Does and don’ts

There are dos and don’ts in all things life, rules to adhere to and rules to question. What not to do in woodworking is sometimes less obvious and often not clear at all. Questioning authority is less to do with questioning the true or lawful authority and more to do with considering the validity of ideas, practices, rules and traditions for tradition’s sake. In a class one time, a woodworking student went to a woman student on an adjacent bench and told her to hold the mallet differently when in actuality she was holding it perfectly well and getting better results in her work than he was. `As she made the shift to a less effective and awkward way her malleting became awkward. As I suggested she change back to what her body told her, two things came to mind, one, her willingness to change and try and, two, his willingness to pass on what he had been advised to do.

At first glance, to a new woodworker, the weakness of these dovetails will not be altogether evident. Long grain dovetails this way, together with pins so oriented too, the end result will be a joint that has only a fraction of the strength of tails and pins going across or 90º to the long axis of the wood. Even when glued, the strength will rely more on glue than the mechanical joint simply because of the intermittent separation caused by the crosscuts to each side of the tails and pins. That said, it was very refreshing to see someone in innocence strive for a difficult joint this way. You might not pass the exam, but you would pass for accuracy if indeed all the pins and tails go together without at least one braking in assembly.

We have our fair share of dos and don’ts in woodworking. Always skew your plane, the absolutes of bevel-ups being better than bevel-downs and a dozen a minute more. I had a dozen ‘professional‘ woodworkers let me know this week how wrong I was on saw sharpening techniques, even from one who never sharpened his own saws in fifty years as a professional carpenter. Of course, for at least 20 years we’ve had disposable throwaways and you would be hard-pressed to find a resharpenable version in carpentry realms. This too has led to the demise of a simple and basic skill. To me, it’s the equivalent of not sharpening a plane or chisel which actually I find myself perpetually advised by carpenters that they just use their belt sander. In the face of such advice and advisers, it might well now be easy for someone relatively new to woodworking to defer to the professional adviser and the time-served joiner when it is more than likely that these two categories will be the least qualified to help and may well have never actually sharpened a saw or edge tool correctly. I think it is true with some that their ‘degree’ course of three years took precedence over someone with a lifetime degree of woodworking. But a five-year woodworking apprentice just gave you the grammar of the craft. It’s up to you to build your knowledge and skills in the doing of it, in the trying this or that of it. Experiments that I have done have been invaluable. I once thought that dead flat chisel faces and plane cutting irons must always be dead flat right up to the very tip of the cutting edge. I think differently now. It’s just something to aim for, nothing more. Why? Edge retention at dead-on 30 is what we aim for but impossible to maintain without sharpening after every stroke. I know, that is an exaggeration, but by degrees, the edge is not wearing down so much as fracturing albeit by minute amounts each time it is pushed or driven into the wood. Again, we have something to aim for and diligence pays dividends but being aware that degradation starts with the first pressure gives us the right idea about sharpening and sharpness. As Full stops (periods USA) commas, semi-colons and colons made sense of sentences, an apprenticeship is not the true qualifier, it’s just the basics, the bedrock on which we build our future skills and knowledge. Grammar itself doesn’t make us writers, we have yet to become creative composers. Do it is in our starting to work wood.

Pressing the joint together so is best done only once. Taking them apart can cause the splitting I speak of because the end-grain fibres are all forced in one direction and so increases the resistance when you try to take them apart. When glueing up, the glue acts as an initial lubricant between the tails and pins but the water in the glue immediately starts to swell the fibres so taking it apart becomes impossible.

I love that sometimes new woodworkers will contradict the status quo — they often do something that others say is not the right way and it is this that I find so refreshing. If we lose trying different options we lose the gift experiment brings together with the experience by which we learn and earn and own our future. A few years ago a man showed me a dovetailed box he had made with the dovetails and pins oriented in the non-traditional way. I say non-traditional intentionally rather than the wrong way for a reason. It was impressive to see this because the four corners of what looked like a tall vase re[resented his first, second, third and fourth attempt at dovetailing . . . something very worth keeping. As I complimented him on his accuracy and good fit, the man standing next to him, we were at a woodworking show in Mesquite, Texas, said, “Those dovetails ain’t right!” Much different than saying something like, “It’s unusual to orient the dovetails that way, we usually orient them differently, but your ability with the tools is exemplary.” It struck me how the critic focussed on the wrongness with an unforgiving manner. In so doing he simply missed or dismissed the remarkable precision of the cuts and the fitting of what had they been in any way too tight would have split one or all of the tails or pins. Jealousy, envy, whatever can do this, make us blind to equally important elements, as can the legalism of another. Both can be demoralising and destructive. People even do that with me, quite regularly actually. “You sharpened that saw the wrong way.” and then, “Look what you did laying that plane down on the sole and not on its side!” Perhaps they are right, mostly they’re not, but I listen, respect, and move along. You will be surprised how often I cut the most perfect dovetail in front of an audience of 200, then cut two perfect 45º mitres and piece the two parts together with a sawn spline having first moulded the parts with a 200-year-old moulding plane, and then someone comes up to the bench and lays my plane on its side telling me it’s wrong to put it down on the sole and how they got a clip round the ear doing such things. Another says, “Always cut the pins first.” when that always seems such a backward thing for me to do and I don’t care which prince of woodworking does it the backwards way.

Is this orientation any better than both pieces going the wrong way? It’s both! When we focus on joinery we endeavour as much as possible to have both sections equal in value as much as possible. This joint would be no stronger than the joint with both tails and pins going along the grain as in the examples above. If you made either box and dropped them from a metre to a concrete floor so the corner hit directly on the box would break on all four corners and would be in four pieces.

I like the questions destined to trip me up. In the audience, a man baited his question: “Mr Sellers! What’s the difference between using a power saw to cut a piece of wood and a handsaw? He wanted a long explanation, possibly one that would declare the power saw to result in dead squareness, ease of cut, speed, etc versus rough, struggle, need for further refinement, etc. I answered: “In my experience, using a handsaw you always stop before you get to the bone!” It was the quickness of my reply that stunned the man asking. I went on to say that we wanted a deeper engagement with the wood that is often denied by the machine. That we chose not to wear so much protective equipment, need so much space, invest so much in the equipment and then too we actually wanted the energy and effort it took in using all our own power and skill. It was simply a matter of choices.

My pencil point shows the line of weakness where the joint would break and separate quite easily. With a correctly jointed box, it would be unlikely to break at the joints. This is the acknowledgement the crafting artisan accepts in his and her making. The reason we make the joint is not for decoration or appearance but for the intrinsic strength and longevity this joint guarantees to our work

I will be considering the dos and don’ts of woodworking in the coming weeks. If you have questions as to the whys and wherefores of woodworking and want to ask them I will be glad to answer them if I can. meanwhile, I will be considering the differences I have seen to demolish the myths and mysteries.

I have taught hundreds of woodworkers in my hands-on classes to make this box after only an hour’s practice and every one of them succeeded. If you can make this box with this joint you can make just about any dovetailed box. My first efforts in teaching this double dovetail paved the way for everything I teach today. I am so glad the idea came to me when it did. It gave me the confidence to continue and it worked!

42 thoughts on “Does and don’ts”

  1. Paul, I made your box for my wife following your instructions on common woodworking. It’s a great project to get started with dovetails and a great gift that can be made relatively quickly.

  2. Thank you for this post Mr Sellers. I somehow new that this was not an ideal orientation for dovetails when I made my second dovetailed box. However, as I was running out of wood I rotated the end pieces so as to finish it. The small poplar box has so far stood the test of time (I use it as a box to carry my bar of soap to and from the shower at work), but I am no longer under the illusion that it will not break the first time it hits the floor.

    1. Saw your Facebook video showing the weakness of these side grain joints when put in the vise. For comparison purposes, would have been nice to see an end grain joint to show the difference.

  3. considering the do’s and don’ts, some woodworker consider not flipping each board to alternate annual ring a big mistake. it supposedly prevent the panel from having a pronounce cup or bow or twist. how true is that? what about glue joint being weak without a biscuit on a panel? what about the strength of animal hide glue compared to PVA or modern glue? I wonder, how much dead square the edge of board really need to be? Can’t we consider a certain degree of unsquareness for an edge when it does not matters? with machine, everything is always dead on, do we need to make everything perfect by hand? It’s something that I observe with machinist, an obsession on having everything so perfect since it is so easy to achieve with a well set machine.

  4. I would love to see a blog on different ways you do/ do not join the end grain of a peice of wood to the end grain of another piece of wood.
    I know end jointing is not ideal – but sometimes there is no choice, eg due to cost pressures, or useful for making a table, or when you don’t quite have enough length of wood for all sorts of things.
    kind rgds,

  5. I sharpened one of my dovetail saws using your methods after receiving it back in less than serviceable shape from a saw doctor. The comment at the time was that it was difficult as it was so fine… 15TPI . Although one of the earlier saws for me to sharpen the result was still better than the ‘professional’ . Thanks to your teaching I now sharpen all my saws myself. Occasionally I am not satisfied with the result, so I just do it again.

    1. “Occasionally I am not satisfied with the result, so I just do it again.” That is some good all-around woodworking advice.

    2. Richard Thompson

      Good on you Gav .Rarely have I sent saws away to be sharpened.When I did they were not that well done.I learnt saw sharpening in my trade .Actually as boy taught by my carpenter Dad so I was the only student in my tech class who could sharpen saws.That skill only gets easier by just doing it.I recently got me a new set (to me) of vintage Sandvik saws A rip,hand, panel and tennon saw.I ditched the plastic handles in favour for Honduras Mahogany.All these were free as previous owners couldn’t sharpen saws.keep up the good work mate
      Cheers Richard.

  6. Thanks Paul. I agree with you on asking/understanding the why. Much of what we do is often a preference rather than an absolute. Here’s a fun story from this summer.

    I took a dovetail class this summer because I wanted to spend a week focused on them in the hopes I would learn some things that helped me make them even better. I did.

    The instructor typically cut hers pins first. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone as, having learned from you, I cut my tails first. As such, I cut some pins first. They came out decent but gave me a mental challenge to see them. In the conversation with her, she pointed out that on occasion, there may be situations where it makes sense to do one way first over the other. The example she used was on a drawer front. Often when cutting drawers, the wood is grain matched, etc and cut to fit. As such, it is the more “precious” piece of wood. As such, on the blind dovetails you may want to consider doing the half blind pins first and fitting the sides that way. If you screw up on the sides, less of an impact given it’s a secondary wood surface. Could even consider on using a side that is over long so that if you have an error, you just saw down the incorrectly formed tails and start over. Hadn’t thought of pins vs. tails in that context. Was refreshing way to look at things on where options exist.

    On another note, between graduate school and as a hobby, I teach college chemistry. Been doing so for about 15 plus years. I have had a few students who have directly attributed the spark and interest in chemistry to something I said or did when I interacted with them. It hasn’t been that many where I made the difference BUT there were some. You never know what you say or day that may inspire or demotivate someone. As such, like you aptly point out, speak with kindness of intent. Every now and then you can make a big difference in someone’s life.

    1. Sorry, Joe. I think everyone should try both ways for themselves and question the authority. In my world, it will always make little sense to cut pins first. There is but one time when it might be necessary to use the pins to get the dovetails and that is when you blew it on the pins and there was an unacceptable gap because of the miscut. You can then cut off the original pins or get a new side and mark the dovetails on the wrong side of the wood and hope you get it right this time. Otherwise, we can all create theories to justify the methods we use. I have no problem with that. For me, again, it seems very backwards to cut the pins first and `i can make no sense of willingly doing it.

  7. Thank you Paul, very laconic.
    There is no option but to first cut the tails on a half-blind dovetail, unless I’m wrong. So always cutting tails first makes the most sense to me.
    During lockdown I taught myself to sharpen saws. This was based on an excellent YouTube video made by someone who previously attended one of your saw sharpening classes. I’ve retoothed about 12 saws altogether and learned an awful lot. Nevertheless I still struggle with the crossctut; fleam orientation relative to the set of a particular tooth, so I do a lot of visualisation beforehand.
    Thanks again, cheers Alan

  8. Paul,
    Can hardened “throw away” saws be sharpened with diamond paddles?
    Even if it ruins the diamond paddle, it would salvage a saw that might otherwise be destined for the recycle bin, and the hardened teeth should last a lot longer.

    1. To me, it is an odd thing when considering that the diamond paddle might well cost as much or more than the saw. I hear different accounts from different people, some failing to get a decent result and others saying it worked great for them when for me it is more a question of why buy one in the first place. But I actually own four of them and I replace the dull ones as and when needed and send the plates and plastic handles for recycling. Why do I own them? Out in the wet, a the wood supply places, where grit and gravel is often in the surface fibres, where staples are used for marking and signage, they keep my daily use saws in the shop safe. I also use them for outdoor garden work, things like that. They are also good loaners to neighbours and friends.

      1. If the saw has triple ground teeth a light touch on the small triangular facet with a diamond paddle will extend its life.
        If it has conventional teeth probably not worth the effort.
        Since the teeth are hard and brittle they cannot be reset. Sharpen once or twice, then throw away.

    2. Paul C. Frederick

      You can try. It may not be as easy to do as you think it is though. The other thing you can do is grind the induction hardening off and get to the softer plate and file in new teeth. Which may not be as hard to do as you think it is. Seriously if you want to sharpen one of those hard tooth saws just grind the hard teeth off and cut new ones. You can also cut old saws up and make card scrapers out of them too.

  9. In the hybrid example with the end grain to the long grain, over time the components would shrink at different rates such that the joint would inevitably fail. Thank you for your inspired teaching and your patience and your persistence. You’ve renewed and refocused my interest in woodworking.

    1. Whereas I agree, that is only the case where the atmosphere is variable to higher degree. There is a measure of elasticity in wood to a certain level. In different realms, the relative humidity can be very stable, extreme cold at freezing and then in the desert regions too.

  10. Thank you so much Paul, I have for some time now been reading your posts and waiting for the right opportunity to ask such questions you are inviting here. Personally I find it quite straightforward to understand how to use the tools, form the joints and compose a piece (even if the skills, dexterity and “feel” need to be developed still! The biggest gap i feel in my learning is shown in your picture here- we xan all practice the techniques, collect the tools etc but if the fundamentals, unwritten rules and wisdom of old isnt there we can all risk a good ole clanger with our concept.
    I have learned various things from a lot of older masters over the years, and the sheer breadth and depth of all the little gems of their knowledge far outweigh the more obvious “this is how to do it” stuff.
    Your book on essential woodworking hand tools is excellent, and if i could imagine a perfect companion to this it would be one on the material itself- wood, how it acts, what it needs, how to work with its best properties in partnership with techniques, joinery and design to create exceptional things.
    Thanks again for changing my life

  11. Hahah not gonna lie, I actually didn’t even notice the grain direction of the dovetails in the first pic because I was thinking “damn, those are clean as hell”.

    Looks real pretty with the one where the two parts are assembled, kind of a shame that it’s a one and done deal after said assembly.

  12. Brings to mind an expression my dad used when I was a kid. “Those that can, do and those that can’t, criticise”. Better to praise the person actually doing the work as they can change their technique as they go along. I have been known to ask the criticizer what they themselves have actually done that leaves them in a position to judge.

    1. I think that I have seen it come almost entirely from the professional realms or those who have achieved a high standard in their own workmanship. I have noticed that my only critics when it comes to methods of work, using and maintaining tools, techniques and so on always preface what criticism they have by saying I am this or that trade or I have been a this or that for this many of years as though it adds credence top someone we know nothing of. Not one of them offers anything constructive about the whatever and they often add a little meanness to it to boot. It’s as though there is a resentment for going onto the turf that they no longer occupy but amateurs are somehow supposed to stay away from. being a carpenter and having ability in the art of that craft is well earned by some and I have been privileged to know several of them when I lived and worked in the USA. I learned many techniques in building two of my homes there in the USA with cvarpenters working alongside me.

  13. Hi Paul, with regards to dovetail arrangement. I built a writing desk in redwood pine and wanted to show the tails of the dovetail on front of the drawers. They look good but it bothers me that a traditional dovetail should have the tails on the side of the draw. I wanted to show the beauty of the dovetail on the front and not just hide it on the side. Is it totally wrong for me to have done this, I don’t think it compromised the strength. What’s your view.

    1. I was having a discussion with a friend who’s building a bathroom vanity. His original plan was to use pocket screws. In our discussions, he’s decided to go with finger joints cut on a table saw. As I shared my opinion on the different options and strengths of joints, I came back to the fact that these are drawers that probably aren’t going to see much stress. If your drawer hasn’t fallen apart and you like the aesthetic, then I would say it’s fine.

      It sounds like you know you get a mechanical advantage and stronger joint in the other orientation. Foregoing strength for beauty is your decision as a creator.

      If the face ever comes off, you have the skills to rebuild it and can swap orientation.

    2. Hello, Paul, traditionally the dovetails are on the sides of the drawer but of course, is a carefully considered strategy repeated by craftsmen through the centuries. It isn’t so much the break with tradition as the break with built intent for longevity. The dovetails are positioned to take the stresses and strains drawers undergo in the pull and push of drawer closure and opening. Through decades and centuries of use, the internal contents slip back and forth and have a hammering effect on the front and back so the dovetail angles are able to resist these forces. Of course, all glues eventually break down after decades of use, expansion and contraction of wood,etc too and so a well-fitting dovetail will continue to hold.

      1. Hello Paul, thanks for your reply, I think you give me the answer I was really expecting. I like to experiment and sometimes have trouble thinking my furniture will maybe last centurys, hope it does. At least I’m keeping the restorers in work in the future ha, ha.

  14. An interesting topic. I think the willingness to experiment is worthwhile. It builds adaptability skills. I have been working by hand for several years but had to stop earlier this year due to a severe elbow break. During recovery, I found some inexpensive small vintage woodworking machines which I am using to help me with the tasks that require me to apply pressure, such as heavy planning. I acquired the tools very inexpensively and renovated them too good working order. I may resell the equipment as I gain more strength again. The irony is that this approach gives me access to hand work.

  15. I can relate to this. If you’re having a battle to master something U can get caught up in details instead of the main principles or the good points. I can also get jealous or critical of others who seem to be having an easy time of it, or I can push myself to work harder maybe so I can be critical of the other person. But, I also like planning and doing things well and I am as happy for them to produce good work as me… But I must be good! I guess you do need a basis of some success and sometimes some direction and encouragement.
    And no useless criticism (note to self)

  16. We live in a world that is increasingly authoritarian, where authority is claimed from knowledge about something rather than learned from actual experience. There are many people comforted by the idea they can simply follow a certain set of prescribed rules to achieve success. There are plenty of people who claim authority based on knowing those rules.

    I know how to go about making perfect dovetails, its not really that complicated. That doesn’t mean I can make them, whether tails-first or pins-first. That requires actual experience.

    As for the orientation of the dovetails, I would think the one where combining traditional and non-traditional orientation would be stronger than the one where both ends are cross-grain. If you put glue on the back face of the dovetail you will create an effective glue joint between the traditional board’s dovetails faces and the non-traditional board’s edge. Only the non-traditional board’s dovetails become purely decorative.

  17. When cutting your first dovetail, the grain orientation doesn’t come into it – you are so focused on the angles and the squareness, you never even consider it. This should be front and center in beginner dovetail classes.

    1. No. If someone is in a class and is being taught then the dovetails should be laid out and cut in the correct orientation of the grain. For one, it is much more difficult to cut the dovetails or pins or both with the wrong orientation of the grain as shown in my blog. Two, the tails or pins are far more prone to breaking off during cutting and then again during fitting the two parts together causing untold disappointment. I completely disagree with this statement. Why on earth would anyone be taught in a class to cut the joint the wrong way? and why would anyone teach a class with the grain not oriented correctly? I think that would be too silly!

    2. I think Rodgers’s point was exactly that — as someone learning to cut dovetails _your own_ thoughts are on how to mark them, what order to mark, saw, chop, transfer the markings…and you may not have the experience to realize that the grain direction has such a dramatic effect. An explanation of why we typically place dovetail joints across the end grain of boards would be a good part of any introduction to the joint!

      I’m a perfect example of this! I recently wanted to learn to dovetail, so I got some scraps and practiced a few times — four corners with a single tail, then another square; four corners with a double tail. My wife used these as risers for some of her houseplants where they’re useful without being visible! But having done some practice I wanted to make a storage box for my grilling tools. The design I took inspiration from didn’t have sides that could be dovetailed, but I wanted to use my newfound skill so I thought “we often see dovetails on drawer sides because of the strength they impart against the pull/push of using it, but the toolbox doesn’t have that. Instead it has weight pushing the bottom down. I should put my tails on the bottom of my sides to hold the bottom on very securely.” I did notice that I’d never seen a design like this and wondered why, but went ahead to get the practice anyway.

      Well, I discovered almost immediately that it’s remarkably unpleasant to try to pare and chop the waste from a tail oriented along the grain of a pine board, and then when assembling I broke off the half-pins at the ends of both sides of my bottom and had to glue them in place after assembly.

      All told I’m pleased to have tried this and learned from it — it’s a practical lesson in how wood is structured and how that plays into our designs!

      1. “An explanation of why we typically place dovetail joints across the end grain of boards would be a good part of any introduction to the joint!” As far as I can see this is always done in any class I have ever seen or held. It’s fundamental to understanding.
        Thankfully my audience gets the quality instruction of always cutting them the right way and in order. And many toolboxes do have dovetails top and bottom to do exactly what the drawer does when pulled because both are used in the pulling position whether lifted or pulled horizontally as in drawers.
        I think Rodger was quite clear that it was ok to teach new woodworkers to layout and cut dovetails diametrically the wrong way in a class. It’s not. Not at all, simply because the vale is in learning the correct way and then subsequent to that, as in your case, experimenting to better understand is, well, just okay to pass time and learn how it feels.

  18. I agree with the apprenticeship being a just beginning.
    Mine was 7 years when I started but was reduced to 5 years not long after.
    I was certainly not a fully fledged craftsman when I finished, I learned more in the following 3 years than the first 5. I became a sort of journeyman, picking up knowledge as I moved from firm to firm, job to job.
    Half a century later I am learning today still.

    1. Indeed. It makes me think of martial arts, where (we learn from movies) getting the black belt is a clear ‘graduation’ of one becoming some kind of amazing warrior… while in reality it is really just the beginning of a long road towards truly learning. Similar to how you mentioned writing @Paul, I used to say it is like graduating from high school – sure you know more than nothing, you’re literate and has some general awareness of concepts …but by no means you have mastered anything.

      Shoshin is a Japanese word that really hits this nail. “A beginners mind”

  19. tayler whitehead

    i remember as a young boy in the mid sixties, when we moved to nz and mum needed to add two more bedrooms onto the house she had bought. the carpenter who did the job was a man in his 50’s. he had a bag of saws, a hammer and a few other things besides. certainly not a truck full as they do now. i watched in awe as he cut perfectly square cuts in 4×2 with no more than 4 to 5 strokes of his saw. he made a pencil mark for the length and visually found square across and down. i have watched young carpenters with their power tools take longer than he did to make a cut.

  20. I must say, though, that the “wrongly oriented” joint looks really ‘pretty’, and almost vanishes. Maybe something to try when you want the pieces of wood to ‘marry’ each other, rather than butt up against each other, *and* you’re relying on some other method for strength…

  21. Paul,
    I was delighted to see your reference to Bruce Hoadley’s book on wood. Before he passed away, Bruce lived in our little town (Leverett) adjacent to Amherst, MA where he taught at the University of Massachusetts. He was a fine teacher and a good neighbor. We miss seeing him on weekend runs to the local transfer station (read town dump).

  22. The carpenter with 50 years experience about sharpening a saw and the guy who put your plane on its side seem to me as just looking for an argument. You made them think but they may be be better off to just keeping on doing things as they always have. Old habits are hard to break. I see carpenters and woodworkers as cousins not brothers.

  23. I remember a nice looking saw till that was featured in a woodworking magazine. Upon closer examination, part of it was dovetailed like the third picture. When the maker shipped it to someone, that joint did not survive.

    I had a so-called professional saw sharpener mess up an old saw I had aquired. It was a 4 point ripsaw and it had been sharpened very unevenly, and the teeth were all different sizes. I thought it would be easier for him to use his machine to grind them all to the same size, than it would be for me to file them. I asked him to retooth the saw, which according to all the literature I had read, meant to make all the teeth the same size again, or to change them to a different size. I told him to keep it a 4 pt. At the time, I was working away from home, and not getting to use my tools. I picked up the saw while home for a few days, and put it away. I was in a hurry to get things done during my short stay at home, and never tried the saw. A couple years later, I tried to rip a board with it, and was getting nowhere fast! I looked at the teeth and found he had turned it into a crosscut saw! Took me a lot of filing to make it a ripsaw again.

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