There are quick ways to check accuracy in measurements in dovetailing. You can measure them, of course, you can gauge them by eye, very quick and equally accurate if you don’t need measurements, and then there is George. I’d laid out my dovetails for the drawer I was making ready to cut. Three of equal size at 1″ per tail and 1/4″ equally sized pins, none of that half-pins stuff. No pirouetting dividers to strut off steps. And then of course there were no YouTube discourses on how to nor Googling for methods either. Actually, the pocket calculator in its most basic form was still five years away from the high street shops. All calculations came from formula of one form or another.

Try to imagine a world without personal computers and computers at that time were the size of a bathroom yet only had the smallest fraction of what a cell phone can give you today. Imaginer a hundred punch card operators pumping in information to feed one computer. It’s hard to imagine the only availability for contacting home was by a telephone box. Now you can hardly find a telephone box and kids of five have a more sophisticated system that most people my age and older! So there you have it. Progress! It’s no longer the case that people have more knowledge today than say in the 50s and 60s, it it’s that they can easily access it. Whether it’s my imagination or not I am not sure, but I question whether younger people can remember things as well as the men I worked under. They pulled out algebra in moments of uncertainty and worked out such things as parabolic curves on the back of some well worn sandpaper. Imagine these men, workmen, working in overalls, World War II veterans, cloth caps, men, pencils pulled from behind their ears, getting excited as they talked between themselves using words and terms like directrix, vertex, reflection to focus. They no longer exist. They weren’t academics, never went to college, just working men’s union classes in the evenings, to better themselves voluntarily.

I’d set the two drawer sides on my side of the bench well and felt pretty good about it. George looked them over from his side, picked them up, held them side by side. “Uh oh!” he went. “Bit off, eh!” he chuckled. Grinned. “Don’t let anyone else see them!” He said at the top of his voice. “No!” I replied. “Yup!” He said, without measuring a thing. He placed them end for end and said, “Look!” It was then that I learned about something called the, ‘Rack o’ th’ eye (pronounced ‘rack ot th-eye’) (Rack or rake of the eye) an’ slant o’ t’ chops. (pronounced slantotchops’)(Slant or slope of the chin). By closing one eye and skewing the mouth jaw he was sighting in his crosshairs and thereby evaluated the size and accuracy of all things.

It was then obvious something was out. In reality the difference was not so great because placing them together showed twice the inaccuracy really. it was here that I developed a method I now use all the time for cross referencing my accuracy levels. For the four corners of any box I lay out the dovetails on one piece only. For a two sided box, a drawer, I still layout one set of tails. With the tails laid out and squared across the end I transfer the squared across lines onto a second piece. That done I flip the second piece around and offer it to the first. If the lines align with the second aligning the dovetails are accurate. If they are indeed accurate I flip them end for end and use the lines to mark the third and forth end pieces. This means that I measured the dovetails only once. It is fast and saves much repetitive measuring.

Remember, if the lines are a millimeter difference the sizing will only be half a millimeter out. That’s about 1/32″ in real money. Not worth changing in the grand scheme of woodworking and dovetails. Sweat the big stuff!


  1. Tassos on 5 February 2019 at 10:53 am

    Thanks Paul for sharing this lovely story from the past and that wonderful dovetail lesson!

  2. Nathan on 5 February 2019 at 11:19 am

    I laughed loudly at George yelling “don’t let anyone else see them”.. what a funny man.
    It made me think of Fred, my Pa and the wit of a different generation. One I wished to have spent more time with.
    Can you teach us the eye thing Paul?

  3. Peter on 5 February 2019 at 12:21 pm

    It’s a pity that there isn’t a ‘like’ option to click for these blogs. It would be interesting to see the number you get!
    Many thanks for continuing to post these. I especially like your reminiscences of George …

    • Dpaul on 5 February 2019 at 1:41 pm

      A video of this technique would be nice.

    • Peter Compton on 6 February 2019 at 10:49 pm

      It would be called Denial of service… So many likes that it would overwhelm the system ;D

  4. nemo on 5 February 2019 at 6:47 pm

    “Actually, the pocket calculator in its most basic form was still five years away[…]”

    If you’re talking about the electronic pocket calculator, then yes. But before that they had the magnificent sliderule. Always have had a soft spot for those humble tools. In engineering school I even used nothing but a slide-rule in some exams, just to prove to myself I could. And still have a sliderule sitting on top of my desk that gets used occasionally, even though I’m of the electronic pocket-calculator generation.

    There’s something magical about sliderules, I think. Just as navigating by sextant. Actually, that was the reason I bought my first programmable pocket-calculator (HP32SII), to assist with the calculations in astronavigation.

    And then there’s the Curta, of course…. still hoping to stumble upon one of those at a fleamarket… what a marvel of engineering.

    Incidentally, two years ago, I was sitting in the garden reading a book. The two neighbour girls (16 and 17 at the time and recently graduated) were asked by their mother’s boyfriend how much 50 minus12.5 was. The two of them couldn’t figure it out. A lot of guessing with answers all over the place, but no correct answer. After about 10 minutes they grabbed their smartphone with inbuilt calculator and finally produced the correct answer. Sitting in the yard next door and overhearing it all, you can imagine my amazement at it all. Not all progress is improvement.

    “It’s no longer the case that people have more knowledge today than say in the 50s and 60s […]”

    That’s exactly what I thought a few weeks ago. I’m at the moment working through “Jackson’s geometrical and engineering drawing” (Longmans, London, 1964) which was the comprehensive textbook for the GCSE O-levels in the ’60s. That is, highschool level. As an engineer, starting on page 1, I had to concentrate hard to be able to follow along. If that used to be highschool-level…. then I take off my hat for your (then) secondary school students. I’m using that textbook to teach myself the basics of technical drawing (using Rotring technical pens and paper). These kinds of basics were never taught to us – we jumped straight into AutoCAD, without a good understanding of the basic principles of technical drawing. But that’s a rant for another day.

    • Hedghog on 5 February 2019 at 7:15 pm

      Yes it was, as Paul can probably confirm. I did O Level (as it was in 1966) maths, Niether of my two girls who did GCSE maths in the late 80’s and early 90’s covered the breadth and depth of my curriculum. And yes, when I went into technical education on leaving school the slide rule was king (plus a log book)

    • Bob Easton on 5 February 2019 at 9:17 pm

      It was easy to find 37.5 on my slide rule, picked out from 20 or so scales on that thing. But, in reality it reflexively popped out of my head with no need to pick up the slide rule. (didn’t need the Rotring pens … which currently need some cleaning)

      As for measuring, Paul’s method is perfect. Measure ONCE, or maybe not at all. There are too many marks on measuring sticks, far too easy to select the wrong one!

  5. Colin on 5 February 2019 at 9:20 pm

    Funny isn’t it how we all see something a little different to react to & comment upon in these posts? I recall my Grandad who like you (Paul) was a Master Joiner & Cabinet Maker and who also lived & worked in NW England (Lancaster), a generation or so before George having many amusing expressions about his work. I remember that when I found him looking over something he was working on and squinting at it from different angles (probably much as George did to evaluate symmetry & alignment) he called it “giving it a good coat of looking at”. As a kid I found it funny.
    But making a simple dovetail chisel box today (to your design) I see how much measuring & marking I might have avoided if I’d followed your tip of marking once and flipping. I think I might repeat the exercise in the next couple of days just to see how much difference it makes.

  6. Peter Compton on 6 February 2019 at 10:53 pm

    Lets ava shoofty lad, that looks a bit cockeyed. LOL.

    And here’s me using kids short hand texting.
    you can teach an old dog new tricks

  7. Ted on 7 February 2019 at 1:01 am


    We get a George story *and* a real technique/tip in the same article.

    Thanks Paul

  8. Mike Z. on 10 February 2019 at 10:46 am

    I heard the other day that the modern “smart” phone is supposed to be something like 20 times more powerful than the computers that sent humans to the moon … it made me stop and pause for a moment. I get frustrated shopping in the supermarket as everything on the shelves is labeled with confusion in mind! Packages offer odd measures, some in pints and quarts while other are in metric, certainly a brain cramp for most of us average americans – we gave up on the metric system when Jimmy Carter was still president and never gave it a real chance. Makes me glad to know I don’t need a pocket sized super computer to remember we all learned pints, quarts and other measures in our youth – something I don’t believe is taught at all these days in school. Woodworking has indeed been good for me as geometry was never a strong suit back in my school days! Good old George, still seems to be keeping us on track with valuable real world lessons these days ….

  9. Mike Towndrow on 11 February 2019 at 1:26 pm

    I’m glad I grew up in a world before computers and smart phones were invented. But on the other hand I do find them very useful. Perhaps we of the older generation are luckier than we realise – old enough to know how to use formulas long hand, but now with the technology available not to need to do so!
    Keep the George stories coming Paul, I really enjoy them.

    • Bobh on 11 February 2019 at 6:48 pm

      Are children still taught multiplication tables in school? I think even that very basic skill has gone by the wayside. I’m 76, educated in public school (US) in the ’50s. I remember a niece visiting with a ‘quiz’ electronic toy in the mid ’70s that posed multiplication problems and compound equations. She challenged me with it. I answered each of them easily and quickly and accurately. She was ‘blown away.’

      What would happen to us if mankind had to experience a large asteroid impact with Earth that caused our technology to fail? Would there be any left who could revert to basic arithmetic or who could use slide rules? We were drilled in both until we achieved mastery before college.

  10. Erik Mol on 13 February 2019 at 4:24 am

    My grandfather’s house was built by a pair of brothers, carpenters and contractors. They built the entire neighborhood in the post-WW2 years. He would walk past as they built other houses and cringe as they eyeballed joists into place. He was a dentist, who hand-carved denture molds out of vulcanized rubber, and by hobby a stone cutter and polisher; for decoration, not building. Years later my grandmother had new carpets put into their home. The carpet company nearly quit in despair; there wasn’t a square corner in the whole house.

  11. Eric Smith on 13 February 2019 at 12:38 pm

    I’m a middle school Math teacher, I just retired in fact. I spent most of my career teaching Algabra I, tutoring Algebra II and Geometry. The fact that George, yourself and others like you mastered the Math in a working/applicational setting, and did so voluntarily, really strikes a cord in me. That’s everything we wish for our students. Unfortunately, regulations and student apathy make that type of learning nearly impossible today. It makes me sad that many, perhaps most of my students will only see Math as an exercise in futility. Perhaps I own part of that failure.

  12. Don Hummer on 22 March 2019 at 11:53 pm

    I sucked at algebra in high school, had no idea what “a” was. But after two years of college and my mind wondering to the field of carpentry where I worked after school and summers, I decided to give the carpentry trade a go. My first job interview was with a tough as nails Viet Nam veteran. He asked me if I could cut rafters, I said ” no but I think i can figure it out.” I took out my father’s Popular Mechanic’s Home carpentry manual and said, ” hey this is a squared plus b squared!” From that day on I read every thing I could get my hands on. It amazes me the workmanship done by carpenters in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s with almost no education and little more tools than a hammer, a few handsaws, chisels, planes, squares and plumb bobs.

    It is sad that “componentry ” has taken many mathematical challenges out the trades. Rafters are now trusses, doors are pre hung, adjusting miters is done on a chop saw rather than with a plane and shooting board. I spend weekends sharpening chisels and block planes for guys who would otherwise do it on a belt sanders with an 80 belt.

    The timber frame revival was one of the best things to happen to construction in the U.S.
    Men like Ted Benson, Ira Levin, Will Beamer helped revive the lost art. There was an old carpenter who wrote for Fine homebuilding, his name was Bob Syvanen. He taught me a valuable lesson about handsaws. Two men working on a scaffold with handsaws can cut and install siding more efficiently than a three man crew with one on the ground with a chop saw.

    I can layout doors on a jamb and door slab and cut them with chisels and a router plane by the time I dig all of my fancy “stuff”out of the truck and set it up.

    Another lost art is the story pole. I use them for siding, closet shelving, even making high end cabinetry. Also gone are wing dividers, replaced by calculators, but used in conjunction with a calculator are great to double check dimensions. These were all common practices with old guys and now they are evaporating.

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