The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Almost every day.


Since this is the beginning of the official first week of the New Year, I felt it would be a good opportunity to become a better woodworker by practicing making dovetail joinery again.

I had some scrap pine left over from God knows what project that was somewhat junky, too good to throw away but not good enough to use anywhere, so that is what I decided to use. Because dovetailing is a sawing exercise, I began by sawing a perpendicular line, crosscutting two equal length boards to use for the dovetails. I’ve had a lot of practice at that lately so that was no problem. Next step is laying out the pins (I am a ‘pins first’ woodworker)

Some woodworkers don’t use a marking gauge when dovetailing, but I do. In this case I shouldn’t have, and should have used a marking knife instead, because my gauge is dull as sin, and I didn’t bother to sharpen it beforehand. For the layout I use a Veritas 1:6 dovetail marker. Once again, some woodworkers prefer a bevel gauge, or no marker at all, but I think the dedicated marker is the best tool. Firstly, it is consistent, which leads to consistent sawing, which leads to muscle memory. Secondly, the backside of the marker is perpendicular to the angled face, making it a handy tool to mark a sawing line.

I did not lay out a symmetrical pattern, though I really should have. But in this instance it really doesn’t matter greatly, though it is good practice to keep your joints symmetrical. But I was sure to use a very sharp pencil.


When sawing dovetails, the vertical line is even more important than the angle of the pin. When sawing pins first, that angle means little as long as it is somewhere in the ballpark, but if your saw kerf is not perpendicular to the marking gauge line your dovetail joint will not be square, meaning your drawer, or case, will not be square either. So I was very careful to saw straight, which should be the goal of every woodworker.


For the second time in as many weeks I once again retrieved some of my chisels from “storage” for use in chopping out the waste. I’m not a fan of the coping saw for this operation. Some woodworkers prefer it, but in my experience you have to use a chisel anyway to fit the joint, so why bother with the extra step?

To mark the tails I use the pin board as a template. Once again you need a sharp pencil. Your dedicated dovetail marking gauge comes in hand once again, as you can use it to judge the angle of your transferred pins.

Once the sawing is finished a little chisel work on any loose bits and that’s that. This being the first set of dovetails I’ve sawn in quite a long time, I’m fairly happy with the results. The fit was nice and snug without being overly tight, and the gaps were minimal. In fact, I would go as far to say if  I had used a sharp marking gauge there would be no gaps at all.


The tails may be asymmetrical, the board may be ugly, and the line may be ragged, but I’m pleased nonetheless. And though I may not have the time to do this every day, I should be able to spare 15 minutes at least 3 or 4 nights. Now I have to get my saws and that marking gauge sharpened up, and I can guarantee you the results will be much better.



  1. Wesley Beal says:

    Looking good. You’re going to have to just keep those tools in use at this point. I’ve got to bring mine in off the porch. Set the tool box out there when we moved – it’s an enclosed porch, and the tools are easy to get to when I need them. Today though I saw some rust spots on my shoulder plane. I’d oiled all my tools out there down a month or so ago. I think the constant temperature change and condensation that results is wreaking havoc. Going to bring them inside where I can keep a closer eye until I have a shop environment I trust.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve hung two damp-rid bags in my garage and they’ve made a big difference. You wouldn’t believe the amount of water they’ve collected in just a few weeks. Most of my chisels are rolled up at the moment and my metal planes wrapped. We’re in a cold stretch right now but thankfully no snow is forecasted.

  2. Greg Merritt says:

    The joint looks sound Bill. Your off to a good start in the new year….but for the love of Pete, sharpen that gauge! LOL

    • billlattpa says:

      I would have been better off with a butter knife. I actually didn’t realize how dull it was until I started marking the second board. I never really use that gauge and the only reason I did was because my other one is “in storage”. It looks like my tool storage for the winter idea is going to come to an end a lot sooner than I thought.

  3. Bill

    I would like to say some reflexions for the new year:

    – I think Popular Woodworking Mag situation is sad, in my opinion they are still a magazine but at the same time PWM is a cover up to sell lots of videos and books.

    – Let’s suppose for a moment I get really paranoid, and from my paranoia I start thinking: A great deal of the so called hand tool renaissance has to do with the fact that everything is part of a pretty much well orchestrated campaign to sell tools.

    – Finally, I think some woodworkers are firm believers in the “traditional” way of doing things, it’s like some kind of “19th century mindset” and any method or technique that doesn’t match that mindset simply doesn’t deserve to be done or analyzed.

    What do you think?


    • billlattpa says:

      I think PW is better than it was 3 years ago. At that point, for the first time I had actually let my subscription end and only this past summer did I renew it. I would go as far as to say that 3 years ago was an all time low at least since I was a subscriber. It has improved, but it still isn’t where it had been in the past.

      I think the hand-tool renaissance started off with good intentions, and I think those good intentions are still there in certain places. But I think all of the other nonsense is little more than a marketing gimmick. A case in point would be hand planes. Most woodworkers, hand tool users or not, like hand planes. However, by far the most important tool a hand tool user needs is a saw. With a saw, chisel, and mallet it’s possible to build furniture. Theoretically, it’s possible to build furniture with a saw alone. A hand plane is basically useless without those other tools. However, almost every time a tool is featured on the cover of a woodworking magazine it is a hand plane. Why? Partly because they look cool. But also because hand planes are often the most expensive tools the makers offer, and they need to be showcased. Of course there is a lot more to it than that, but woodworking magazines get paid to show off these tools. Yet, I’ve never seen a saw on the cover of a woodworking magazine. I’m not saying it’s never happened, just saying I haven’t seen it.

      I think the “traditional” movement also good intentions at its roots, but it has also been corrupted by woodworking writers and tool manufacturers. What really bothers me about it all isn’t the fact that people are trying to sell tools, it’s the marketing campaign all. We are led to believe that by doing this or that we are “saving the craft” and that is a lot of nonsense.

      And as I’ve mentioned before, the ironic part about all of this is the fact that what we are being sold isn’t cheap, so it is of course marketed to wealthier people with free money, yet in the same breath we are told that the craftsman of old would never use certain tools, or joinery, or techniques, when the reality is these guys were using whatever they were told to use, and though they were skilled enough to build high-quality furniture, they rarely could afford to actually own it.

      So in essence, furniture making went from a working class profession to a hobby for the wealthy. Nothing wrong with that in truth, but it does bother me when these wealthy writers, who are often highly educated sons and daughters of “professionals” try to present some phony “working class” background. No need to lie, or exaggerate. Be proud of what you are, be truthful, and people will respect your ideals more.

  4. Kinderhook88 says:

    Those dovetails look great, Bill.

  5. Alex A. says:

    Funny timing, I was just thinking I need to start the dovetail a day challenge.

    I think sawing out the waste only makes sense if you are a tails first person (I am) and you are gang cutting the boards or maybe if you are dealing with really tough wood.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve tried the coping saw method and never took to it. It works just fine, but it never sped up the process on my end. I have nothing against it. It’s one of those methods that just not for me. At the same time, for whatever reason I never took to the tails first method either, which is great for gang cutting as you were saying. Every time I’ve tried it ended up back to tails first. I have no idea why. It’s simply one of those odd little quirks I have.

  6. David says:

    I normally read your blog but missed this. I changed to pins first. I used to have a problem marking out the pins from the tails. It felt odd and unbalanced. I find doing pins first makes the marking easier. Never did understand the coping method. I’m with you, it seems like an extra step. I think it boils down to practicing and seeing what you like. There is so much info online, but what do YOU like to do. I use a gent saw for dovetails too. You know the ones that people say isn’t as good as a pistol grip, and you can’t feel if your straight and on and on. I find it to be easier to adjust the saw, and position it. I’ve gone to all wooden planes too. I would have never thought I would be into those but….

    • billlattpa says:

      I think the tails first method works great for gang sawing several boards at once. I think it also is easier to achieve symmetrical dovetails with that method. But nobody is going to tell me that pins first isn’t easier to mark/transfer. The tails first method is at best clumsy, at worst nearly impossible to mark accurately, in particular if you’re like me and prefer using a pencil.

      Wooden planes I love, but new ones are pricey (at times) and it seems the vintage ones are getting a little bit harder to come by here, though apparently in England they are a dime a dozen.

      It’s funny that you mentioned this today because I did a little “tails first” experimenting and I was hoping to write about it tonight if I get the time.

      • David says:

        Actually when I get time, I will try making some wooden planes. I did a pins first dovetail thing. I think I was doing half blinds for a drawer. Anyways, I tried tails first…habits are hard to break! Oops.Had to cut those pins off and start again. Like any fairly new woodworker, I have dovetailed everything. Jefferson bookcases, tool box, tool chest, and everything in between. Now I’m a bit tired of them being exposed. Studying 18th century American furniture and they are all hidden with mouldings. Will do that for my next project and eventually will go for full blinds. They may be ugly but no one will see them! I still some times use my Stanley #4 (though prefer my coffin smoother or toted smoother), but could get rid of my 5 and 6. I prefer there wooden versions. Speaking of 18th century furniture, how smooth does it need to be? Yes I could get a newer wooden made smoother with a tighter mouth or a high dollar metal plane but how smooth does it need to be? Those fine shavings look cool but last time I checked that was the many rants for the day. Sorry!

      • billlattpa says:

        No problem! I’ve made some wooden planes and turned out some pretty decent work. Like all things woodworking, I have too much I want to do and not nearly enough time. But I can happily say that I’ve made a few planes that work nicely.
        I’m going to start dovetailing more again to be honest. I got to be pretty good, but lately I’ve gotten away with it, mainly because I was making cabinets which generally aren’t dovetailed.
        But I’ve finally gotten to the point where it doesn’t matter so much to me anymore. I’m going to try everything I can. I don’t need much furniture at the moment (I’ve made 14 pieces in the past 3 years) so I can experiment with new methods, new materials, and new joinery. All in all, I’m having fun again, and that’s all that matters.
        Thanks again!!

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January 2016
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