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.



4 thoughts on “A Fine Clutch of Dovetails”

  1. I like this way of writing Gabe, it put the wheels to turn inside my brain. Yes for the good tools in sloppy hands, so many planes I got cheap thanks to them. The market things reminds me of Krenov, and one of his books where he thanks his patrons for letting him do what he does in a cold economy as yours there. I hate him there, for giving up changing the economy just to make nice useless cabinets. Farting unicorns cannot change the market, but man is powerful enough to pretty much destroy the whole planet, or save it if he will. Imagine if instead of all the accumulated surplus turned into capital and technology we had new permaculture gardens on the earth. If our fathers would have spent more time planting trees than drinking, working and saving in pension funds (at least mine). Looking forward to your permaculture carpentry thoughts.

  2. Your getting a lot of work done! That ash looks lovely. I found a strange piece of wood, it’s white, hard and looks like it has some dark stripes running through it. Kind of like oak. It’s really purdy!

    I have to say, it is strange to read all this serious talk about sustainability, ethics, and judgments, dead wealthy philosophers, anarcho-communism…

    On a computer.

    Now, I think the popularity of woodworking is:
    A. People can’t afford their needed furniture. So it’s built or restored. And with so many jobs producing intangible results, it’s nice to produce tangible results.
    B. Woodworking shows such as norm and The woodwright’s Shop, the Information Revolution as a whole
    C. Retirees wanted a nice hobby, so they took up woodworking for it’s accessibility. I highly doubt there would be any overpriced coping saws or bronze tools without retirees.
    D. Often a sugar-coated view of the past brings people to hand tool methods.

    Hopefully this doesn’t cause too much of a storm, but perhaps a stiff breeze; Don’t want to create an echo chamber, those things stifle change and innovation! And please correct me if I’m wrong or starting to sound serious; I hate seriousness in all forms. We’re all human, we all laugh at fart jokes!

    1. I think your analysis of woodworking is spot on Stephen, really cogent. Although, its not just that people cant afford their needed furniture, but that modern materials and industrial process mean that you can have furniture for prices that are historically low. As to the irony of speaking of all of this on a computer, well. I guess I see nothing terribly incongruous about discussing sustainability while using a computer. For instance, I live without running water for the most part and have rather humble living circumstances. But sustainability does not mean that we all need to be poor and live without electricity. In the end I’m a pragmatic in the regard to fossil fuel use, that coal is gonna burn. What you need to worry about is explaining to your children what you did with it. What will you answer when they’re digging terraces and swales by hand when a bit of diesel in an excavator would have gotten it done with a maximum value in the energy transaction? Its true that future holds great challenges for us, but Stephen…don’t fail to see the opportunity as well, be optimistic at least about what is possible in our own lives. Happy Thanksgiving!

      1. I was thinking about the cumulative effects…I was horrified when I first learned how much slave labour is used to get the minerals to make circuitboards for electronics, then how it’s assembled. Computers are the best example of a double edged sword.

        I saw a defense of cheap labour the other day; the person claimed it worked out well for America, Britain, Europe eventually. But I have one question, what happens once the corporations run out of developing countries to exploit for cheap labour, and once there’s regulation preventing abusive labour systems?

        I have a pretty cynical outlook on most things. Definitely subscribed to the whole ‘A person is good, but people are bad’ outlook. Tried changing it, but eh, sometimes it’s good to have; if you are constantly expecting things to be happy and good, you are going to be disappointed. But if you expect things to be bad, you’ll revel in the simplest joys and be constantly pleasantly surprised.

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