At a Price

It was setting up the plough plane to cut the grooves that really struck me the most. I had timed myself in cutting the four corner dovetails and realised how quickly they came off the saw. I made two eight-inch deep drawers with dovetailed top to bottom to each of the corners in less than two hours. All eight dovetails came straight off the saw with no paring to fit and they all fit as close to perfection as was humanly possible. I once watched a close friend and colleague make dovetails for a similar chest using a power router and a dovetail jig. Stan was not used to setting up the jig and that took him quite a while. This man had never made dovetails with a power router and jig before and it was his boss, Kevin, that forced him to do it. I think the issue was that Stan was not a fast maker and each piece took him a long time to make. But another truth was that Stan’s work was always impeccable. No one could ever find even the smallest fault in it. He never used the machine to make his dovetails after that simply because the end result looked machine-made and the dovetails were not as perfect as the hand-cut ones.

I ploughed nine linear feet of 1/4″ by 1/4″ grooves for my drawer bottoms in about three minutes and someone asked me why I don’t use a power router. I didn’t answer!

I suppose the contradiction for us craftsmen with certain standards comes when we sell our ability and control to a boss, the owner of the company. In the early days, Stan was hired because of his ability in hand work. The problem was that he never gained greater speed so the pieces he made were more expensive and the boss needed more income to cover his management lifestyle as a now non-maker overseeing the admin and finances of the company.

The sadness in what I witnessed was this full-time, skilled artisan in his mid-40s somehow felt so very diminished and dismayed as a result of the instruction to use the power router on his dovetails. In his previous twenty years, he had never resorted to using this industrial process in this area of his work. I felt sad for him. It was nothing to do with using machines or so-called power tools, he used them for various other aspects of his work and we were in no way a hand-tool-only group of makers, most of the work was indeed machine-made. But when it came to dovetails we none of us had ever used a power router to cut them and would each of us indeed feel as though our work was diminished by dovetailing this way? I certainly read the signs over the ensuing days and saw how this singly compulsory suggestion (which though phrased that way was indeed an order) took Stan down to the lowest levels I had ever seen in him––it was soul-destroying at the very least. I understood that for him and I the whole was diminished because of this overseer’s very contrary decision.

I suppose the question for us is this; is it only about perception or is there some other reason that we hand toolists have when it comes to certain aspects of our woodworking? Is life as a skilled maker more than money making and speedy production even if we do it for a living and not just as a hobby maker? Do we boast without words when our pieces stand finished for others to see? I mean, most people seeing my work without ever having heard of my name or my reputation for handwork would only ever believe that the work was machined––perhaps even made by CNC or the soon-to-be AI. This is really of no consequence. What is of consequence is my knowing how I made it.

This is a box I made in just under one hour completely by hand with all of the dovetails eyeballed with no laying out. The roundovers were made with a#4 Stanley plane and by completed I mean hinged and finish on too. It was a sensory challenge feeling for compressibility and such. We made it for a video series on YT. Poplar and Sapele.

In my world, as a lifestyle woodworker, I have never once used or even considered using a power router guided by a router guide to cut my dovetails. For me, it’s the one joint that somehow demands the more intimate levels of my woodworking demands of me. The imposition of a boss forcing anyone against their will seems abhorrent to me. Why? Bosses too must be limited not to overstep the limits of their control even during the working day of an employee. This is no less than pure bullying by someone who controls the people working for them. Instead of stepping back and looking twice at how this would impact this person’s spirit, this boss-man sought only to force his will on his employee. In the overall creation of the piece, two weeks’ work, the boss man only gained an hour or two. It would have been small compensation to yield this one process. The workman had worked with his boss for two decades. Were they friends? Not really. Not at all. How could such a thing happen except it was to push a point in which the boss had to be seen to be the boss?

Stan’s work from way back over two decades ago. It’s a combination of machine and hand-tool woodworking. Quarter-sawn oak and mesquite is a nice combination. These customers fitted out their whole dining room with Craftsman-inspired designs like this one.

I think in more creative circles we artisans should be given space to be ourselves, to use methods we prefer to use along with the tools we choose. In a factory, it is a different requirement. I was sad to see Stan in his now crumpled state continue to work with half the spirit I was used to seeing him craft his pieces.

So I am back on my dovetails again and thinking about each cut. My thoughts are this: I have four drawers to make and have made two so far. The couple of hours on the first two, the largest, were very enjoyable to me. My work felt sincere and transparent and if gaps were made but there were none, I would just have left them there, testimony to the honesty of my work and my working fallibility. On the other hand, what if the gap left a weak link in the hole? Then I would have no issue adding in a piece even though another might say in fifty years’ time, “Look here, look how shoddy this man was in his work.”

In my making dovetails by hand, there is an intimacy to the work. It is not just a question of the fewest saw strokes, the power in them and then too the chopping of the waste I say that upfront. I often wonder if people, woodworkers, really consider things as I do. My fingers touch the various woods I work with to feel for things that are immeasurable without scientific equipment. Density, moisture levels, flatness levels and compressibility, such like that. The plane sends me information as do the saws, the chisels and the spokeshaves and scrapers. I receive various pockets of information that then lead me to change direction, tip this tool or that one to get the better cuts. My dovetail wood varies markedly even across the width of my eight-inch wide board. The dovetail on one side cuts very differently than the one in the middle or the other side. I feel the difference in the friction of the fibres on the saw plate. Being sensitized helps me to make changes and this information will never be written down on a scientific paper because the scientist is less qualified than the makler and yet the scientist presents her and his work as the ultimate authority on wood. After my near 60 years of working wood, I acknowledge that I have only touched the very tip of the iceberg.

I am on the last drawer now. In this, the drawer-making has taught me much. I can take the side from one corner of a drawer and swap it for another corner and it still fits. In fact, I can take for corners and swap each one for another and even turn them end for end or upside down and they will each fit the other without gaps. They are all hand-cut. How is this even possible?


  1. Thanks for a context to think about my results. There are limits to the amount of imperfection I can live with and everything to be said for mastering what you already know, but if I never tackle anything just beyond my reach, I’ll die before I get where I want to go. And call me a hack but I notice antique repair craftsmen not hesitating to fill in the occasional gap rather than replace an entire joint. In fact they often try to leave just enough of the repair detectable as evidence of integrity! Sometimes I think imperfections at the beginning of the work but that improve over the course of it are evidence of progress. It’s when they proliferate rather than diminish as I proceed that is a knife through the heart. My motto is, by the end of the project I’ll know exactly what I’m doing!

  2. I always marvel at the evenness of the surfaces you achieve Paul – the sides of that chest of drawers and the boards you have laid out at the start of your joinery. I have strived to get tools really sharp and to be careful and patient as I plane up boards, but I always find I get patches of tear out that spoil the effect and usually some that are too deep to be simply shaved through with the cabinet scraper. I just don’t know how you do it! While I continue to work on getting better at the different joints and being accurate in all my measurement and cuts, it frustrates me that I can’t get to the starting point of really clean smooth stock. What’s the secret!?

    1. Mostly it’s ‘reading the grain before you place the plane.‘. This takes a level of sensitivity in sight I see very few woodworkers even consider and that includes so-called professionals whom I consider often to be less professional than we amateurs. When you see a patch of awkward looking grain in an area, better to place the #80 or card scraper to the zone first. This will give up its secrets of grain direction and configuration ahead of offering the plane. Of course, rough-sawn surfaces from the mill will take more effort. I would say set the scrub plane to very shallow and skim it across the surface to see if the grain rises head on to the plane. Mark the wood with wax crayon as you decide on felt grain direction and then plane accordingly.
      Also, Alan, whereas I do actually plane and scrape all of my surfaces by hand, and I can deal with just about any grain that comes at me, I see nothing wrong if kill levels are not yet there in using other methods such as belt sanders. But belt sanders do take skill and they have to be of a decent quality with good quality sanding belts too. Random orbit sanders are hard to be for a quality pre-finish application level. When the grain is with use as in all the stars aligning, nothing can really beat a planed surface. I just planed some oak that was pure silk when I had finished. Often, most often, this will not be the case.

      1. Many thanks Paul. I’d never thought of trying with the scraper first. I’m using some very wild grained cherry at the moment – from a very neglected log I got from a chap in Henley. I’ve resawn and it’s beautiful, but the grain barely stays straight for more than a couple of inches! There will be a lot of sanding in the end I fear. But I will try the scraper and crayon marking as you suggest.

        1. Ha! Here comes the missing ingredient. I would be much more inclined to go for American cherry and not English cherry. Not one and the same animal.

          1. Ah! I will try and get hold of some of the American variety next. I’m loving the way the English cherry looks, but not finding it easy to work for sure.

      2. I am new and just starting out with planes, what type of finishes can be used? They all seem to have a preferred surface roughness, IE 150, 180, or 220 grit. Thanks for all your info.

  3. Hi Paul,

    I’m getting a lot out of your YouTube videos which is great. Even more so when you go into the details about things you have in this bl9g about your friend.

    I’m a formally retired Hospital Trained Nurse. Did training like an apprenticeship, which I’m sure you can well relate to having gone through yours. Back in 1983, I was 1 of 5 or 6 Charge Nurses of a brand new hospital opened by the Queen and Prince Philip God look after them. And we were the first charge nurses and hospital to have all registered fully trained staff. What a nightmare that was. 3/4 of the staff were University trained staff. They knew nothing about responsibility for certain areas of common usage that needed to be kept clean and tidy for every ones use for patients. I have found it interesting over the years since I was forcibly retired with a back injury, listening and watching these university trained nurses who have no clue to pick up on patients discomforts and lack of assistance explaining say, how to use a bed pan. several years ago my eldest adult daughter post ankle surgery need to use one. the nurse never even got any help to assist my daughter on to it in bed. I had to help and the last thing I need to see, was everything. Due to lack of instruction my daughter wet the bed mostly, as well as he clothes. So the nurse had extra work because she didn’t ask my daughter had she used one before. shevthough you got on then could lay back and use it. Poor girl was beside herself with embarrassment. I made a point of asking the nurse if she explained how to use the pan, she said, No of course. I made a point of telling her not to assume a patient knows how things are used in the future make sure she asks. These are the sorts of things I learnt doing hospital based apprenticeship training. You developed a 6th sense about patients, like read their minds. I have come across it numerous times, fixing things for patients instead of waiting for a nurse to figure it out. one time I noticed that overhead lights were troubling an elderly patient so I turned them off and turn the light at the back of her bed on. She thanked me for doing so, as did 2 other patients bothered ad well. A nurse asked why the lights were off, one piped up because they were hurting their eyes. We were right next to Ceiling to floor glass windows as well. So light really wasn’t an issue. They said they asked me to turn them off thinking I might get in trouble, I said no they didn’t, I noticed the elderly lady was bothered by them so did it myself and turned the rear light on. Also I mentioned I was a 40+ years trained General Nurse as well, there looking after my Brother-in-law waiting for a particular dressing I could have done and been gone hours ago, we were in the emergency department.

    Anyway love you work watch you many times a day trying to catch up. Wish you all the best.

  4. If I had been Stan I would have quit and found another place to work.
    Indeed that’s what happened at my last corporate job where I had been with the company for twenty years. They dumbed down the job so much that I couldn’t use any of my skills I had acquired over the years. Indeed some engineers quit much sooner, one after only a year.
    It’s was only when I realized that I could not do the job as they wanted and they gave me an ultimatum that I abruptly left. I had a new job 5 minutes after I quit with just a phone call. A man who appreciated my skills and I worked with him until my retirement and we are still friends to this day. It wasn’t easy to leave, I gave up 8 weeks of vacation, a company car and cut short my pension benefits. It was a hard decision at the time but looking back I should have done it sooner. Perhaps Stan didn’t have that option or thought that he didn’t. There was a time if you switched jobs it was thought there was some sort of problem with the person and not the employer.

    1. Easier said than done, Tom! Corporate employee life and craftsman artisan cannot really be compared. Also, what we would do might well be impossible for another––mortgage to pay, minimum wage earner with no other support, isolation, things like that. What’s easy for one is impossible for another. Let’s rethink this a bit.

      1. When I became my own boss, I had a wife and children to support, so I felt I didn’t have the option to not use nail guns, since it would have meant not feeding my family.

        1. Different strokes for different folks. My family thrived on a single-earner income provider (me) with four growing boys from birth to adulthood and not owning nail guns. Oh, and I am not really sure what the point is in what you say in relation to my blog.

          1. In an earlier comment I had said, “As a residential, union carpenter in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, my dovetail router jig equivalent was the nail gun.” I clearly didn’t think I had a chance to make a living without using nail guns here in Los Angeles.

  5. As a residential, union carpenter in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, my dovetail router jig equivalent was the nail gun. At the time, the union forbade the use of pneumatic nail guns on the worksite. I was very fortunate to have used a hammer for as long as I did, but, when I became my own boss, with my own employees, I did use nail guns, because I couldn’t compete using just hand nailing. I still worked on the job with my employees, but it definitely took a lot of the joy out of my work, and resulted in a new generation of carpenters who struggled to drive a nail with a hammer.

  6. I was a field archaeologist for 40 years and some. Over that time I discovered that there was a gulf between “learning” something from a book, or in a lecture room, and using that knowledge in practice. What I think was the most important lesson learned was that you cannot fully appreciate knowledge without practice. High school chemistry, geometry and algebra, grammar school arithmetic all were extremely useful, but I had to realize that I already had the necessary information, and that all I needed to do was apply it. When I began woodworking seriously – finish carpentry, correcting a long history of bad ideas applied to a fine old house, the same thing was waiting for me. There was always that shock of discovery and pleasure, “they already taught me this!”

  7. Many years ago I was taught by an old school toolmaker to set and sharpen drills by hand and eye on a fine stone wheel. This allows for altering the included angle of the tip for drilling different metals and lets me vary the faces from flat to a radius – its all under control.
    Then the day came when my boss spent (wasted) money on a drill sharpening jig. He reckoned it would do it better in less time.
    I tried, I really did, but I finally chucked it in the back of a cupboard. That was thirty years ago and for all I know it’s still there. Perhaps they’re better nowadays but I can still set a drill the way I want it in under a minute the old school way.
    Machine tools have their place for sure but they don’t teach you anything about the material and how it interacts with the tools. And personally I dislike the racket.
    My dovetails are still awful though. I definitely need more practice.

    1. Yes, I too learned this when I mastered freehand and eyeballing the tips of twist drills. Some tips for aggressive cuts and others for refined work.

  8. The Stan situation you describe is a bit tricky to me. On the one hand I can see how that would dishearten an employee but at the same time all the financial pressure is on the owner. It’s his business to do with what he feels is best. If you gave in on the dovetails where do the concessions end? Is there an expectation to hurt your business to keep employees happy? Not saying Stan was hurting the business, just in hypothetical sense. As you said, its not so easy to just quit and go work somewhere else for lots of reasons, it’s probably not so easy to see projects taking longer than you feel they should. If it was indeed a two week project and he only saved a couple hours, extrapolate that over a year, it’s a weeks labor. It’s not only wages it’s rent on the building, insurance, liabilities, all of it. So just as it’s not so easy to just quit, it is also not so easy for the owner to just give up a week’s worth of total labor costs a year

    1. The piece was sold for $4,500, the wage for two hours work at that time was $24. That would be a better way to consider things. .Oh, and the building was paid for and owned and insurances were indeed peanuts too

      1. what he was paid and what the piece sold for are inconsequential. I just thought it was interesting topic, employee happiness vs employers vision for success. I get that you’re saying the owner was wrong because it didn’t save much time but I was just looking at it from the other perspective. you say the building was paid for, there was obviously equipment that was bought, whether insurance is peanuts or not, those peanuts are coming out of the owners pocket, it all factors in. it’s all money spent by the owner as an investment into the business. that’s why in my original post i said it’s tricky, it’s not black and white like you’re framing it. I’m sure most employers would like to have happy employees working for them but there has to be a line somewhere

        1. The most important element in this is of course what he was paid for his labour and what the piece sold for. And it wasn’t so much about employee happiness as fairness. The business was a success and made an ample amount of income in terms of profit. The building and all of the equipment was paid for. It ended up being a battle of wills in the end and trust me when I say that became all too evident. Your evaluation is of course without insider knowledge and information so you add into the equation normal expectations which is what reasonable people do.

          1. Employment, by definition, is a sad dilemma. Even for those who like their job and are “happy with it”. I have never met a person who was 100 % content with their employer. I have never met an employer who was 100 % content with their employee.

            It’s a deal: You give me money, I give you power. My power, my strength quite literally. But that power increases the boss’s power. He can suddenly do things he could not have done alone. When I hand over power, I also hand over control, whether I like it or not.

            Ultimately, this is inhumane. We are all born the same way. We all die the same way. In between we have time to spend. Letting another human being determine how I spend the largest part of that time – in exchange for money (= food & shelter) – is very inappropriate, to put it mildly. It creates a hierarchy. This hierarchy is based on nothing but necessity. There is no innate “bossness” to the boss. He happens to have the means (and need) to employ somebody. This somebody happens to have the need for employment and enters into the deal. So both of them agree to a hierarchy that makes unequals out of equals.

            I know so many people who jump from job to job in search of the one job that will fulfill them. What they are looking for is the ability to do their work the way they want to do it. The way they enjoy it. I know bosses who wish (and sometimes act like) they could do everything themselves because there is no other person on this planet who will do it exactly their way. Both sides have the same desire.

            In theory, the answer to this conflict would be self-employment without employees. For much of human history, that was what more or less everyone did (presumably, and oftentimes, self-employment was organized in a way that ensured the prosperity of some noble rulers). It does not guarantee riches or safety or retirement or health insurance or the ability to get a mortgage for a house etc.

            In practice, self-employment is not always possible or even advisable. I would argue that for at least part of the time, most of us are in Stan’s position. Even bosses have bosses. Even those at the very top, they have shareholders to cater to. It’s a silly machinery we have created for ourselves and it treats us like machines.

            And this is where Paul’s reminder comes in. We all are complete human beings. We don’t need a boss’s approval to be valuable or for our work to be valuable. Even our perceived mistakes are part of our work and it doesn’t matter how others feel about them. It is important to keep up our own standards in mind. Even when we’re not allowed to use them. To at least remember: This is not the way I would do it. My way, for me, is the better way to do this. I am the master of the life given to me for a brief time.

            This mindset, in a way, betrays the boss, but not really. You may sell your power, but not yourself. It’s a silent refusal to be consumed by the machinery. Over time, it shapes your mind and you begin to see the world a little differently. Injustices and dilemmas such as these become noticeable all around you. You may begin to change the way you live in this world and the way you treat the people around you, as equals, not lower and not higher than yourself. After a few years, it may become just what you needed to push you over the edge. You take the plunge and try self-employment or a side business or cut back the income and focus on your (unpaid) passion and accept all the problems associated with that, for the sake or your own well-being. It’s not always possible, as the work-related mental health statistics show.

            Either way, this mindset leads to generosity. You begin to give freely, because you can, and not because you have to. And generosity is infectious. Paul’s blog and classes are a good example. One after another, more and more people see the benefit of approaching things differently and begin to make small changes in their lives and attitudes. I believe this is the only way for us out of the monstrous machinery we have built to dominate us in return for some sort of elusive prosperity.

            Whether we are bosses or employees, once we begin to see that it’s the people that count and not the numbers, things begin to change for the better. It’s a slow process with a lot of suffering along the way. But it’s worth it. We can’t take economic growth to the grave. But the relationships we build, and help build, affect so many lives and continue to multiply even when we are gone. This is what really eases human suffering, not wealth. The relationships determine what we do with the wealth.

            Thank you, Paul, for your contribution.

      2. I see my response was deleted.i said nothing rude or even negative, just discussing the topic of the blog. I guess the comments are reserved for total agreement and heaping praise. I’ll see myself out of this echo chamber and off of your platforms

        1. sometime I forget to click on the “post comment” and I wonder why I can not see my comment.
          Then I try again.

  9. In my next life, I would like to replicate yours. In total. Not just in skills learned however, the outlook and pleasure gained from a good days’ work.
    You are impressive in heart, mind and artistry.

  10. This piece really resonated with me. I was a craftsman in a completely different field, computer programming.

    Over several decades, beginning as a hobbyist over 40 years ago, I developed a method of work and built a collection of software tools to aid me in what I saw as a creative endeavour.

    All was good, until I felt that circumstance was forcing me into actual employment. Actually, that’s not true, because my first boss was a like-minded person and the company itself had a culture of creativity, innovation, and craftsmanship instilled by the founders. So I and the other techies were left to do as we saw fit in the ways we saw fit as long as objectives were met. After all, it was working fine on the production floor, so why not on the “computer floor”?

    Then the founders sold to take a well-deserved retirement. That’s when the trouble started. The new owners and my new boss were in complete agreement that workers were not smart enough to figure out how to do their jobs. Obviously, that was (hopefully!) not a conscious and deliberate view, but it was certainly the the behaviour.

    I no longer had the freedom to choose my programming language(s) or even the rest of my tools. I might have had greater tolerance for this new environment had anyone in charge of my process been programmers themselves with clearly articulated reasons for the change, but they were just investors (whatever that is!) and accountants.

    I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll just say that I decided that I was too old for that nonsense and went back to manual labour for a few years while we finalized our retirement plans and set up my shop. I don’t know how many boats I’ll build, or how many pieces of furniture, or how many tools, but I’ll be building them following my process with tools of my choosing (and making!). As a bonus, being retired means that it will happen on my (non) schedule.

  11. Stan’s piece is gorgeous. I hope the owners still have it or have handed it down to their children.

  12. Hi Paul,

    do you have any advice for cutting dovetails in Western Red cedar ? chiselling across the grain crushes rather than cuts . . . I’m making Bee keeping equipment and WRC is the defacto choice.

    1. Yes. So soft a wood needs a shallower bevel than usual, drop to 20º even, and the press the chisel down into the vertical cuts for cross-grain cuts rather than using the chisel hammer and chop cuts. The chisel edge will be a little more fractious at so low an angle so be considerate there too.

  13. Jim,

    „ the scientist is less qualified than the maker „. I have recently been corresponding with a lifelong scientist who is nów 91 years old. He accepts that there is a creator but he is adament that the Genesis account is not true. So who is more qualified: the scientist or the creator ( the ultimate scientist ).

    Your statement, that my comment begins with, fits well. I do greatly admire my scientist friend but he can not see the proverbial forest through the trees.

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