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Talking of Beauty

An abandoned wardrobe lay bereft of its doors on a burn pile and I tugged on it to lift one end from the pallets below as if the pallets deserved to be there but the massive wardrobe didn’t. It was pine, only pine! I remember hearing the man say. But I tugged on it anyway, perhaps all the more because it was ‘just‘ pine.

Inside my workshop the wood seemed of real value to me. I looked for the good way to part the sections from one another. Wide boards 60cm wide and 250cm long seemed a goodly size to me and then the dovetails that had held throughout those 150 years seemed at least more worthy than just a cursory glance. Of course i didn’t need a massive wardrobe or a cupboard that size for anything at all. I wanted the well-seasoned and dry wood, the wide, knot-free panels, the free wood too, of course, yes, but more than that, it wasn’t so much what I wanted but what I didn’t want. I didn’t want it to become mere firewood. Surely it was worth much more than  that.

The dovetails are all utterly free-hand cut as expected. Not pretentious as we might be today with the luxury of time on our hands. Nope, this man just cut and completed each corner in 15 minutes or so. He was biased. All of the angles on one side were dead set at one angle whereas the other side of the dovetails were different but consistent too.

Free-handing and without measuring makes the job fast, of course, and simplifies things markedly too. I liked the honesty of the work altogether. The era was honest somehow. Such was the era I think because alongside the exposed dovetails there were the sliding dovetails (detailed below) retaining the main full-width shelf too. Don’t you just love that. There you have a sliding dovetail that could just as well have been just a dado because no one would have seen inside, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. No cheating here, only honest to goodness joinery. Notice that there was indeed no glue used but that some of the dovetails were nailed with square nails from the blacksmith’s hammer.

Here I transferred the angles directly from dovetails with my protractor and established the different pitches.

One thing I like is the utter defiance of this pitch or that that comes from that era. Nothing squeaky prissy about this man’s work. He just got on with the job. No BA degree in furniture making here, just the long term judgement and acceptance of his peers. The variance in pitch was between 1:4 and 1:6. They held.

The sliding dovetails were almost always sawn, as these were, but little telltale signs show you exactly how. In this sliding dovetail, though not a through sliding dovetail, the walls and angles were sawn 90 percent of the way across, but how was it done if it wasn’t sawn all the way though? As a lad I was taught to use the same methods as the man used here. Having laid out the lines for the walls of the recess, you chisel down a recess at the furthest point away from you about two inches long. This recessed area enables you to start the saw cut using the start of the tenon saw. You drop the points of the leading teeth alongside the chiselled walls, angled for dovetail wall and the square down wall too, as both are used in the case of this sliding dovetail, and start sawing with short strokes, lowering the full line of teeth into the cut as you progress and working back from the recess. As in the case of the craftsman here, depth didn’t matter. He just ran the saw cut until he felt it was deep enough and then chiseled and routed out the waste wood to depth. He sawed the dovetail too, to the corresponding angle. No fuss, no messing about, Two honest cuts and in it went. Ten minutes to each sliding dovetail max. Dead easy.

You see in this photo you can see the traces of the chisel work where the fibres of softer wood compressed between the hard aspects of the growth rings. Along the rest of the length of the recess the evidence of saw work is crystal clear. Crisp, exact, unfaltering! Talk of beauty.

 

Here you see the sawn work clearly on the dado…

 

…and the end of the shelf, to the dovetail, which is single sided. Very crisp workmanship.

These two following pictures are for recording references of the man’s work and show the long and shallow taper to the sliding dovetail.

 

This last image shows the depth of the housing. Again for reference.

 

19 comments

  1. Joe says:

    Thanks Paul. I love seeing these photos of deconstructed old furniture. I hope I will have things folks will be able to examine 150 years from now. I kind of find it funny how we spend so much debating what angle to cut our dovetails at. He just cut his as you pointed out. Seems more of a modern problem I suppose.

    It’s also amazing how much free quality wood it out there if you are willing to look for it. Not only does my father have a garage full of free wood that he uses on projects; in 40 years of owning his home he has never had to pay for firewood and he uses the fire nightly 9 months of the year.

  2. John says:

    Some years ago I was given an order to repair a Georgian 5′ x 3′ side light ( window) to a porch, to replace rotten wood.
    After I had removed it, much to my pleasure, the maker had written his name and address in what I believe to be copper script pencil. He lived in one of a row of little 2 up 2 down cottages a few hundred yards away. I had a picture of him making it in his back garden shed??
    Like your wardrobe Paul I could see his saw cuts and pencil markings. He would have used wooden moulding planes to produce glazing beads.
    There is something special about working on a piece produced by a skilled man before the First World War, all with hand tools and no doubt transported on his two wheeled cart. Driving past the other day the whole porch had been ” “modernised” in UPVC!!
    Thanks John 2V

      • John says:

        Thanks Stuart what I found even more thought provoking was that the house was numbered 15a on the “new porch” (actually an infill to the Georgian Portland stone pillars) when on the original front door was number 15?? Reason being the owner would have sold part of his garden in Victorian times to build 6 4 story cottages ( number on there front door, I can’t recall)

        Incidentally the original front door, as all doors of the period had, had a ‘reducing style’…..LETS SEE WHO WILL QUESTION THAT??
        John 2V

    • Paul says:

      I agree, a video on doing sliding dovetails joints using the methods that Paul Sellers describes above, would be excellent.
      I did a pair of these once for a bookshelf and found it very difficult to match the angles between the two parts of each joint.

    • Jack says:

      Thought the exact same thing, gonna try giving this a shot next time im in the garage, got some sliding dovetails that need doing anyway, but a video of what im doing wrong would be nice 😂

      • Luca says:

        Same here! It would be wonderful if Mr. Sellers could make a video on how to cut sliding dovetails (ideally both the “pins” and the “tails”) in this way! I had thought a specialty plane was the only feasible way, apart from machines. Even if it’s not possible to make a video, I’m grateful just to have learned that such a thing is possible, though. 🙂

        • Bartek Knapik says:

          I think there was a project on WWMC – Shaker Stool, where sliding dovetail was used to connect top and legs. It’s not free project though.

  3. Tom Karshner says:

    Paul, it was a good day when I came upon your expertise in woodworking and craftmenship. Your articles teach us much more than forgotten or sometimes overlooked ways of joinery. After reading your articles I wonder if time and convenience have progressed us a little too far in the skill of being a professional.

  4. Norb says:

    Paul,
    Love to see the respect this piece deserves as a remnant of pride in workmanship. I especially like the parts done right, even though they wouldn’t be seen. This craftsman had integrity.

  5. Mike Towndrow says:

    Thanks Paul for taking us through how this was made.
    It’s lovely that examples of this type of craftsmanship is still all around us if you know where too look and what to look for. Seems such a shame that too often it’s unappreciated and finds its way on to a bonfire.
    At least we can be assured that this particular piece will be respected and put to good use!

  6. Mike Baker says:

    Love seeing these kinds of posts.
    Also have an affinity for reclaiming and re purposing old wood. Have built 2 guitars and a bass from old wood. Will use it anywhere I can.

  7. Paul,

    What would be the purpose of tapering the dovetail? I’m sure it was deliberate, considering the skill of the craftsman…

    I love these kind of posts- they are truly educational and inspiring.

    • You’ve never tried getting a long and parallel dovetail together, Jonathan, but it’s a good question as the hardest question to answer is the one that’s never asked. The question says so. Once a dovetail gets longer than say 6″, when cut parallel, the surface fibres in the recess and on the dovetail begin to interlock and no matter how big the hammer the dovetail ‘freezes’ and will not move from its locked position. Usually this happens fairly soon after insertion and rarely will it go together or come apart. Tapering the dovetail means you can have the dovetail almost all the way home without much contact on the walls at all and its only in the last throes that the parts unite. Add glue into the equation and its ten times worse.

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