I see things I consider silly in woodworking magazines so a few years ago I felt it best for me to stop frustrating myself by reading them. I’m doing pretty well with it but sometimes I glimpse wonderment on pages somewhere and I become bemused by this or that. In recent editions, something new but not new caught my eye. I’ve seen snapped-off sawn-off #78 rebate planes now referred to as chisel planes regularly pop up on eBay these days and led to me seeing woodworkers buying into a relatively fanciful thing by modern makers at £170 to £200 a pop. Paying this much for a total non-necessary even pretty useless plane that’s actually not a plane we might recognise for planing wood is a bit scary. My recommendation is not to buy into them until you’ve had some experience that might necessitate such a purchase. You might discover you never do.. I think that it’s a mistake to think these to be a useful plane to have . . . you more than likely might have one and if you don’t here’s what to do. Chisel planes really are a truly questionable purchase especially as I say when you might already own a more seriously needed plane. Several bullnose plane have a detachable top-toe part that’s removable and make a really good chisel plane should you believe that you need one. The benefit of course is that a bullnose is a plane I would not live without. They need no retrofitting or alteration if you simply remove the top by slackening the retainer setscrew. The Stanley and Record versions as well as the Veritas bullnose planes and a couple of others already work identically to the so-called chisel planes. I think it likely that finding a use for a chisel plane will be more difficult once you’ve much of a need for . . . engineers need something to engineer whether we the woodworker need them or not.
A perfect marriage for a well-fitting dovetail comes readily and quickly and ideally straight off the saw. Why do I say that and is it true? Well, generally, I think it is. I am probably being too general but I just saw an extract from an article promoting pare-cutting dovetails rather than getting it right off the saw. On small boxes, though it is pedantically painful, it’s just okay. I wouldn’t like to think that this might be taken as common practice or the better way because with practice and perseverance you will get perfect dovetails straight off the saw in a heartbeat and of course what is perfect anyway? There’s a reason it was never common practice and it certainly wasn’t because they hadn’t yet discovered the better way, it was that after cutting twenty or so dovetailed boxes, a few drawers and things like that, they had gained all the confidence they needed to set the saw to the line and just cut that wall dead true and that’s because, well, they’d become masters in the doing of dovetails. Please, please practice getting it straight off the saw cut and don’t give up. On larger projects, say anything bigger than trinket size on up to large chests and even cases like the ones I am making now, the saw kerf adds good advantage; there are the fibrous surfaces which translates into a unique gluability, a springy compressibility and much more. Of course, this depends on the wood types too, but these are the things no one speaks of and so I will try it here. I don’t put too much stock in dropping an anvil from lofty heights to see which biscuit, dowel or domino holds better than a M&T. I like my in-the-saddle testing in the making and development of various aspects. The other stuff, tool tests and such, is mostly interesting-poor stuff. Not much more than entertainment really. Anyway, the very best dovetails come from the saw alone and pare cutting them is more a procrastination in lieu of mastering aspects of our craft. I hope that the rest of this article will be helpful deliberation for you to consider and see that once you start learning about woodworking with hand tools the journey of learning is a continuance for the rest of your life in the working of it. most of you will only ever be able to put in the smallest fraction of the time I have done it. There will only be a very few living woodworkers with almost sixty years of full-time woodworking working six-day weeks and ten- to 12-hour days. I am constantly finding new things to learn and understand.
Traditionally, what I shared above about the slight fuzziness of the saw kerf being advantageous has always been the case and through centuries of woodworking and with good reason. It’s fast and creates a slight fuzz to the surfaces that take and hold glue and thereby the joint well for centuries. Traditionally, a good joint from the saw was and is the fastest and the least fussy and yet it never compromises the fit and look when made by a diligent craftsman. Experience tells me that super-smooth surfaces in joints don’t generally glue as well as the slightly fuzzed ones. Not a scientific analysis at all, but an experiential one through my dismantling drawers for the wood or repairs where it was the smooth ones that let off the more readily from the sockets and recesses. In our today, we have become unnecessarily obsessed by lessons in obsessing by gurus. Many haven’t actually needed to earn a living from their woodworking and have never had 10 woodworkers at the shop gates ready to take their place if they were too slow and shoddy in their work ethic. Such was the 1800s and the early 1900s for the working classes. I haven’t either, by the way, but I didn’t need threats and fear to get the best out of me. I just always loved my work (as you do) even when the conditions and pay were unfair. Times have indeed changed. It’s a 35-hour week for all here in the UK and few people make dovetails for a boss they work for using hand tools and hand skills.
I have been making two identical cabinet cases from sycamore I bought a year or so ago and that has been ‘airing out‘ in my workshop in readiness for just the right project. I have used sycamore often enough to know its characteristics hence planing directly across the grain because of its propensity to tear the grain when planing longwise. The higher levels of friction on metal-soled planes affect the planing and the finishes surface too. Even within the species, there are variable levels of density, even in the same board.
I think it to be more unusual than usual that I need to chisel-pare my dovetails and pins to seat a dovetail joint. In 95% of woods, the joint usually presses firmly together with my thumbs or a side of the fist bump followed by some fairly firm hammer taps to each tail. I have made eight corners to two cabinets across a 16″ width. There are nine dovetails per corner so ten pins to correspond to. Now, these extra-wide dovetails are my first in this size specifically in sycamore. I have done enough 2s, 3s, and 4s over narrower widths without any issues. By the time I concluded my eighth corner I had learned a great deal but it wasn’t just in the making nor was it at all in the caring to fit. It was in the questioning, in the thinking and in the experimenting and seeing my personal need to shift my thinking and reevaluate all that I knew to be best in guaranteeing a gap-free joint.
How we learn about woods and their characteristic properties is in the working of the fibres. Even so, even within the species and the same tree there will be minor and major differences that defy writing about. Reading about these properties from a book and timber supplier is like trying to know grain from a photograph of its surface fibres rather than the internal fibre of its structure. Describing a wood type as having even texture or open porous basically tells you that all of that species has equal density throughout the wood that comes from the whole tree. This is wholly misleading. Crotch-grain and the wood surrounding knots and so on is wood in tension and compression caused by the weight of the branches which in turn consolidates the region beneath the branch while the wood above is being stretched. In a recent video, I spoke of this as I chopped out the wood each side of the dovetails and pins. Across the 16″ width I encountered ten different densities if I encountered one. The most consistent thing I noticed was how evenly the knife moved through the wood to establish a clean-cut knifewall. But when it came to vertical chap cuts and angled paring cuts the whole thing changed. I could not in any way predict that the wood would do this or that.
I used various saws and resolved yet again that the best saw for dovetailing will never be any pistol grip saw but the Gent’s saw. With 36 near vertical cuts 7/8″ long per dovetailed corner times eight I cut 288 times. That’s 252 inches or 21 linear feet and `i think that that makes my judgement a valid one. Anyway, the serious outcome was that all of my joints did fit but that I had to do what I absolutely try not to do and that is pare-cut the sides of pins or tails to seat the joints fully and precisely to their relevant shoulder lines.
In general, I always advocate using pencil lines for softer-grain woods like softwoods and other hardwoods with soft grain. There are dozens of these too, some softer than softwood pines, spruces and firs. Why do I say do this? It’s mostly to do with the compressibility of soft-grained, less dense woods. It’s something I have learned and adopted as a standard. You might find it different and argue differently too. This works for me.
As we videoed the first joint going together I decided we should keep the struggling parts in the video rather than the beginning and the end because, well, it is not always plain sailing and you need to know what it takes to overcome the obstacles. I ended up taking the partially seated joints apart half a dozen times before I was satisfied that the joint was good. Go back 150 years and I would have been sacked and another would have crossed the workshop door to replace me!
I cut two joints using the knife directly around the dovetails to establish the tail recess and the position of the pins. I sawed perfectly to these knife lines as usual and felt satisfied with the outcome. With the recesses done I set the adjacent tailpiece in place and started tapping the tails in. After an eight of an inch or so the joint was pretty well frozen even though all cuts were dead on. In oak, the joint would have seated just fine just as it would have done in several other woods, maple, ash, walnut, cherry and so on. Not that perhaps one tail recess to one side wouldn’t need a gentle nudge or pare cut, just that most of the joint would need no correction. In this case, every one of the dovetails or pins needed extra fitting.
I made my second set of dovetails the same way and then the third. They all needed the same fitting and by the third corner, I understood exactly what was happing. Sycamore has something I can only describe as ‘dryness‘. It seems to be absolutely resin-free. It seems too to be less compressible than say oak or ash, cherry and then the softwoods and soft woods. On my fourth corner, I resorted to using a pencil instead of the knife. I felt that this would give me a little more licence to vary my positioning of the saw and to rely on a more intuitive, freehand approach.