Sliding dovetails slip perfectly in place

DSC_0044I’m often asked how to create sliding dovetails. I mean people who want to make an immoveable joint across the full width of wide boards with as near flawless accuracy as possible. Now I have seen many sliding dovetails thought my lifetime of working wood but the flaw levels in one part or another were always too high. Of course there are such things as routed dovetails but that’s where the machine does it not you. Aside from that, I could never bring myself to use a router to make dovetails.

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Visit the Hancock Shaker Museum if you ever get chance. You will not regret it.

Two years ago I spent some time in the Hancock Shaker Museum. Although everything there was 200 years old, and perhaps it was old fashioned, there was something so intriguing about the standards of workmanship in hidden gems throughout the museum. I spent more time looking under and upwards, inside and behind than just in familiar ways we normally look at things. Anyway, I am replicating one of these in some beautiful cherry I just bought in. It does have a couple of unique features you won’t want to miss and that are not obvious. So you can follow this build with us if you like.

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This is one of mine. It’s not yet finished bit closely fitted.

Whereas over the past half century people sought modern ways of making and designing, and most woodworkers lost much of the type of connection people like the Shakers had with their work, it’s amazing to see a new-genre woodworker believing in hand work and the benefits that brings to life Instead of their designs being conformed to the limits of their machines they are discovering what I have had for 50 years. It’s a lovely thing to see something like a hand-cut sliding dovetail come together with a handful of simple hand tools. I don’t mean gappy ones but perfectly married ones with pristine shoulder lines and meeting surfaces as tight as tight can be.

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We will be showing the methods I use to do this via woodworkingmasterclasses.com and YouTube too as usual. I will work up a blog on it too for those who like the typed instructions.

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This tenon is straight off the saw. It’s had not trimming at all and I like it because of the fineness of the cheeks and the shoulder lines. When I pull it between my fingers and thumb i can barely feel any discernible surface DSC_0006discrepancy even though I can see saw lines from the kerf. I wanted to perfect my bowsaw recently and that meant working on the blade I wanted to use too. I think the results were pristine.DSC_0042 It’s hard for a tenon saw man to turn to another saw type after five decades. I love the British back saws I must admit. Hard to beat I think. The Japanese pull-stroke saws made heavy inroads to dissuade people from the western saw and almost succeeded, but I think that’s shifted a little now, thankfully, and I am glad. I want a saw I can sharpen and a saw I feel comfortable telling people they can learn to sharpen too. Between you and me I really like the combination of the bow or frame saws and the back saw in it’s different types and options. This week has been very profitable in the developments we have made surrounding the use of different hand tools. We are making woodworking doable for the less fortunate working on a shoestring budget and also for this who can afford everything. I feel to be one of if not the most fortunate woodworkers in the world today because of what we are able to do in reaching out to people worldwide.

19 Comments

  1. Pete Bates on 28 May 2015 at 11:19 pm

    Really looking forward to the sliding dovetail video(s) and would like to see a series on making the bow saw and frame saw and to learn what you have done as far as perfecting the blades. I think at one point you mentioned something about a 14 tpi metal cutting blade.



  2. davidos on 29 May 2015 at 12:14 am

    i will be forever so grateful that you expanded you’re teaching on-line ,you have changed my life and the way i think about life in general ,you kept it real , honest and affordable and especially those of us on a shoestring budget you made it a reality to be able to begin ,get going and grow into this wonderful craft.



    • Paul Sellers on 29 May 2015 at 3:35 am

      I just saw what was happening to my craft by the magazines and machine salesmen and saw how imbalanced the perspectives were. Now with the internet it’s a million times more confusing and the conveyor belt is as many times bigger too.



  3. Alfred Kraemer on 29 May 2015 at 3:15 am

    Looking forward to it, too. Most of the sliding dovetails that I have seen were in softwoods. I wonder if there is a reason for that.
    Years ago I saw massive door in a restored Danish immigrant homestead at Old World Wisconsin. The door was entirely made of 2 inch thick oak boards held together by two inset, tapered, dovetailed battens. Every time I look at the picture I’m amazed at the ingenuity.

    Although the basic principle is the same, the door wouldn’t be an example of a sliding dovetail.

    Alfred



  4. Randall on 29 May 2015 at 11:38 am

    Really looking forward to the sliding dovetail instructional. Thanks for sharing



  5. Ed on 29 May 2015 at 12:46 pm

    Every time I see a tapered sliding dovetail, I remember Tage Frid writing, “It is easy to make, especially after you have goofed it up ten or twelve times until you get the hang of it.” He uses a dovetail plane. I’m looking forward to seeing how you cut yours.



  6. Sylvain on 30 May 2015 at 3:26 pm

    It seems bow saw are still popular in Germany. But I could not find many video showing how to handle them and what stance to have.
    Sylvain



  7. Sylvain on 30 May 2015 at 4:36 pm

    Some advices about the “noix” (in French – the two things which look like handles but which are not handles) on a bow saw
    in this video:
    http://www.rts.ch/archives/tv/culture/suisse-au-fil-du-temps/3464421-les-outils-de-bois.html
    Sylvain



  8. Jeff Polaski on 30 May 2015 at 10:25 pm

    1. Look up “Ari Jyakuri Kanna” as a search on eBay. There’s a complicated plane, but I can’t see enough of it to figure out how it works. Clearly, though, it may cut both sides of the dovetail at one pass.

    2. If you are still in the vicinity of the Shaker Village in Hancock, stop by the Norman Rockwell Museum (used to be his house). We went some years ago, and were hosted by a lovely elderly lady who lived all her life in Hancock. She saved the best for last: the picture of a little girl, her hair in red pigtails, fresh from the dentist’s office, saying “Look, Mom, no cavities!”

    Our very elderly hostess and guide smiled, looked at Martie Ann and yours truly and said, “That was me!”

    How can a sliding dovetail compare to that?



  9. Jeff Polaski on 21 June 2015 at 12:59 pm

    I will again be in Hancock, Massachusetts, for a week or so. I’ll go again to the Shaker Village and would like to know if there are any particularly notable pieces of woodwork I should seek out. The alternative, equally good, would be to look thoroughly at everything. I’ll ask permission to make photographs, but that is understandably a chancy thing.



    • Paul Sellers on 22 June 2015 at 12:46 am

      I was privileged at Hancock because of their understanding of my work and what I do in passing on info to woodworkers and craftspeople. With the help of the museum I was able to see inside pieces and make measurements and such, which I am sure will not really be possible with every visitor. My thoughts are that anyone visiting who has any interest in history, the Shaker’s world of creativity and woodworking and other crafts should allow themselves time. I felt the need for reflection when I was there. Time to soak in everything and revisit rooms and pieces and time to look for the subtle reflections in the tool marks left in surfaces. These were the things that I wanted most. I didn’t want to rush from room to room and building to building. My time there was a reflective period acknowledging the Shaker contribution to woodworking. Notebook, sketchbook and camera etc at the ready to record my findings.



      • Jeff Polaski on 22 June 2015 at 12:43 pm

        Thank you for your reply, and very nicely put. You have the kind of access our wine group leader personally had at wineries across Europe, that we did not have (unless the vintner remembered us from prior visits). I don’t drink anything anymore, so it’s just as well my younger years were spent well.

        May I have your permission to say that I am an Internet student of yours? I would fully understand if you prefer not, and would comply to your wishes; you really don’t know me. I always ask permission to photograph, can easily extend that request to using a sitting stool or kneeling mat. My innate charm often wins over the grouchiest of museum monitors. I also have a camera that doesn’t look professional to most, but gets precisely what I want.



  10. valeriodangelo on 13 January 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Paul,
    is it possible to use the sliding dovetails to attach large table tops to the two shorter aprons, or they will going to distort the top itself with expansion?
    Same for square pegs, like did the joiners of 17th century, inserted from the top to the aprons, diagonally: the top, if large, will distort, if not quarter sawn and well seasoned?
    Thanks,
    Valerio.



    • Paul Sellers on 13 January 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Yes, you can use sliding dovetails for this. You can create the dovetailed recesses in the underside of the top and you can also make detachable corresponding dovetailed pieces separate to the apron and screw them on to the frame, which works perfectly.



      • valeriodangelo on 13 January 2016 at 8:03 pm

        Thanks.
        So why the use of turnbottoms or screws like in the occasional mohogany table for allowing the movement?



        • Paul Sellers on 13 January 2016 at 8:13 pm

          The sliding dovetails also allow for expansion and contraction too, as they are not glued inside the dovetailed channel.



  11. Ted Bastwock on 12 January 2018 at 4:24 am

    Can someone please tell me whether the instructional video about tapered sliding dovetails described in this article ever made/published? I don’t see anything on this topic on either of Paul’s websites.



    • Paul Sellers on 12 January 2018 at 9:02 am

      You have to be a member of woodworking masterclasses to watch the video series on making the project, Ted.