The Slightly Confused Woodworker

Home » Sawing Dovetails » The American who went into the garage as an Englishman and left as an American.

The American who went into the garage as an Englishman and left as an American.

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We all have our little prejudices. For example, being born and raised in the city of Philadelphia, I hate the New York Mets. Why? I don’t really have a good answer. In reality, the Phillies and Mets have rarely been in contention during the same season, and the few times that did happen the Mets naturally choked and the Phillies prevailed. But I digress. My point being, we all have things we like and dislike just because.

When it comes to woodworking, I guess you can say that I have a prejudice concerning “tails-first” dovetails. From what I gather, the tails first method is preferred on the lovely island of Great Britain, and the pins first method is more of a “continental” preference. I was taught to saw dovetails by the great Chuck Bender, and being that he was taught by a German (I believe), he was an advocate of the pins-first method. This method has always worked for me, so I never really bothered to change.

Though I may have a prejudice with the tails-first dovetail method, I would hate to be limited by that. Considering that my good friend (I wish) Graham Haydon and the incomparable Paul Sellers both seem to use the tails-first method, and considering that I respect both greatly as woodworkers, and considering they’re both Englishmen, I felt that maybe abandoning a technique that I never really used to begin with may be a bit short sighted, so I decided to throw aside any forgone conclusions and try something different.

For the past week I’ve been sawing a set of dovetails every night to keep in practice and to improve my skills. I can say that so far my results have been good and consistent, which is exactly what I am looking for. Of course I have been sawing all of those dovetails pins first. So to take a different approach, my last set was sawn tails first.

If I were a better writer I could probably make a description of sawing dovetails exciting. Suffice it to say, I went through the motions and the results were not good. How bad were they? I can with all honesty say that these were hands-down the worst set of dovetails I have ever sawn, and that includes the first set I’ve ever sawn. It was awful. It was a horror show, and the worst part about it was that I didn’t even realize how bad it was until it was finished. It made me question everything I know, and wonder whether or not emulating an Englishman is a good idea.

IMG_1779[1]
Gaps abound, and the board is still a piece of garbage…

So  you may be wondering if I messed up on purpose, whether subconsciously or not. Rest assured I didn’t. In fact, I debated even posting this photo because it is that hideous. As I said, my second worst dovetail set is not nearly as bad as this dreck. So I think I am sticking with pins-first from now on.

Or maybe not….

Obviously there are woodworkers who use the tails-first method and saw beautiful dovetail joints. And in tails-first defense, I think this is only the third or fourth time I’ve actually attempted a through dovetail joint this way. I begrudgingly admit that sawing the tails first has a few advantages. Maybe the English method is better and I just can’t see it yet.

Or maybe the pins-first method is superior and the tails-first group is just as prejudiced as I.

I have all the respect in the world for my English brethren, but I’m with the Continentals on this one. Maybe England does have Graham Haydon, and Paul Sellers, and fish and chips. I still don’t care for their dovetailing methods. So don’t expect me to hop the pond and head for dear old Blighty…

Sorry, I’m being a right prat, taking the mickey if you will. I’m usually a cheery bloke, and I ain’t no tosser for a Yank. I think I’ll strap on me trainers and sod off before you wankers fancy me an Everton supporter.

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24 Comments

  1. Greg Merritt says:

    Wow…my sympathies Bill. LOL
    I have to give you props for trying though. I learned tails first and have never looked back. I have to admit that I have never even considered trying the pins first technique. Now you have me curious…

    • Alex A. says:

      The great Schwartz says pins first is really the only option for double blind dovetails so its probably a method worth learning.

    • billlattpa says:

      It’s pretty obvious that I didn’t mark these correctly, that being the understatement of the year. For through dovetails my method works just fine, and I usually saw nice and tight joints. But I hate to limit myself, and it’s good to mess up like this every now and again 🙂
      Thanks.
      Bill

  2. Rick Scheibl says:

    I think there are one or two benefits to sawing tails first, depending on your values and skills.

    First one depends on your values. When you cut tails first, you can gang cut tails. This matters if you care about productivity and don’t mind identically spaced dovetails, one board to the next.

    When learning sawing, chiseling etc. one physical skill that improves is sensing vertical. The bench top helps, as it is horizontal, so does making sure things are level when held in a vice, prior to sawing.

    The second one is about you skills. Tails sawn first are successful when they are sawn straight. The angle doesn’t matter. When you cut the pin, the saw cut is vertical, to a line.

    Tails sawn from pins require more skill. It is necessary to saw both straight and to a line at the correct angle.

    I still can’t saw to a line at an angle perfectly 100% of the time. I’m better sawing vertically. I hope my sawing improves to the point where it won’t matter.

    • ausworkshop says:

      Just read your post Rick after I sent mine through. You pretty much summed it up in a shorter way than I could. I always find this a fascinating topic. I think the order of cutting dovetails has to be one of the longest most opinionated discussions in woodworking. In second place to sharpening methods of course 🙂

    • billlattpa says:

      Gang sawing is nice for symmetry (and efficiency) and I’ve always felt that sawing the tails is a hair more difficult than sawing the pins. As you said, in that regard marking the pins from the tails is theoretically easier. I have one problem and one problem alone with tails-first, and that is I do not care for the awkward way that the pins are marked from the tails. Admittedly, if I’ve sawn 500 dovetail joints in my woodworking life, no more than a handful have been tails first (unless you count half blinds). This was the first tails-first joint I’ve attempted in years and I simply miss-marked it. But it’s good to keep your options open.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  3. ausworkshop says:

    Yes, as Greg said. I might have to try pins first again now. Although last time I did they looked almost as bad as your tails first attempt. There’s only two reasons it’s that bad, or a combination of both. You must have either stuffed up your marking or your sawing to line, either way the same mistakes can happen just as easily with either method in my opinion. Marking accurately and then cutting to the line accurately is the key to both methods, question is which method do you find easier to perform both these tasks accurately and on which component (pins or tails). Only then can you decide in what order to cut them works best for you.

    You may have re-opened a can of worms here.

    If you find you don’t get a good close cut right off the saw then I can see how doing pins first gives you a chance to finesse and make the pin cuts straight with a chisel after the cut, then and only then do you mark the tails from those (fixed) pins. But you then have to cut those tails dead on that angle and square to the marked lines as it’s a lot harder to adjust the tails once those pins are cut.

    I find I get more accurate cuts when cutting tails, as in, square across the end grain, but sometimes my saw might drift a little off the dovetail markers angle line (Veritas 1:6). I don’t let that bother me and just focus on cutting depth and 90degree squareness at this stage. If they are square (which they should be as this is the easy bit to get square) then don’t worry if you have drifted away from the line. This slight change in angle will not cause gaps because you are marking directly from the slightly changed angle. The tails therefore should not need any adjustment right off the saw.

    I then mark the pins from the tails and find it much easier to cut them straight down at 90degrees, which is the easiest most natural way to cut anything with a saw, your using the top line to concentrate on, making sure your body position is adjusted to the marked angle but the saw is still just cutting straight down with the grain at the front so I don’t really look at that until I get closer to the base line. If all goes well the cuts will be close to the line as possible or even split the lines but never remove them. I then get a chance to fine tune this with the chisel if I see too much of any lines remaining.

    So the only fine tuning (if needed) is in the areas that are easiest to get a chisel into, the gaps between the pins. They are also running in line with the grain so it’s very easy to do a cut inline with grain. The gap between the tails is much harder to adjust especially if it’s a really fine cut pin socket. It’s also not inline with grain direction and there is a lot of short grain at the pin corners that can break away if you fiddle with them. LEAVE THEM and move on.

    If the pin component is the easiest part to adjust then this component should not be the template.

    Conclusion – You always adjust a part to fit a template, you never adjust a template to fit a part. You need to ask yourself which part do you find easier to adjust, that should be the part you do second. Also ask yourself which part are you more likely allowed to move away from the line a little without causing problems or needing to adjust. The angle of the dovetail (tail piece) is the only area you can get away with a slight change and only if that is then to become the template part (the first part you cut).

    There will always be slight errors, some less noticeable than others, they should be invisible to the naked eye though, we are human not machine, the question is how can I avoid these errors as much as possible and which of these errors is easier to deal with or make invisible. And in the case of the tails, a slight error of angle is perfectly ok as long as you’re cutting tails first. A cut that should be 90degrees is much more noticeable if it’s not spot on, these cuts are usually the easier ones to make though and also easiest to adjust.

    Anyway I hope that makes a bit of sense to someone, sorry for the long post. People should choose whatever works best for them but I believe they should be able to justify in their own mind why it works best for them.
    Most people just talk about it as if it doesn’t really matter what order you do them and it’s just personal opinion but there is more to it than that, you need to think it through and ask yourself why you think your choice is best for you. Where do your weaknesses lie? I’d be interested to hear why you think that pins-first works best for you. Why did you end up with the worst dovetail you’ve ever cut? Something must have gone wrong, perhaps the way you were holding it caused it to slip a little when marking? In that case you can hardly blame the tails first method, just that you need to work out a more secure way of holding it in place when marking.

    What are your detailed thoughts on why it went so wrong?
    What are your thoughts on why you think pins first is better?
    If you can convince me I might have to give it another go.

    The first problem I have with the pins-first is holding the pieces together securely for marking. I did a large blanket chest once (pins first) and it was a nightmare, especially if the boards are not perfectly flat, which they rarely are at that stage. The next time I did them using tails first with the little shallow rebate that Chris Schwarz recommends and I’ve never looked back, made it so much easier to hold and clamp the boards flat in both directions when marking.

    Cutting them in real life situations can be a lot different than small test pieces or drawer components which I’m sure you’re well aware.

    Sorry again for the long post, I should be working today but I’m easily distracted, especially at the start of the year, I just can’t be bothered dealing with customers just yet. It feels like Monday morning everyday of January. I need a longer holiday.
    Hope your doing well over there in the cold.

    • billlattpa says:

      For whatever reasons, I do not care for marking the pins from the tails. It always seemed clumsy to me, so not long after I first learned to dovetail I basically gave up on that method, which was probably short sighted, but in honesty has never really given me much of an issue. These little experiments are for developing my skills, and keeping my options open.
      I have tried the rebate method with both pins and tails first and it worked just fine, though I thought it was somewhat of an unnecessary extra step. But I can see it helping on a large case. Generally, I’m pretty accurate (I actually was in the photo believe it or not, but that doesn’t mean a damn if your lines are in the wrong place).
      Thanks for the tips, and happy summer!
      BIll

  4. Graham Haydon says:

    Dear Bill

    I’d gladly share my fish and chips with you as we watch Everton play “football”. We could the discuss how you missed the fact I cut them both ways and how recently they have nearly all been pins first 😂.

    Good on you for giving another way a shot. It’s useful to do them both ways, sometimes holding a pin board on a tail board is not easy an visce versa.

    Lovely write up a Bill, keep up the good work.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ll take you up on that if it’s a Liverpool match!

      Funny, because even though I knew you were highly proficient at both methods (naturally) I just assumed you were a tails-first advocate, as it seems that tails-first is the more popular method among English woodworkers.
      Since I am in “practice mode”, I think it’s good to practice different things, not just methods I am already good at.
      Thanks again mate!
      Bill

  5. Chuck Bender says:

    Bill,

    I may have shown you pins first, but I too cut them both ways (in fact, I have a video on YouTube demonstrating there’s no difference in the resulting product). There are times when you will find it necessary to use one method over the other. Full-blind dovetails, for instance, are nearly impossible to transfer if you cut tails first (and have laid out anything smaller than equal pins and tails). However, when dovetailing very thin drawer sides into fronts using half-blind dovetails cutting the tails first makes it far easier to transfer to the pin board than the other way around.

    Whether you cut pins or tails first, the skill involved is sawing to the line. My guess on what happened above, you mis-marked the line. Keep practicing.

    As to the Phillies/Mets thing, there are lots of reason to hate the Mets, “because” is just the first of them.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve actually seen that video. I’ve become fairly good at sawing dovetails pins first, but I do like to keep my options open. My problem here is exactly what you said, the line was not marked correctly. I can saw to the line pretty well, but that isn’t worth much when the line is in the wrong location.
      As far as the Mets are concerned, “just because” is as good a reason as any.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  6. David says:

    Which ever you cut first it can vary, Its the next step that must match. I go for Pins first and the Mets!

  7. David says:

    Got distracted about the Mets… When you cut your pins first, do you cut which side is facing you the inside or outside? Does that make sense? From you position are you sawing pins like \ / or the other way?

    • billlattpa says:

      I prefer to saw “inside out” if that makes any sense. Though I’m fine with either way. When it comes to tails first my problem isn’t the sawing, it is the accurate marking. I’m pretty good at sawing to the line, but that means little if the line isn’t in the correct spot.
      But as far as baseball is concerned, I haven’t been watching many games the past few years, no time, but I’ll always be a Phillies fan.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  8. Wesley Beal says:

    Well dangit, I was kind of hoping that what I needed to do now was start cutting pins first, and my dovetails would be that much better. Sounds like it was all about marking and sawing accurately, though.

    I’ve recently become quite impressed by just how inaccurate my sawing is. Starting out I was pleased to get to where I followed the line. Sawing precisely at the line or to the side of it seems to be a skill I still need to develop. The good news: it’s about the easiest thing I can think of to practice at!

    • billlattpa says:

      I can seem to accurately mark my pins when I do it tails first. I’m pretty good at sawing accurately, but as I said to some others, sawing to the line means little if the line isn’t where it needs to be. In truth I can saw pretty good dovetails all day long without changing a thing. I just don’t want to limit myself to only one method. Now that I have some free time and some nice tools I’d like to expand my skills etc. including saw sharpening, and sawing dovetails using an unfamiliar method. It’s all for fun, and thankfully it has been fun
      Thanks.
      Bill

  9. bloksav says:

    I prefer tails first, but I guess no one believes it anymore, since it has been ages since I have dovetailed anything at home.
    For oceangoing woodworking I have found pins first to be the easiest method due to the normally awkward work holding.

    I can’t quite understand the importance of which team is the 2nd best? Everyone on this ship knows that the Minnesota Twins are No 1 (I hope I won’t be banned from you blog now).

    But as it happens, Everton is my favourite English team in football.

    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      I hadn’t sawn any dovetails in at least a year, so I decided that now was a good time to start up again. I’ve sawn a set 5 nights in a row with good results, so I changed it up a bit and went tails-first. Obviously from the photo you can tell my marks were off, and that has always been my problem with tails-first, accurate transferring of the cut lines. Pins first I have no issues, tails first it always seems I’m off by a saw kerf. I need to work on it, because I have little experience when it comes down to it.

      So the Twins are the most popular team at sea? I don’t see many Twins games, being that they are in the American League and the Phillies and Mets are National League divisional rivals.

      As far as football, if I had to pick a team to support it would be Liverpool, but I enjoy watching the Premier league whenever I happen to get a chance, but it is not on regular television here, so I catch a match when I can usually at odd times during the night.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  10. Andrew Wilkerson says:

    So if the line was not in the right place then why? If you’re off by a saw kirf that must mean you cut on the wrong side of the line. Did you mark with a blunt pencil or did you use a knife to transfer the tails to the pins? Just trying to figure out what went wrong. A saw kurf gap is a lot! Correct use of a fine knife is essential if the gap is too narrow for a pencil. I can see how easy it is for the knife to drift. Especially on end grain. The first pass of the knife needs to be spot on and light, with mainly side pressure not downward. Otherwise the next pass will just follow the first. I’m not as quick as Paul Sellers who does it in 2 strokes. I usually fiddle a lot more and get in close to make sure. This marking is they key. On larger gaps a pencil works better imo. Less likely to drift. Usually I mark with knife then highlight with a mechanical pencil in the groove. Otherwise I have trouble seeing the knife line.

    • billlattpa says:

      I used a knife to mark the line in this case and sawed to “split” the knife mark rather than leave it. Just a case of inexperience with the tails first method.
      Thanks
      Bill

  11. Andrew Wilkerson says:

    I have learned how to spell Kerf now, sorry

  12. Brian says:

    I saw my dovetails tail first. I tried pins first to save a miscut a couple weeks ago. It turned out ok but I’m definitely a tails first guy. It’s just whatever you get comfortable with.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ll likely always prefer pins first, but I at least want to say that as somebody who can saw the joint with both methods. I at least want to become competent at it before I dismiss it.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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