuracy. And there is still work that I would chisel mortise, such as the blind mortises on shoji stile (though I drill a single hole for kumiko mortises in the rail/stile).


My knowledge of how to use this router for accurate work to the line is still quite limited. As opposed to trying to set up my straight edge as a fence and possibly botch the cosmetic stopped dado for the shelf side I stayed behind the line and used the router to remove the bulk of the waste and deck the bottom surface. By the way, the incremental adjustment on this ryobi router, not made to try hitting tolerances of .004″.


Used my widest chisel to chop back to the line, this White Ash works quite nicely by chisel.


Here is the connection for the top shelf, stopped dado on either end. Because I went ahead and cut this shallow cosmetic dado I’ll have to mark directly off of it and cut the outside edges of the top shelf back to the shoulder line before I can get it seated in the cabinet side to mark the tenon locations. Even though I have a story stick made up for these mortises I’m still marking directly to produce the tenons.


I considered trying to rig up some kind of diagonal workbench to saw these dovetails from above, but had already cut the top miter on the cabinet side and some joinery up there that I did not want to risk chipping an edge on the ground. So I cut my tails in two steps like a tenon, starting first from the inside face.

There was a time where I would have knifed every surface of the joint, sawn wide by a margin and then pared painstaking back to the line. Now I use ink and saw directly to the line because I can actually see what the hell I’m doing and get better fits to boot.


My trestles are high enough that I finished the cut sitting beneath the work.


This is a good fret saw and it was worth every penny. Instead of saying it was expensive, how about saying it cost its worth?


Transferring the tails to the pin board was worrying to me right up until the point I came to do it, and had just enough room. The edge of my paning beam which the pin board is clamped to was jointed flat and square to the face, and did a good job of flattening the slight cup of the panels (The humidity in my shop is a wild affair at the moment with the change of the seasons).


More ink for finishing layout of the pin board. One mistake I make more than any other is cutting the wrong side of the line for the pin.


Lets see some good technique with dozuki noko, index finger pointed and laying flat across the top. It hurt the tendons of my hand to do this at first, but I’m glad I stuck it out. Its too easy with a club grip to push the saw too hard in the cut. I care much less about where along the length of the handle the saw is held, the grip is everything.


And of course, the proper way to end a long day is patching a cut on the wrong side of the line…It does take skill to cut such a thin patch with the saw, but this is not one I’m going to brag about.

Now, this is something I’m making for the house, its not a commission, so I can see it as a piece of skill development and lavish my time and attention. But it has got me to thinking about the economics of it all. What does it take to sell fine handcrafted solid wood furniture?

You first have to ask what the size of your market is. No amount of rainbow farting unicorns (thanks for that one Jack Spirko) can produce a market large enough to make a full time living merely because you will it to exist and the work suits your soul. The funny thing about the custom furniture business is that you’re producing something that under normal circumstance you’d never be able to afford. Perhaps something that you’ve never even looked at or seen available in a store. In my case I don’t even know anyone that owns a well made piece of cabinetry I didn’t make. Its not just every day that one wonders into a fine furniture show or gallery. So then why is this desire to make furniture so prevalent among woodworkers, why is it not expressed as the desire to weave baskets or the like?

Part of it comes down to the tools. I know for myself, thinking back on my teenage years constantly perusing tool catalogues, dreaming up wish lists for the perfect shop, it was really apparent that the tools held value, that there is an innate value present. And the prices bear that out, do they knot? Price quite often correlates to value, but that is not to say that most of the work we want to do can be accomplished with tools of more modest origin, I prove that every day with my tool set. But what I’m getting at is that craftsmanship in present society often develops as an aspirational search for personal catharsis, one available with modest means and honest hard work.

Perhaps that belies the number of people I know have tools far to good for their skill, but that is all to the good, is it not? I’d much rather somebody buy the tool that can appreciate it but not use it, to take care of it and one day lovingly pass it on, than see the tool not made at all.

The real revolution in carpentry is what is produced in an individual around ethic. And I think to articulate this it is easiest to refer to the prime directive and ethics of permaculture. Namely:

A)We must take responsibility for our lives and those of our children.

1)Care of earth.

2)Care of people.

3)Return of surplus.

I’d love to explore a bit further how permaculture relates to carpentry, what you might consider a sustainable permaculture business.



A New Broad Axe


The broadaxe I ordered from Highland Woodworking finally arrived after a short backorder, and what a beauty! My brother bought this for me as a gift, he knew that I was in the market looking for one. I thought I’d wind up getting some rusticle on ebay that belonged to an old tie hacker or the like, to have a new tool of this quality is wonderful. And quality it is, the steel holds a keen working edge, even through the knots on the pine around here (ponderosa, lodgepole).



I decided that a right hand scissor grind would be the best fit for what I want to do with it, namely hew square timbers. I know from watching Youtube videos that if you want to get serious about hewing large beams there are much broader and heavier axes out there. I played around with it for as long as my forearms would bear on some short sections of log I use as cribbing, no material to work as of yet…bummer, because there’s real pleasure and joy in hewing work, and its faster than sawing beams with my maebiki-oga. Now if I get a log with excessive butt flare I can square it down a bit and make it more reasonable to saw. Now if I only had an adze…haha.


I put the plow plane to work cutting the tongue and groove on the backing for my piece of cabinet work.


I couldn’t get a good shot of the tongue cutting blade. What I have managed to show is the poor shaving escapement. Veritas, who makes this plane, include a shaving deflector with every tongue cutting blade. So I have three of these little deflectors that fit in the depth stop on the right side of the plane and seem to be very little help, not sure what they were thinking there. But if you take a sufficiently thick shaving it does tend to jump free of the plane body and keep from tangling up.


I processed the tongue and groove on all of the pine for the cabinet back, though I’ve since made a design change and will need to re-saw a bit more.


I’m using miters on the edges of the dovetails that connect the bottom shelf to the sides, so I thought I better give the joint a practice try.


Now I have to through dovetail across the width of these white ash panels, no easy task, especially when the panel is 80″ long and you can’t clamp it vertically to saw the tails. I’ve been practicing my dovetailing technique with the board leaning diagonally on a low saw horse, we’ll see how accurate I can be in an difficult sawing position. I spent several hours making up story sticks. Idiot sticks! There’s one for the elevation and two for each of the plan views. In the photo above I’m using one to gauge the needed panel width so I can set my large kebiki gauge.


There was a bit of damage to one of the panels that I wasn’t able to remove when planing to thickness, so I decided to lay in a patch.


The low angle block plane and shooting board ensure that the edges of the patch are jointed square.


I then used a plunge mortising bit in my electric router to take out most of the waste. I’ve been making a very conscious effort with this piece to use all of my power tools to their maximum ability to save me time. It’s still taken probably sixty hours or so for me to dimension all of the material (maybe 80, I didn’t keep track), and I’m feeling the lack of a planer and jointer. Unfortunately Chris Hall’s blog “thecarpentryway” has me convinced that good machines only exist in far and away places such as Germany and Japan, and they don’t export easily. Maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but I know enough about machine tools today not to want to spend my money easily for a big box store machine that will never be capable of decent accuracy and can’t handle the sizes of half of the material I need to process.


The grain match for the patch way okay, but I missed on the colour. Looks cool! Looks hopefully like I give a shit about what I’m making.


Here I have the elevation story stick clamped to one side of the panel. I transferred all of the marks and then brought a line square across with my sashigane. After clamping the story stick to the opposing side I checked that all of the marks lined up with the square, to make sure that my initial line at the bottom was truly square. When you play around with the sashigane a bit you’ll notice that how you hold it does have an effect on accuracy, and I can see why I might want a really large try square that could give more consistent registration on the edge of the board.


Trimming to my bottom line that will take the through dovetails with a low angle block plane and edge block clamped to avoid blowing out the corner.


I finished today with marking the mortises that house the shelf tenons. I’ve done another piece of cabinet work with through tenons on the shelving, but not a wedged tenon. So when it came time for me to decide on the dimensions and placement of these wedged tenons it occurred to me that they need to be wedged against the edge grain of the mortise, not the side grain. I say that because I did a search online for examples of this technique, and found plenty of examples where a wider tenon was used and wedged such that it would expand against the side grain of the panel, a sure recipe for splits. Thus we arrive at these small little tenons placed closer together. And would you guess who I found searching online using this technique? Chris Hall building a bookshelf….

Keyed Sliding Dovetail


Well well well, have a look inside the mystery joint from yesterday, sans shachi-sen. Look familiar? I’ve seen this joinery used to great effect by Chris Hall in numerous furniture pieces now (as well as larger structures like a gate), connecting things like table leg rails to the top frame above it. I found it to be quite a challenge! But, seeing as this is the way that I want to hold fast together the matched wooden straightedges for the study group meetup today, I thought it was high time to give it a go.


The pieces to be joined are marked together with marking knife  for the two mortises, ensuring that they will match up when the dovetail keys are installed.


The proportions of the dovetail are largely determined by the width of the chisels that will be used, adjusting the taper of the dovetail key is done by changing the mortise depth.


A lot of the accuracy of the method that I use depends upon accurate depth to the mortise. Perhaps a more forgiving method would employ scribing the dovetail key to the slot that is cut. I layed out half of the dovetail key to make sure the proportions look good, and then made a small depth gauge to match.


The bottom of the dovetail key is 1/2″, the top 1/4″, each slot is the same length at 3/4″. The bit that the dovetail key slides into starts as a 1/4″ wide mortise.


And then the sides are flared out to meet the bottom, forming the dovetail slot. The back of these small sliding dovetails was very tight, I found myself needing a small fishtail chisel, unfortunately I don’t have one that small, so I resorted to a small 1/8″ detail chisel to clean the end grain corners as the cheeks of the dovetail slot were pared.


My dovetail keys, both slightly over sized in every dimension. I made a small saw cut to define the depth of the waist.


And then started splitting off the waste by paring top to bottom.


Now a bit more accurate chisel work to make sure my surfaces are flat. I was pleased not to need a clamp to work these small pieces, though my fingers were at times in danger of poking with the chisel.


The wedge was first fitted to the 1/2″ dimension of the mortise, undergoing a bit of adjustment here and there. By and large most of the fitting took place on the dovetail slot, especially paring in the back corners where I tended to leave too much wood.

I had to push down on the dovetail key pretty hard as I tapped it in with my hammer. I imagine a longer dovetail key would be easier in some respects to install without blowing out the face grain of the mortises. Tricky to fit these! Always a puzzle to figure out where the surfaces are proud.


Each side of the dovetail key was individually fitted to its respective slot, so everything had to be labeled or its a fools progress. With the dovetail keys tapped home the plugs can be planed to fit from the same stock the keys are made of.


I screwed the surface quality of the inside face by sawing too close while making the plug flush. Its always some stupid little error committed after jumping the more difficult hurdles, but that is why this is a practice attempt, I’ll be more mindful in the future. Which is to say, cut proud of the surface and pare with a chisel. Make your mama proud of your work!


And how about we throw a locking wedge in there for full effect. This would be the full expression of the joinery application, and is what I plan to use to join the carcass to the bottom skirt of the cabinet piece I’m working on. I eyeballed the taper and transferred marks across the top of one piece, though the marks could also be brought across the interior surfaces once the pieces are separated.


Definitely locked together, and easily demountable. Is it worth it to join pieces together this way as opposed to screws which are cheap and easily employed? I don’t know, but it sure is fun! You have to do work that you are satisfied with, and I for one will always seek to improve my technique.

Fun with Ko-Ko-Gen and other Facts of Wood


Starting off from where I left you on my last post, staring at the end grain of some old douglas fir decking. In many respects, perhaps not remarkable lumber, but I love the warm glow and even grain, it is something as to character that I look for in other species of timber to favour. This material will be planed down to 1/4″ and given tongue and groove edges with my plow plane.


Stable material like this behaves during sawing! I also have a much better understanding of how much set the saw needs for me to re-saw and leave a nice surface like this.


I recently bought Chris Hall’s “The Art of Japanese Carpentry Drawing, Volume II: Fundamentals of Kokogen”, which I have found to be totally worth the outlay of cash for a bit of scarce knowledge in the English language.  Now I get the whole unit triangle thing, and kept on having these dumb moments where I felt like I was in high school geometry again (although I loved geometry!). Now when reading “The Complete Japanese Joinery” I see something like, use reverse chogen slope, and it seems pretty straight forward, sort of. There’s theory, and then there’s putting it to practice.


Both the edge cut and the face cut of a hopper (splay sided box) can be determined directly with different segments of the unit triangle for the overall rise/run. Unfortunately I still had a bit to learn about what value is used on which side of the sashigane, and marked out the wrong angle for the miter cut on the board edge.


But the layout looks so promising! Meh. Now it just looks wrong. Still some challenge left in executing these diagonal grain cuts with a hand saw.


I didn’t have time to try again, off to lunch with mother and my niece Lilly. This is what I look like close up to a four year old, haha. Childs eye view?


She was by today as well picking up a special delivery. Anyone know what this tool is for?


Slicing some different kinds of domestic truffles! I’ve never tried any of these before, the smell was very rich in an off sort of way.


The grain of this beam is what I think of as rich in an off sort of way. As in, off enough to break the window from swelling and bowing in the middle during a freak 1000 year rain event we had not too long ago. Beautiful patina for some old redwood 6×6 that’s taken fifty years of weather and sun.


Up next, daiku study group day. And what mysteries of joinery might this shachi-sen hold under key?