George and I Dovetail

Notes from my journal:

When George came into the workshop this wintry moring he parked his bike amongst the wood racks under the eaves in the same place as he usually did, slipped off his bike clips from his pant legs and clipped them to his crossbar. My eyes searched for his as he walked towards me but this day he seemed ever so distracted. He didn’t seem distracted, just engaged in thought. When I caught his eye he smiled a wide grin, nodded and said his usual disarming ‘Hello’. Some minutes passed before we started working and we stood at our corners and I waited for his nod to begin. We had a lot of dovetailing work to get started on and a week to complete the work in. My dovetails to date were not that successful and George of course knew. Keith nodded towards me from the adjacent bench and said, “Got your friend to help you, George?”

“If he’s a friend, I’d hate to see what my enemies are like!” George joked.

In Pine, Oak, Sapele or Mesquite, the beauty of symmetry is all the same.

By midday, George had dovetailed two drawers perfectly to my half of one and mine left lots to be desired. “Always leave the line in.” He said. It was later in the day that George seemed to cotton on to the problem. “Did you know, Paul, that the trouble with a blunt pencil is there’s no point to it.” I laughed at the joke. George said it again, “Did you know, Paul, that the trouble with a blunt pencil is there’s no point to it.” I looked quizzically. “Watch!” he said. He took his pencil and slid it alongside a ruler, then he took mine. I immediately saw that my line was way off the ruler and that the pencil line was a mile wide. Lots of margin for error. Ever since then I have been a fanatic for pencil lines and sharp pencils. Why not a knife? Sometimes a knife works well and other times a pencil. The wood is what makes me choose one over the other.

These were not measured and neither did I use a template to guide me. I just wish someone had been there to witness it.

George slid the small 10″ tenon saw alongside the end of his thumb and sliced a through-cut, just as I do now in my day to day if you watch my videos, and lifts the saw from the cut. “See!” he said. He pulled me near by the shoulder, gripped the top of my head and turned it to the cut. “Hold your head there and I will do another, but watch closely.” This time I got it. It was a fraction of an inch from the pencil line, the smallest fraction where his cut was perfectly parallel to his pencil line but not on it. A paper-thickness from it. He followed through with subsequent cuts to deepen the wall of the pin recess. “Now go and don’t be so rigid holding the saw. You can do it.”

A cabinet made with dovetails is built to last five hundred years when the joints fit well. Practice and then practice more. It comes!

After the close scrutiny and instruction, I got it. I made two very passable and acceptable dovetailed corners and found myself so euphoric inside I just couldn’t stop grinning. George asked me, “What do you think we should do with these dovetailed corners then, Paul? I felt guilty. Obviously they were too bad to use. George had cut my wood for me at the start. He placed them alongside his and said, “Whoops! I’ve cut your pieces too long. Oh well, that helps us, doesn’t it? It was only a year or two later when `i saw Goerge do this again with another apprentice that I realised it was all intended. George never allowed anyone to be demoralised.

I have made five hundred of these and sold them all.

53 thoughts on “George and I Dovetail”

  1. I hope for a George book, too. There is something life-giving in these stories about a skilled craftsman who teaches what he knows and loves whom he teaches.

    Paul, you are George for so many of us. Thank you.

  2. I have always used a .5mm mechanical pencil for precision pencil lines and a .7mm for non-critical lines.I’ve had the same two pencils for twenty plus years so they are economical. Would that be precise enough or do I really need a box of wood pencils and a sharpener? I’ve wondered about this for some time, since we never see you sharpen up your pencils.Thanks for another nice George memory.

    1. But you have to keep going back to buy expensive leads for them so it’s the holder that has lasted twenty plus years not the lead, right. In my apprentice days, I just used the chisel to sharpen my pencils but then as my fineness index became more critical I realised that the graphite was highly abrasive to a sharp edge so I use a nice pencil sharpener.

      1. Sharpening a pencil with the chisel bevel down was the first thing our woodwork master taught us in our first woodwork lesson at grammar school. In the workshop I still use a chisel, elsewhere it’s a pocket knife.
        The second thing he taught was never to put a plane down with the sole flat on the bench, always prop one end up.

    2. Same here, Bob, I’ve carried a Pentel 0.5mm mechanical pencil in my shirt pocket since age 23, along with a simple fountain pen. These two writing implements serve all my writing needs and are always in the same place, on my cheast, whenever I’m dressed. It gets used for quick scribbles on paper, engineering drawings and notes, but also in woodworking. It’s not perfect for all tasks (such as marking drill holes in brick walls for which it also gets used) but it has one big advantage, it’s always within reach. Haven’t used normal pencils for decades, with one recent exception: previous weekend I came across a 40 year old pencil from kindergarten (it had the name of the school embossed in it). As I was planning to convert a marking gauge with a pencil I used that old one. Waste not want not. Seeing the name of the kindergarten every time I’ll use the gauge is bound to put a smile on my face.

      As for the cost of the leads, a package of 12 ones cost 1.55 euro (2B) and lasts me a year or two. It’s the price I’m willing to pay for convenience. Considering my otherwise rather thrifty nature, it’s a bit of extravagance I treat myself to.

      Enjoyed the George story. But curious whether the dovetails you redid after George’s ‘oops’ came out as nice again. Usually, in my case, there’s always a little relapse just when I’m gloating thinking I’ve mastered something. Just enough relapse to remind me I’m not quite there yet….

    3. I use a chisel to sharpen my pencil. I just can’t get one sharp enough with a sharpener. I have a mechanical pencil but there is just something about the way an old wooden pencil feels in your hand.

      1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

        …and more important: how it tastes! 😀 Takes me back to the first years of school… But for convenience I too use a mechanical pencil. So far…

  3. George sounds like a great guy to work under. I remember as a bricklaying apprentice if I made a slight mistake my boss would banished me from the trowel never to be allowed back on it ever again as it cost him time and therefore money having to stop what he was doing to show you. You just got wrote off as being hopeless and incompetent and had to just do the mixing and hod carrying until it suited him to let you have another go at laying bricks – probably not for several weeks!

    The “if the trowel ain’t burnin’ we ain’t earnin” kind of attitude.

    Thankfully there are some good teachers out there who understand the fundamentals of leadership. They love to nurture and invest time in the next generation of craftspeople which leads me to say, thank you Paul, your blog and tutorials are an unbelievably valuable source of knowledge. I’ve learned so much even as a casual DIY woodworker and because of you I’ve just purchased my first router plain off eBay. A Record 71 in great condition. Yesterday I recreated your sharpening station using it!

    Please keep inspiring people and keep safe in these strange times! 👍

    All the best


    1. Unfortunately that’s the ‘dark side’ of the apprenticeship system and all too many fell foul of it. Paul was fortunate getting George as his mentor; too many saw apprentices simply as cheap labour or, worse, a target for bullying.

      1. My father-in-law was an apprentice grocer. Same thing – as soon as he’d finished his apprenticeship he was given the push so that they could get a new apprentice for 1/4 of the wage. We still have his indenture papers all handwritten in script.

  4. One mans effort and character have now spread much further. You can be pretty satisfied with that. That u remember and have the seeds of what now is something u practice everyday is great — a success story.

  5. Matthew Newman

    I’d echo the sentiment of being interested in your wonderful stories of George collated into a book. They are very inspirational and a pleasure to read!

      1. Amazon:

        Due to increased demand, we temporarily have reduced product selection available for delivery to your region. We are working to improve selection availability as soon as possible. ?? Pity!

  6. I’ve been practicing my dovetails on some Spanish Cedar. Pencil is sharp but when done I just can’t see the lines. The pencil lines just kind of blend into the dark wood. I may need to get a magnifying headpiece with a light so I can see what I’m doing. I wish I had cut my pieces longer!

  7. George sounds like he was a wise man. We need those. Like, maybe Paul Sellers?
    Thank you for that story Paul.

  8. Wonder what George would feel if he could see you and your work today? The word “pride” comes to mind.

  9. Larry Christensen

    I wonder what George would think if he knew the number of people he touched thought apprenticing Paul.
    Thank you Paul for passing on your knowledge to tens of thousands of people.

  10. A great story, Paul. George was a marvelous teacher, and we’re all the better for you apprenticing with him. Thanks for sharing.

  11. When I read the story about George, it reminded me of my Dad. Thanks for the story’s, looking forward to many more!

  12. “I just wish someone had been there to witness it.”
    Yeah man.. I had a couple of those moments.

    In in my limited experience that is. Even just a dead straight saw cut can make me happy 🙂

  13. Hence one of my favorite quotes, and although it has been attributed to several people, it’s still a good one: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel”. Who ever actually authored that one must have had a George in their life. Thanks for sharing this story.

  14. George’s impact on you lives on, through your gift, to the rest of us fellow woodworkers.

    Not everyone is lucky to have known someone like that in their lives. What a priveledged it must have been to be his apprentice, as it is mine (ours) to be yours.

  15. Why are people asking for a ‘George book’ – surely that’s what this blog is. If you are interested you could google the blog for Paul’s reminiscences and put together a set of links

  16. Shame we have not all got a George or Paul within easy reach, through Paul’s videos I can now get my chisels and plane irons surgically sharp, but saws and card scrapers, rubbish. “Excuse me Paul have you got a minute to show me again how to do this”. Sigh’ I will look at the videos again to see if I can see what I am doing wrong. Thanks to a wonderful teacher we have got a wonderful teacher. Thank you Paul and George.

  17. Donald L Kreher

    If would be nice to have the “stories of George” assembled and organized into a little (printed) book. I would much prefer to read it from beginning to end as one would read a novel. On the other-hand I also do not mind reading this blog.

  18. Paul, what a timely story! I’m on drawer 6 of 6 now and I feel your (past) frustration. I am using a mechanical pencil so my lines were crisp, but I’m going to brave sawing closer to the line on this last drawer. My timidness and my distance from the line was of particular frustration on my last drawer. Love your stories!


  19. Looking at the last photo with all the coloured boxes my first impression was –Oh that`s a lot of coffins .Sorry. Don`t get demoralised .

  20. Terrence OBrien

    After a year of poor dovetails, I stopped and asked, “Why am I not analyzing this like any other engineering problem?” So I did. After five minutes with a ruler, pencil, and a piece of paper, I said, “Add a kerf to the waste adjacent to the pencil line.”

    I’m not particularly proud of that year-long delay, but I did learn how to do dovetails pretty well. But, even more important, I no longer cut a board. I add a kerf.

  21. John Carruthers

    One of our little jobs in the school shop was a pencil sharpener made from a scrap of pine, cut and rasped to shape, with a shallow recess to take a pice of fine sand paper.
    It was at the behest of the TD master who loathed blunt pencils but also used in the woodwork shop.
    We also had to make a scriber for use in the metalwork shop.

  22. Paul, I do believe George would be smiling at your dovetails now.

    Of equal importance is the statement “George never allowed anyone to be demoralized.” What a kind thing to do.

    That one will be in my wallet so I may reference it several times each day.

  23. Roy L Vincent

    I started reading, viewing, and trying Pauls dovetail work and I have truly enjoyed the practice and look forward to my practice sessions. I have made several small boxes successfully , however, not pretty (but pretty enough for my shop) enjoyed those sessions as well. I am somewhat embarrassed about the number of pieces of abandon attempts laying around my shop. They do make good conversation pieces with the other Farmer/Rancher friends that come by my shop from time to time. Spend most of my day doing never ending ranch work (fences, gates, raising hay etc.) but I do manage to get 3 or 4 morning sessions of practice in and I am seeing improvement.

  24. I love reading these stories of you and George. What a fabulous friend and mentor you had! Now we have you (and George) to guide us, never critical or disheartening but giving us all the confidence and skills to improve our woodworking.
    I take so much from your videos and writing and try to pass on your approach when instilling knowledg and skills to those who come into my profession.

  25. I always enjoy your stories about George. He seems to have been a remarkable teacher and mentor.

  26. Phil Baumbach

    Hi Paul, first time I have seen the Common Woodworking site. It’s great to see all your lessons in one area. Keep safe and all the best, Phil

  27. A unanimous decision Paul, We DEMAND a book of George Stories. And what a best seller that would be 😎😎😎

  28. Paul what grade pencils do use, I normally use 2H and HB. The HB leaves a nice dark line but the point doesn’t last very long, and the 2H last a lot longer but you can’t always see it on darker wood

  29. I bought several boxes of pencils (made in germany ) as I was fed up with continual breakages. Paul has the same sensible attitude to avoid duff pencils. Avoid B&Q carpenters pencils if you can .

  30. Oh, I would definitely buy a book of ‘George’ stories…..
    Thanks for such gentle reading

  31. Is there a use for the speed square in dovetail making? I haven’t had the stones to make a dovetail bc i cant figure out the layout

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