It’s All in the Joinery

It’s all too easy to take accuracy for granted, especially when you’ve been cutting them for so long. Many people think that it takes my fifty-five years in the saddle to become competent but that’s not at all true. Fifty-five years just leaves you with fewer excuses. Reality is I have simply come to know my woods more than most, and by more, I mean differently. And that then is mostly because of my working the woods primarily with hand tools. I know what compresses and where and why and then too by how much. Different woods compress differently and then too even within the species there is great contrast too. This knowledge advantages me more than anything and it is this knowledge that can be explained to some degree but gain comes only from experience. It’s at the bench where we hand toolists learn the most about our different woods and their workings, their properties, characteristics, strengths and weaknesses and so on. We hand toolists may not work always by dead-on fits even though we can and often do. By that, I mean that we may well choose not to. No, we often make those minute tolerances that come from our experience as developed intuition. We take one shaving less to leave something a thou’ fat. Grain orientation is the critical factor and so too the grain configurations that come in the wood from its various positions when it was alive and then simply remaining within the growing the tree.

A branch weighing two tons extends ten meters out from the tree stem. With nothing but the interlocking grain to hold it there something happens to the wood and it shows mainly at the bench in the cutting of a joint or the planing of it. Chop a mortise in a knot or the intersection of the crotch grain and you experience a wide range of resistance factors ranging anywhere between pure brittleness to just plain out and out, wiry, stubborn, awkwardness.

Dead knots, live knots, these are all too familiar as are areas surrounding crotch-grain and such. There is then short grain too, where the grain changes and seems to be standing up in its own swirl of contrariness to the long axis you are working. The mortise in the middle of areas like this runs contrary to what you expect. It’s a pain. And whereas it may be hidden by the tenon shoulders when it does, if it’s a through tenon it may well be too late and the visible edges to the corner rim of the exposed outer face might end up splintered off.

As a machinist, I always simply dialed in the exact sizes I needed. It was a zero-tolerance requirement of industry. The chisel mortiser delivered perfect symmetry every time with no possibility of variance. The tenon from the tenoner did the same. Slip the tenon into the mortise and it was nigh on a frictionless fit. In the industrial world that was what might be wanted. A thousand joints in a day made up a hundred doors or window frame sashes. The boss (I was self-employed) was happy with production. Making a hundred thousand walking canes with mortise and tenon handles needed mass production methods too. That’s what I left behind. When I make a coffee table from oak or cherry, a dining chair from mesquite, perhaps a dining table, I find myself off the conveyor belt and then shunning it for lifestyling of choice. When I offer the corner of the tenon to the mortise my senses totally engage for the feedback I get in sensing compression and compressibility. It’s this communication my work now demands constantly and indeed I truly want it. It’s this that I want to interact with. Too much pressure? There’s the crack sound. I stop, ease, pare cut and refit. Too much and the joint is sloppy. A little pressure here and there and lo, there it is, what I see as that perfect joint. That’s my aim in the working of the wood. Not one relying only on glue alone but one relying on a combination of both mild levels of compression and then glue too and then perhaps a draw bore pin or a pair of wedges dovetailing all together forever. Somehow its the inaccuracy of accuracy that appeals. The draw bore seems at first clumsy, but then you see how the wood has yielded, bent and compressed in its elasticity to conform all parts in one common goal–to stay together. It is so very permanent, you see. My accuracy is to understand by how much I should offset the hole in this piece or section over that one. Too much one way results in a negative in the other way. My goal is to sense within the mortise just how much tension there is between one part to the other.

When it comes to my dovetails there are a dozen variables of which I may only know half a dozen. One day I pick my wood and I learn something completely different and new. This is wood. This is why I love my working of wood by using hand tools and my senses. For me, it is the unpredictability that results in challenging work. I do not want a guaranteed outcome of predictability. I will never make a thousand tenons in a row again in my life and nor will I ever want to again. I suggest you do not go down that pathway either. But, as I have written often, sometimes you have to see what something is not to see what is. To me, mass making methods led me to feel I was just button-pushing, stacking and loading and pushing in and taking off. By far one of the dullest, mind-numbing periods of my life. But more than that, it was soulless and soul-destroying enough to help me see both what I did not want and then what I valued the most. My handwork. Now I want to be careful here because I do like machines. There is nothing wrong with them, but in my world, the key to being well is finding some degree of balance that matches you and your particular situation as an individual. I feel I have found my balance with the use of my bandsaw.

So my dovetails are for me high-demand. They require my total attention and no part of my sensing can ever be diverted to allow another distraction mid-flow. My inner easings reduce certain frictions but disallow over tolerances. I don’t use gap-filling expanding glues as happens extensively in some courts. Oak dovetails are sized differently to cherry ones and pine ones vary from spruce. It will take you a lifetime, but oh, what a lifetime of discovery.

29 thoughts on “It’s All in the Joinery”

  1. Mr. Sellers,

    Are you saying there are 100,000 “P.A. Sellers” walking canes floating around in the U.S.? Those folks are blessed to have one if so.

    1. There are indeed and they were all individually shaped all be it using a drum sander to put the twists in them.

  2. I’ll be honest with you. When i wanted to get into hand tool woodworking after making stuff with a table saw and pocket holes, i knew i needed a real workbench. Somebody told me to build your workbench and pointed me to your older videos of the workbench build. But my friend said to me “Be careful, he makes things look easy that aren’t necessarily easy! So pay attention and watch the videos a couple times before starting”. So then I start watching the videos and see a guy using a tree as a planing stop. I was kind of thrown off at first to be honest but so glad I stuck with it! This after decades of being intimidated at hand tool joinery by the magazines that said I needed thousands of dollars worth of tools.

    1. Francisco Alarcón

      Dear Paul,
      First of all, thank you for the wonderful journey you have taken me on with your videos, experience and information about the use of hand tools.

      Second, I would like to ask you things that are not covered in the Q&A about handheld routers and that do not correspond to this Vlog. So, how can I contact you? You have an appropriate communication channel for such questions.

      Thank you very much.


      Ps: I apologise if this message is in the wrong place.

  3. Having worked with hand tool methods for several years now as a hobby, I’ve started to understand and respect the need for intuition. Early in the process, I spent an obsessive amount of time measuring, measuring again, checking for square, checking for flat, fitting and fitting again and again, and. . . Paul continually emphasizes the importance of accuracy and this is a huge challenge early on. You don’t know exactly how to get from just a little bit off to dead on with any sort of economy. I think this is an area where the challenge is increased without having someone experienced near at hand to help mentor and guide. For me the remedy has been (and continues to be since the process never really ends) to just keep at it. The intuitions do come. Another thing I had to struggle through was worrying too much about perfection in the very beginning. It turns out that there is a lot of intuition involved in correcting small issues, working around small mistakes and a whole range of technique involved in correcting problems in pieces. I had to force my self to not always want to just “start over and get it right”. Sometimes that is what is needed, other times, I think I learned a lot by working through all stages of a given operation or technique even knowing the end result would have some non-correctable flaws. In the end, so much of it is about just doing the work and letting both the mind and body learn. These days, my work is still far from the master level work I see done by Paul and others on the inter-webs. Yet, it has gotten better and continues to improve. I expect what really separates the master level artisans is their consistency of quality and outcome based on all that experience, practice and knowledge. With just a few years of hobby work, I find that from time to time I experience that feeling of mastery where my decisions and actions all synchronize and align to create a little bit of perfection. I expect after several more years I’ll be graced with more of these moments!

    1. well said indeed! I feel I can relate entirely, but I am a bit behind your progression. I still struggle with pursuing perfection in every detail and I’m sure having a mentor to offer advise would help with that as you indicate. But as time goes on, I feel I am getting a better sense for everything and you start to develop intuition. Of course, as Paul says (and I have taken to heart), “it’s not what you make, it’s how you make it”! I like to relate this to enjoying the journey just as much (maybe more) than the destination

  4. I loved that post. Paul. Thanks

    You described it all with that passion which is so important in anything we do.
    I have been wood carving for 30 years, and have experienced several of those moments of elation when I learn a new lesson or realised a new behavior pattern in a particular timber.

    I only recently started becoming interested in hand tool joinery since retiring, so I have reset the bar and started out in a new direction once again. So much to look forward to even with my ancient years!

    Quote – “This is why I love my working of wood by using hand tools and my senses. For me, it is the unpredictability that results in challenging work. I do not want a guaranteed outcome of predictability. ” Spot on!

  5. Hi Paul,

    I just wanted to stop by and say that I am really loving the most recent projects on woodworking masterclasses. The desktop organiser is a great next step from the shaker box, and the shoe tidy looks fantastic, especially with the tambour front.

    Really looking forward to seeing what else you come up with this year, and also looking forward to making these projects!


    1. I am sure they are but I’ve just always used what’s in the planes as they were well thought through and worked well for well over a century. Why fix what ain’t broke except we all need to make a living and why not just make plane irons for a living if you can. No point reinventing the wheel. Just tell people this or that is better. You can, of course just throw more money at anything you want to but most of the time that’s just something people want to do rather than need to. I’ve used my #4, #4 1/2 and #5 for 55 years to date and replaced the worn-down blades 4 times but that’s because I used them so much they went down near to the slotted hole, so I just went for the record or Stanley replacements. I did try the Hock iron in a #4 but felt no difference or improvement. I still use one in a spokeshave but it was the same as one homemade from O1 steel.

      1. Nikolaj Thøgersen

        I bought one for my 4½, since the blade was completely worn down. Getting an old replacement was not really economical due to shipping costs (I’m from denmark).
        I agree that it’s rather pointless as an upgrade, but as a replacement, it is a good product. The back was dead flat, and it had no deep grinding marks to remove.
        Plus, it’s made by a guy who cares about his product and his customers.
        You’re right, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes it is worth paying a bit extra for a wheel that round and true, with proper quality control.

    2. Hock blades are top class, exceptionally good items, but be aware of what you are buying when you decide. Thick irons sharpen differently from thin irons and this is true whether they are O1 or harder A2. There is so much more material to take off in a thick blade that you will notice the difference when sharpening by hand and it may frustrate you, especially if you do not have an aggressive abrasive. For those sharpening with electric grinders and maybe with water stones, this isn’t an impediment. If you want to use Paul’s methods, I’d encourage you to use traditional thin irons. Beware that some newly manufactured irons are called thin by their manufacturers, but are still significantly thicker than traditional irons. The thick Hock blade can sometimes have trouble engaging with the tang that advances the blade. This happened to me on an old #8 on which I installed a Hock blade. I worked around it, and it cuts beautifully, but I’m glad this is an occasional plane rather than a frequent plane like a #4 or #5. Keep in mind that there are issues of both routine sharpening (“do what I did last time”) and sharpening-to-purpose. For the latter, you may change the bevel angle or change the profile side to side. While this may not be prohibitive on a thin blade, it can be much harder on a thick one.

      1. Nikolaj Thøgersen

        They don’t really sharpen differently, they just take a few more strokes on the stones.
        A Hock blade is 2.4mm as opposed to a Stanley blade at 2.08mm (according to the internet).
        That would mean you need to remove 15.4% more material each sharpening. For a 2″ no 4 blade, that means working an area of 244mm² instead of 211mm².
        Or, measured in minutes, if you spend 10 minutes a day sharpening, you would now be spending 11.5 minutes.
        This confirms my experience, that it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
        Now think of all the Hock blades I could have sharpened instead of doing math 😉
        It is true that you might have trouble getting it to fit. This is always a concern with spare parts, especially for a product that has been on the market for more than 100 years.

        1. Nikolaj Thøgersen, you need to divide by the sine of the bevel angle. My Hock blade is 2.63mm. It replaced a blade what was 1.8mm. With a 30 degree bevel angle, the increase is (2.63/1.8)*(1/sin(pi/6)) = 2.9. For my case, there is 3x more material to remove. The reason for the sine of the bevel angle is that you abrade the whole surface of the bevel, which is bigger than the thickness. The sine accounts for this difference. My direct experience with thick O1 blades from Hock and Clifton is as described. I stand by what I said.

          1. Nikolaj Thøgersen

            Of course, if we are arguing from different standpoints, we’re never going to agree. I just measured my Hock blade and the worn down Stanley it replaced, and they are in fact 2.4mm and 2.08.
            I’ll admit I’m no good at math, but there must be something wrong with your equation. I just used (blade thickness)/sin(bevel angle).
            1.8mm/sin(30) = 3.6mm bevel.
            2.63mm/sin(30) = 5.26mm bevel.
            That’s a 46% increase, not 290%.
            I did a drawing in AutoCAD, and it verifies this. And it validates the percentage approach as well.
            I also stand by what I said, but I can see why your experience differs from mine, especially with the even thicker Clifton blade.
            I also totally agree that people shouldn’t replace perfectly good irons just for the sake of it.

      2. Honestly, I find your concerns on sharpening a thicker blade moot if handled differently. Doing a grind at whatever bevel angle you are using on the primary bevel down to just short of the squared sharpened edge will leave you with much less metal to stone than you currently have with a flat bevel on a thin blade!! This will speed sharpening considerably!! The hollow grind will speed sharpening for at least 4 or 5 sharpenings when the hollow grind can be touched up as the hollow shrinks. I would also point out the extra hours spent flattening the backs of some Stanley irons is time NEVER made up. I’ve had some really bad ones! I love the irons and chip breakers from Hock, Lee Valley or Lie Nielsen. Any of them are a step up. The only real problem with them is COST which can easily be twice the price of used Stanley plane!!!

        1. I am always struck by how many people go to such great lengths to flatten the flat face of their plane irons when the lever cap presses the blade along the whole of the fore-edge to the face of the frog perfectly anyway. You can make hundreds of thousands of people lay their planes on their sides for almost a century of generations and no one questions why? We all follow like sheep. Why on earth does anyone hollow grind plane irons when no matter the plane iron maker, make or abrasive it takes literally under a minute to get it surgically sharp with a 30-degree (or near enough angle)????

          1. I think they hollow grind because A) New tools are almost universally thick blades, often cryogenically hardened B) They believe that the only way to have a sharp edge is from the intersection of two planes and don’t believe that a curved surface meeting a flat surface can be sharp (let alone the intersection of two curved surfaces). Therefore, they think sharpening must be without any rocking of the blade and they want the arises of the hollow to guide their sharpening to be rocking-free. I don’t think many people get the idea that as long as there is a clearance angle, the edge can be sharp, so it’s fine for the bevel to be cambered. They also haven’t experienced that you can _feel and hear_ when hand-sharpening reaches the edge. When you accept those two ideas and experience that feeling, you are suddenly free like never before. You don’t need to keep a constant angle. Let it waggle and form a curved bevel. When you feel that curved bevel reach the edge and raise a bur, the beast is honed. That all being said, it is also true that hollow grinding works. They get their sharpening done and make things from wood. Have at it. I’ve got no problem with people grinding, but it’s not necessary for most sharpening if you choose the right blade.

          2. The main reason never to hollow grind though is one) the general and unnecessary excessive loss of steel, two) overheating the steel and even burning it, three) the need of some kind of grinding wheel, four) the need for electricity, five) the dedicated space for the machine, six) the increased danger level, seven) the cost of buying said machine, eight) It’s a nonessential piece of kit, nine) tell me when to stop…..

        2. William Nenna, yes, this is what I mean by them sharpening differently. If you buy a grinder, hollow grind, etc., there’s no issue. If you use water stones and a jig, there may also be no issue. If you use a linisher, great. If you use only diamond plates, my experience for thick blades for #4, #5, and #8 is as described. I don’t understand why people are getting in a snit. These are wonderful blades, as I said. For some purposes, I prefer them. Just be aware of the consequences of choosing them. If those consequences match how you work, fine. These are refinements in understanding of the sharpening process that sometimes aren’t mentioned, so I mentioned them. I think I’ve moved to debating rather than stating an opinion, so I’ll bring my involvement to a close at this point.

    3. I have never used anything other than the original blades, but here’s a point maybe worth considering, if mr. Sellers’ opinion isn’t already convincing enough for you:

      Stanley (and other manufacturers of Bailey-type planes) have been constantly ‘innovating’ their products, making incremental improvements, or those which would be perceived as such by the customers for marketing purposes. There were a lot of modifications introduced over the years. Many token, some substantial. Yet somehow, during 150 years, Stanley never sought to introduce a thicker plane blade (to my knowledge). Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

      If there were even the slightest perceived benefit to using such a blade, I’m sure Stanley, an aggressive competitor, would have introduced it to distinguish itself from the competition. If only in the upmarket ‘Bedrock’ series, where Stanley seems to have grasped at every opportunity it could, some far-fetched, to create an even better plane at a higher price. The fact that Stanley didn’t, and that its customers back in the day didn’t seem to have any issue with the thickness of the blades, should tell you something.

  6. My dovetails are getting better and I am thoroughly enjoying the process. I am still ending up with some gaps (thankfully they are getting smaller) what is your recommendation for dealing with those visible gaps in the finished piece? I have been making some filler with glue and sawdust. As always, thank you for your work!

    1. I would rather see slithers of wood, matching the grain where possible, rather than glue and sawdust. I have to say that in my 55 years I have never fallen for this ‘quick tip trick’ for filling miscuts in joinery as the men I was trained by never used it either. I’d rather the honest gap than glue in sawdust.

      1. Garrett Swalwell

        My first dovetail box has gaps. Currently working on a commissioned coin box for a work friend.

  7. Per the drawing of the Dove Tail layout it’s not clear if the two boards will be tails or pins. Also, you clearly have drawn shown flat-sawn and quarter sawn boards. Do you have a preference for which is superior with respect to dove-tail joints e.g., quarter sawn for pins or tails?

    Love reading your blog and watching the videos.

  8. – Grant, if the two sides of your assembly were adjacent cut from a same board, they will be showing the same compressibility property.

    – Paul, very interesting this drawing.
    Now most of the time, on the wood I have used until now, the board was neither quarter sawn nor perfectly flat sawn.

  9. Great post Paul, for all the reasons above. Your tuition for the masses is commendable. Here’s to health and happiness with a good coat of satisfaction.

  10. Hi Paul – first I want to thank you for your videos. They have become an inspiration for me. I have always been interested in wood working but never had the time or money to begin.
    So you might imagine how frustrating it has been for me to begin with box joints and dovetails. You (and everyone else on YouTube make it look so easy. Suffice to say my skill so far is only at the whittling stage. Whale all my joints do fit into each other, each one of them also allows for a nice breeze to travel through. Needless to say I am persevering and will continue to use your videos knowing that, at some point, it’s all going to come together!

    Thank you for your inspiration

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