After cutting a lot of dovetails recently (both by hand and with an Akeda jig), I have some thoughts on the process. 

I’ve seen a number of plans in WoodSmith and ShopNotes that call for any number of different joint types that are clearly intended simply to avoid dovetail joints.  Apparently the idea is that a joint made on the table saw is “easier” than making dovetails.  But my experience is that these joints made on the table saw (and/or router table) are so tweaky as to the position of the rip fence (so that you end up with the grooves in the right place and the correct width) that it’s more complex to set up than a dovetail joint would be or at least the complexity is more or less the same.  I see no time savings anywhere.

I love dovetails joints for several reasons. 

  1. The length of the stock is the same as the drawer opening which simplifies your life in terms of measuring.
  2. When you put the joint together, it naturally squares itself which pretty much eliminates the need for clamping unless the joint ended up loose for some reason.
  3. It’s unlikely to ever open up or get loose after years of pulling the drawers open and closed.  If anything, the wedge-like shape of the tails will get tighter since the geometry is such that pulling the drawer open serves to tighten the wedge.

I also have an opinion about dovetail jigs.  I’ve used the Akeda jig which I really like.  My friend has a Leigh jig and speaks well of it but I haven’t used it.  He tells me that he has to run two or three experimental joints through it before he gets it dialed in.  You don’t have to do that with the Akeda but both are prohibitively expensive to me.  Both cost in the vicinity of $500 once you buy the jig and all the doohickeys that come with it.  I borrowed the one that I was using from a friend.  But my point is that the typical assumption is that a jig is either necessary because they are “too difficult” to cut by hand or that they are necessary to get sufficient precision so that the joints will fit or that they are a huge time saver.

Well, here is where my experience becomes counterintuitive.  None of these things has proven true for me – at least not totally.  Yes, each individual joint is cut faster by a router and jig but if you start your timer when you first walk up to the workbench with the intention of dovetailing and you stop your timer when the drawer is done, the total time elapsed is not really what you’d expect.  Yes, using a router and jig is faster but not twice as fast.  It was only about a third faster.  Perhaps if I had been doing dozens of drawers, the total time savings would have added up to something significant but that’s not the typical hobbyist situtation.

Then there’s the perceived necessity of extreme precision.  To me this seems to be an unjustified assumption.  I’ve bashed out lots of dovetails by hand using a handsaw and a chisel and the precision hasn’t been nearly what you’d get by using a machine but the joints went together well anyway.  In the end, you have to look closely at them to notice the differences.  Plus, the layout is not hard.  Indeed, it’s pretty arbitrary – the tails can go anywhere in any geometry you want; the only necessity is that the pins match them and you make that happen by cutting the pins first and then using that piece to mark the tails.  It is true that all your parts are not interchangeable but I don’t see that as a big deal. 

I learned to cut dovetails by hand from the book “Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking” but I also learned some stuff from a video tape that I checked out of the library called “Building a Dovetailed Drawer By Hand” which was hosted by someone named Franz Klaus (spelling may be a bit off) and published by Taunton Press.  I don’t have any reallly expensive tools – I have a dovetail saw that I found in my Dad’s stuff when he passed away and I bought a set of 4 Marples Blue Chip chisels at Lowes for $20. 

Of course, your mileage may vary but I’ve pretty much decided that dovetails are the way to go for me and I will cut most of them by hand in the future.

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