The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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I would like to start this post out on a positive note. I’m not a bad woodworker. Remember this, please.

With very little formal training (and not nearly enough practice) I’ve managed to make some pretty nice furniture in the past five years. In fact, my house has far more of my furniture than it does anything else. I’ve also made my own tools on occasion (among these are several bench style planes, a bow saw, a spoke shave, and shoulder plane) which I feel are quite good, in particular when you consider that these tools are basically all “prototypes”. I’m well versed in the fundamentals of joinery; I’m accomplished at sharpening my edge tools and my saws; and I’ve become fairly good at restoring vintage tools.

So why am I giving you my resume’? Here’s why:

I’ve not been woodworking enough lately for my tastes, for reasons I’ve alluded to in other posts. Much of what I’ve been doing is experimenting with small dovetailed boxes a la Paul Sellers (I’m not saying that he has invented these boxes, just that he did a series of videos on their construction). Over the past few weeks I’ve made 4 or 5 of them using some scrap wood. I’ve messed around with different ornamental features, the dovetail lay out, etc. just for the fun of it for lack of a better phrase. This time I decided to make an actual “real” box using some decent wood that I was actually planning on finishing and using. For the record, last week I came close, but the garbage board I used had a split in it, so I chalked it up to another experiment and decided that from now on all of my boxes would be made with quality lumber. So on Friday during my break at work I went to the local lumber yard and picked out some dimensional Poplar to use.

On Saturday morning I did the initial dovetail lay out. Like most woodworkers who make boxes using dovetail joinery, I used a cabinet makers triangle to mark the front, back, and sides of the box. I also took particular care to make the dovetails as symmetrical as possible rather than just closely eyeballing the lay out. I did this using a combination square and a beautiful set of dividers I picked up at my local antique store for a price that was so low that I won’t even mention it here (I checked out what these dividers were selling for on the internet and they are selling for a minimum of 4 times the cost that I paid for them at the store). So with my dovetails accurately marked, I got to work.

The first thing I noticed was that my dovetail saw felt like it was binding a little. I know it is sharp because I sharpened it myself just a few weeks ago. I checked the set and that seemed fine, so I did something that remarkably I haven’t done in 5 years of woodworking; I waxed the saw plate. The difference was dramatic. Not only did my saw cut much more quickly, I was also far more accurate in my sawing. It probably should have dawned on me to try this years ago, but live and learn ( I do sometimes wax saw blades rather than oiling them if I am cleaning or storing them, however). Anyway, to cut to the chase,  I got the joints sawn (tails first of course) and had a very nice fit, easily my best “tails-first” fit to date. In fact, I got a little cocky and decided to see just how symmetrical my joint really was, so I reversed the joint on both ends and happily I had a near perfect fit again. At that point I left it as is and went out to run some errands.

If you look closely you will notice that the cabinet maker’s triangle is reversed. I should have taken a photo of the mistake as well but I’m not a masochist…

Later on the same day I decided to plow the groove for the sliding lid. As some of you may know, a few weeks back I picked up a Record 043 plow plane which I cleaned up and put back to work. The plane works just fine, but my accuracy with it has been hit or miss. So I decided to use my router plane and it’s fence to plow the groove. The good news is that worked just fine, the bad news is something much, much worse.

As I mentioned, before I went out I left the box assembled “backwards”. What I didn’t mention is that before I disassembled the box to check its symmetry I marked the left side of the box interior for the groove, but not the right side. So what do you think I did when I returned? I marked the right side without reorienting the box in the correct position. This left me with one groove on the inside of the box and one on the outside. Rather than thinking, I took the box apart, set up the router plane, and plowed the grooves using the lay out marks. I ended up with two very nice grooves, one on the inside of the box and one on the outside.
The clamping set-up for using the router. Notice the fence attached (apparently a router fence is one of the least used woodworking accessories…

Needless to say I was pretty upset with myself, not only because I was rushing, not only because the mistake was stupid, not only because my hubris led me to attempt something that really didn’t need to be attempted in the first place, but because this box wasn’t just an experiment. I was actually planning on making this one a finished product. I ruined two hours of work because of carelessness, and I ruined a pretty nice little box on top of it. I like to think that I’m a pretty smart guy, but if I was as smart as I think I am I would have plowed out the grooves first, then checked the symmetry of the dovetails. Apparently, I’m not as smart as I think I am.

The good news is I am no longer upset. Thankfully when I was at the lumberyard I picked up enough Poplar to make several boxes. More importantly, I learned from my mistake, and most importantly, I crossed a threshold with sawing dovetails “tails-first”. So this coming weekend I hope to once again have a few free hours for woodworking. I will once again make my dovetail layout as symmetrical as possible, only this time I will not care in the least if they fit together perfectly both ways.



  1. Alex A. says:

    I did something similar last night with the corbels on my trestle table stretcher. Went to the trouble to match grain patter and direction then cut the curve on the wrong end of the piece…..

    • billlattpa says:

      Hopefully it didn’t affect your project too much.

      The thing that bothers me with mistakes such as this is that it is so easily avoidable. If I am going to make an error, I can live with the fact that I simply missed the saw line, or chiseled out too much etc. But most of my mistakes can be chalked up to rushing, or being interrupted, or a combination. I hate to deflect blame, but I was interrupted at least a dozen times in the 90 minutes that I was in the garage on Saturday morning. Then we had to leave, and I had to come back hours later to something that should have been taken care of immediately.
      As I said, in the end it’s my fault. But just once I would like 4 hours of uninterrupted time to woodwork with.

      • Alex A. says:

        We will see when it comes time to use the smother. I’m anticipating some tear out. I could have avoided mine by using a proper shop triangle instead of just lettering the parts.

  2. It’s a shame that the nice purple streak in the wood is going to turn brown. It was streaks like that that first attracted me to poplar.

    • billlattpa says:

      Poplar is probably my favorite wood to dovetail. It compresses, but not overly like pine. And I like sawing the straight grain (but who doesn’t)

  3. bloksav says:

    Hi Bill

    I never knew there was such a thing as a fence for a router plane. Seems like I learned something new today.

    In my memory you had a grooving plane /plow plane of some sorts, but I suppose my memory is playing me a trick.

    Whenever I screw up something I make sure to tell my boys, because they find it fascinating that things don’t always work out as planned for grown ups. For some reason it is comforting for children to know that when e.g. a sketch turns out different than what they had hoped for.

    A good thing that you bought enough wood to make more boxes. I hope the next ones turn out as they should.


    • billlattpa says:

      Hey Jonas.
      My router came with the fence, but I can’t honestly ever remember using it on an actual project.
      I have a plow plane, it is a small Record 043, but I am still getting used to using it. It is a bit small for my hand, but it seems to be a good tool. I just need a lot more practice with it.

      I have to say that this last mistake may have been my worst because it was so easily avoidable. Had it been a mistake made from attempting something that I had never tried before, at least I could have chalked that up to inexperience. This was just plain dumb on my part.

      As you said, I have more wood, and luckily enough the dealer is just a 5 minute drive from my work, so I can go there on my break if need be.

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