Dovetails Set 5 18 minutes on the money.


Yeeeeeahhhh! It has been a long time hasn’t it? I have made another improvement in time on this last set of dovetails (if you don’t count the two weeks when the clock was stopped…). And, I am pleased that I have maintained my quality level (which is ‘exceedingly average’ but at least I do show you close-ups of my efforts…).  It may not seem like much but I have managed to take 3 minutes off my best time. Frank Klausz and Rob Cosman are probably laughing their socks off at 18 minutes to do a set like this but the key thing is that there is an improvement.

How am I cutting my dovetails? I am using what is a hybrid between the method set down all of those years ago by Robert Wearing in The Essential Woodworker and that demonstrated by the deft and elegant Christian Becksvoort in issues 238 and 239 of Fine Woodworking.  Both use a tails first approach and i’d encourage anyone who has not attempted dovetails before to checkout Wearing’s clear instructions.  Becksvoort adds the tricks and tips to the method that really help to make your joints accurate. I don’t know how rapid Mr Becksvoort is on this operation but his article doesn’t appear to help speed. If you are struggling with accuracy, check it out.

So what did I do to speed up but stay accurate?

1. I analysed the tools used to dovetail and set them out to my left (being a leftie) in the order that they would be used.

2. I marked quickly and accurately with my spearpoint knife but I managed to stop measuring everything! I used my chisels to size the gaps between the tails – much quicker than measuring.  I did not go over lines with a pencil though: I made sure that the bench was set so that natural daylight was raking across the piece so I could see the knife lines clearly.

3. Saw cuts were quick but not overly aggressive. The saw began at 45-50 degrees upward on the near edge and gradually was brought level as I came down to my baseline.

4. I stood up for sawing and made sure my posture was correct as Jeff Miller makes clear: one foot at 90 degrees to the face of the board, the other at 45 degrees, stood slightly off to one side so that my arm formed a straight line between the saw to the fulcrum at my elbow. My upper arm was then kept in line with this.

5. I cut the shoulders on the tailboard horizontally (I can hear the hiss of the professionals’ sharp intake of breath at this) so that I did not need to unclamp my board and turn it 90 degrees.  That in itself saved 30 seconds.  I cut just above the baseline and cleaned each shoulder with a wiiiide chisel (which I probably would have had to do anyway even if I had moved the board and cut vertically).

6. I ….s-l-o-o-o-w-e-d.. d-o-o-o-w-n… to transfer the tail dimensions to mark out the pins (no points gained for rushing this as the final result looks utterly bobbins* if this bit goes wrong). I had a scrap board ready at the right height to support the tail board when resting it on the pin board in the vice.

7. After too many fretsaw blade breakages (alright my technique is crap; so sue me) I stopped sawing out waste and decided to chop it out instead. I sat down to chop out waste between the pins and tails (as Becksvoort suggests). A light cut to establish the line to cut to and then in heavy to remove the waste.

The times I established were just shy of 21 minutes for the set 1 to 18 minutes to set 5.  Now, if little old me can improve by that amount in 5 sets…just think what you can do!

What have I learned? Nothing. Nothing? Nothing. 

I simply reminded myself that no activity gets better without practice.  To quote the racing driver, team manager and author Carroll Smith “There is no magic, only acres of hard work and fanatical attention to detail”.  I could not have put it better.

Now; stop reading this and go and cut some tails….go on.

– Paul Mayon

*bobbins: v. Northern English colloquial denoting an absence of quality and distinction (usually in any ale brewed south of Birmingham).



2 thoughts on “Dovetails Set 5 18 minutes on the money.

  1. Hi Paul
    Had a go at this challenge and the first set took me 32 minutes but after a week and some tool changes i managed a good set in under 10 minutes. Thanks for setting the challenge i found it to be well worth the effort and has helped me to understand whats needed to cut dovetails fast and accurate. The full story can be viewed on The Wood Haven forum under the heading Dovetail Challenge by Berncarpenter.

    Cheers Bern .

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