I think sometimes, often, we fail to see the unionising of different joints, failing to devise our own types but then how best to combine them in projects. My research spanning six decades has taught me many things and especially with joinery. Principally, I always wanted to see inside furniture to understand, yes, how something was made, but then how something was made differently too. Through those decades I learned about the me devising joinery for the common benefit of longevity. Without the forethought of their meandering forays into difference and in some cases shunning the status quo of their craft, I would never have discovered how the strayed from the norm would ultimately better. the joint or even make the impossible possible For instance, most mitres will ultimately fail and show a gap somewhere after a few years because of unequal shrinkage. When I saw a table with a mitre in an impossible place I wondered how he and achieved the impossible. That perfect mitre, still good 150 out but still as airtight as the day it was made. – how was that even possible? The pure defiance of nature, the insight of forethought and planning, the mastery of all things craft. So, so many elements of work by a hundred thousand absolute unknown artisans living in cottages, and terraces and working in modest workshops with no power but candles, flame lanterns and a dirt floor surrendering a few square feet to work in. There would be no complaining when the lights grew dim and the wind howled through chinks and cracks; just irrebuttable facts of life.
My recent inclusion of an otherwise unseen version of a dado came to me as a need in one of my latest projects. Whereas housing dadoes have had their place for decades and centuries, and I have used them in my work for six decades since my first ever versions in my first real woodworking project back in 1963, I have never really liked the idea that in and of themselves they have very minimal mechanical properties. The alternative might be the sliding dovetail which is essentially a dado with dovetailed sides or indeed one side angled only. My idea had been long thought through by me and the day came when I decided to make what I knew would work. I first made one to see what obstacles might make it prohibitive and was surprised by how easy and uncomplicated it was. It looked complicated but once I’d made it it became mine to own.
It is bemusing how culture shifts to try to favour no-joint woodworking to eliminate the need of true joinery and then justifies it by presenting the vintage versions as out of date and unnecessary. By espousing the virtues of replacements with descriptions like fast and easy, simple and no-fuss betterment they project something that really isn’t most often true at all. using other methods usually means jumping through many hoops and the end result rarely matches the ambition. In the end, all it really is is no more than a mass-production intervention replacing and displacing any need for real skill. No matter which way you slice it, third-component biscuits, dowels and dominoes rely on makers buying into a conveyor belt patronage with a methodology ensuring that you keep returning to the store for your packet of biscuits, plugs, dowels and dominoes to speed up the work. I liken this to other areas of life. Take the word ‘work’ for instance. I have spoken of this on my different platforms. To many, and I understand the reasons, work is often seen as something of a dirty word. It’s something you just have to do rather than being something anyone gravitates to do. This does, of course, revolve around the work you do, the pay you get or don’t get, the freedoms it might give and much more and then too the people you work with, the people you work for and so on. There can be a tendency to miss the true value and meaning work has for us. On a personal level, I have never known a day in sixty years where I didn’t have work. When one job finished, the next day started another. But more than that, even when I made less than minimum wage and needed to work twice as long as my peers to make a living ( doubt that I have ever in my life worked less than 50 hours a week and mostly still work around 60 over my intended six-day week; my choice always) I have always, always wanted to go to work for the pure joy of making.
In a recent set of three videos we made I created three joints to show that we need only eight hand tools to create all the joints we use in woodworking
Back to joinery and joinery with hand tools. What I love about hand tool joinery is the versatility it gives me in introducing minor changes in the moment to make the joint tight in the slight twist of a wrist guiding the saw and then too the skewed slice of a chisel. I have many fixes for miscuts that never compromise the integrity or even the appearance of my joints. The importance of combining one joint type with another, dadoes with a mortise and tenon and dovetails, for instance, in close proximity one to the other, create a dimension you just cannot accomplish using any other way of woodworking without some very serious jigging and even two hours extra work and some very sophisticated and expensive equipment. Of course, the manufacturers of guides give the impression that the guides they sell simplify your work and effort but it’s easy to lie on the pages of a magazine and a website. My deciding to put a dovetail in a position almost anywhere is instant to think up and just about as instant to expedite. The example below is worth looking at. If I decide to do this for the top rail of a cabinet at the last minute then ten minutes or so later I will have completed the whole joint. Not so with a power router or any other machine.
This becomes one of the best of the hidden dynamics we skilled woodworkers have and it becomes irreplaceable for adding strength and support to our working. The instance of handwork makes the impossible possible and that with very little real effort even after all other joints are made and the project is glued up and permanently together. By the skill and dexterity of handwork, we can still add the extra rail if needed or we feel it’s better. You cannot just lug a whole cabinet onto a tablesaw or chopsaw to fit an added component with a tenon or a dovetail somewhere. The videos I make are my way of enabling woodworkers throughout the world to rethink even the three simple joints of housing dado, dovetail and mortise and tenon.
I often add a through tenon to the ends of a shelf, have them pass fully through the sides and then sometimes wedge them dovetail-fashion after slightly widening the xits side of the mortise hole. This creates a highly functional mechanical opposition for guaranteed pull resistance to the bookcases. By this, I have the hybrid jointing I speak of that no other true joint can replace in this particular application. Combined with shoulders, such applications to joints increase to combine rigidity with resistance values exponentially and in our hand tool work it’s more a question of added integrity most will most likely never even notice. It’s really a small thing to make additions like this but so gratifying and well worth the extra effort.
See this drawer back, as an instance of joinery combination for instance. It can be wedged or not but the wedging into a widened mortise exit making it wider along the long axis of the drawer side gives added retention with a dovetailing effect that is absolutely immovable. I can also use a much shallower housing dado, one-eighth-of-an-inch or even less only.
Dovetails and the use of fastenings in the same piece seem most contradictory to many woodworkers but I have never questioned the validity of screws or threaded inserts in my work. The screw thread is one of the most amazing inventions of all. It is as valid as a wood joint but may not in any way really replace it but nor was it really intended to either. Combining a screw with a dado joint is a reasonable solution, I often add a screw here and there to give long-term value and longevity to what might otherwise get racked under pressure causing a separation through time and use. At the back of a drawer or in the side of a bookcase, an added screw increases longevity a dozenfold. And though many try to tell me never to screw into end grain, well, that’s just plain silly. They still have good pulling power and residual strength, of course, they do. You mustn’t let others control your thinking. A screw combined with glue becomes a most excellent localised clamp where otherwise you might never be able to use a clamp. You can then choose to leave the screw in place or not. Control your own mind and thinking and don’t be boxed in. I have dismissed more of what people advised for the betterment of my work and output than I have retained.
Though I often use dovetails at the back corners of drawers, this is far from my default position as often it is preferable to use housing dadoes instead. I make my decision based on the intended use of the drawer or drawers, size and so on. There is no question that dovetails are likely the best choice if strength is the issue and used for the front corners of drawers there is no substitute, but that’s not altogether necessarily the case for the backs. It’s good to remember that even when grain orientation is in the same direction, one piece can expand differently to the other even when the woods are the same and equally dry on installation. That’s the nature of wood. A single screw somewhere will hold a drawer back secure for the lifetime of the wood itself if and when combined with the housing dado. The screw offers the most direct pulling power to hold the joint together whereas the housing dado keeps the back constrained and prevents warpage and separation of any kind. Why not just use screws then? Well, screws only offer pulling ability but don’t act as warpage checks. Combining the two builds in your integrity into the piece. Though it’s certainly good enough to use the housing dado back there, that is not the primary reason I use it. My choice there is to allow the extra-long extensions to the back of the drawer so that you can pull the drawer all the way to the back, these extensions allow the drawer to cantilever and you don’t pull the drawer out so that the contents spill and the drawer does not fall to your feet.
Dovetails on drawer fronts are chosen for two reasons usually. The dovetail is super strong once glued and the dovetail with its opposing angles opposes the pressures caused by the repetitive pulling action of drawer opening and closing with the added ‘hammering‘ effect from inside the drawer with weighty items like silverware and such. This is significant when a drawer is fully loaded and heavy. Of course, it’s not only for drawers. Boxes of different types will hold together forever. I have been m, making toolboxes and chests for 60 years and the ones I made back in the 1960s will still be around somewhere beyond my travels around the world of woodworking on two continents.
When a drawer has an applied front then the dovetails can be through dovetails and there is no point in using half-lap dovetails. Though it really takes no longer to do and both are equally easy to make. I added an additional feature to my half-laps to make them easier to make. Adding a small rebate to the inside means I can butt the rebate up against the front piece and use a knife all the way around the dovetail and dismiss the use of a marking gauge of any kind. The knife wall delivers second-to-none accuracy for perfect dovetails. This feature alone is invincible and the outcome always results in the best joint ever. It’s a small step to do (pun intended). Perhaps it takes a minute in time to do so really a no-brainer for me.
And then there are the awkward types of joints we sometimes go for. here again, I chose a housing to one side of the joint (at the bottom or underside) with a long and tapered sliding dovetail to the opposite face.
We hand toolists have added benefit that gives tremendous versatility in the zone as we work, which means instancy with none of the fuss, time consumption and complications needed to jig a machine. In my world, a decision for an alternative joint part way through just happens as, if and when I want it to.