The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Through thick and thin

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I’ve been having bad back spasms lately (shoveling 5 cubic yards of wet mulch will do that to a middle aged guy), so I made no attempt to woodwork this past weekend. The good news is I was able to catch up on some blog reading as well as watching some woodworking videos. Considering that I’ve been making a fair share of dovetailed boxes lately, my reading and video watching was centered mainly around the dovetail joint.

For this particular post I have no real desire to touch on the mechanics of the dovetail joint and how it is sawn. However, I briefly want to discuss one aspect of the joints appearance.

For whatever reasons, I took to the dovetail joint fairly quickly. When I first began, it seemed that the hallmark of a really skilled dovetail joint was a very thin pin. So after I developed some consistency in sawing dovetails, I began sawing the joint with thin pins. At some point, however, I stopped. Why? I don’t really know the exact reasons. Because the dovetail joint is first and foremost structural, maybe larger pins, more on par with the tails, looks stronger to my eye. Or maybe it’s just the fact that I don’t really care for the look of thin pins on an aesthetic level. In fact, on most contrasting woods I think they look hideous. But there are some cases such as half blind dovetails in drawer construction where I think they look okay. Otherwise, I’m not a fan.

So, the whole point of this little post is to see what the opinions are of woodworkers who may read this blog. How do you like your dovetail pins, thin, beefy, or somewhere in between? In most woodworking project videos that I’ve seen the thin pin is avoided like the plague. Is there a reason for this? Once again, I’m writing this post because I want to know what other woodworkers think, so if you care to let me know I would appreciate it.

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19 Comments

  1. Greg Merritt says:

    I like a middle of the road type pin. Typically around 3/8″ or so. Thin pins have always seemed wrong to my eye too.

    • billlattpa says:

      For a drawer with through dovetails I do as well. For a large case I like the pins and tails to be nearly symmetrical. I’ve seen larger boxes and even cases constructed with thin pins and it looks too busy to my eye.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  2. I size my pins and tails to the scale of my project. I take into count time frame also. I’m also a hand tool woodworker. I can cut them long or short and I can go wide or narrow. What I’m trying to say is this what looks right to my eye will work not something that is big fat or you need a glass to see it. Think hand and eye !!!

    • billlattpa says:

      Exactly. I just commented to Greg Merritt that for a large case I like the pins and tails to be large and nearly symmetrical, for a small box thinner pins, but not razor thin. I’ve found that sawing them thin is not much of an issue, but they become difficult when it comes to transferring the sawing lines. At the same time, a small box with larger pins/tails gives it a more sturdy appearance, at least in my opinion.
      Thanks!!
      Bill

  3. ausworkshop says:

    That’s so strange. I’ve been thinking the exact same thing for the past week. I’ve been making some dovetails for a Jewelry Chest with 10 drawers.
    I think you may have even liked one of my recent photos on Instagram! I keep looking at my freshly cut tails after spending way too long thinking about what size to make them. I keep changing my mind and started to panic the other day when I thought they didn’t look thin enough, but have slowly come to like them every time I look at them. I just don’t think thin pins look very good on a carcass construction this size. I was busy chiseling away with my 8mm ALDI chisel, I have to do it in 2 steps as the pin space is more like 10mm so I need to move the chisel across each time I make another cut to get those extra couple of mm, I was thinking I should have made it closer to the size of the chisel so things would progress faster but I’ve done that in the past and the edges of the chisel end up marking the joint if I rush, something I almost did even with the extra mm’s.

    I was at a hand tool event over the weekend watching a dovetailing demo and he cut pins first.
    I had to ask so I piped up and said ‘is there any reason you like to cut the pins first?’ He said it’s just what he was taught from the start and has stuck with it and that it makes it much easier to get a pencil in there when marking the tails off the pins, I noticed he had done a nice fine pin and a neat joint so I went home thinking that next time I cut dovetails I might have to try the pin first method again, mainly so that I could get a nice fine pin and still be easy to mark with a pencil. If this Bill guy in the USA cuts them that way and now I see a well respected local cut them that way then perhaps I should change.
    I also remember Rob Cosman promoting the thinnest pins I’d ever seen, I think he’s gone a bit too far with the thin pins at one stage, not sure what he does these days. I remember him showing them to an English craftsman (can’t remember who) and the Englishman did think they looked a bit too thin and I think he may have even said that to Rob. I could tell he really didn’t like them but Rob was promoting them as a sign of craftsmanship.

    So I got home and used my trusty marking knife to mark my already cut tails to my pin board and thought they looked great as is, I’m glad I didn’t make them too thin, but I will keep all this in mind for the next time I make a drawer or box of a smaller size. I can now again see the advantage of cutting pins first, I’ve just got to get better at sawing my tails exactly to the line as these are the cuts I struggle with the most. Doing them first this doesn’t matter.

    One more thing I noticed on the weekend, when he was starting his saw cuts he was starting from the side closest to him, dragging the saw backward a few strokes to start with the handle of the saw downward (hope this makes sense).
    I’m pretty sure that’s what I used to do to start a cut on the front of the board then progress forward away from you. I only changed when I saw Paul Sellers and The Schwarz cut them by starting the saw at the edge furthest away, handle up, like you would if you were cross cutting a board.
    So after all these years I think I may have to yet again do some changes to the way I do things. I think some of the methods I developed in my teens because I didn’t know any better back then got lost along the way as I watched the experts advice and changed my ways. I think I’d be much faster and find things easier if I’d just stuck with what I was comfortable with and got better at it. In these modern times with so much information at our finger tips sometimes you can learn too much for your own good I think. Sometimes it’s better just to go with what you feel comfortable with and ignore all others. But thinking about all this is good exercise for the brain I guess.

    • billlattpa says:

      That was me on Instagram! I’ve slowly come around to Sellers and Schwarz’s style of sawing dovetails. It is nice in the sense that because I was taught to saw them pins first, and lately I’ve been sawing them tails first, I feel more comfortable using either approach. No doubt a professional woodworker or an accomplished amateur who woodworks often has no problem with either method. But when you’re an amateur like me and you only woodwork a few days per month, it’s better to stick to one method, at least for a while.
      I noticed on your instagram account that the case you are currently building the pins are roughly 1/3rd the size of the tails. That is about how I like them for a case of that size. As a case gets larger, I like the pins to become correspondingly larger. However, on a small box, I think less is more. I’ve seen small boxes (lets call small anything 5inches in width or less) with 5 pins. I think that looks too jumbled. Anything of that size I stick with 3 pins and 2 tails, but that is strictly the opinion of an amateur.
      It’s funny, but I didn’t woodwork at all last week, but I’ve probably thought about it more than I have in some time. I guess that is one of the benefits to being injured.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  4. dzj9 says:

    Apart from the aesthetic, there is also a practical reason for the thin pins. Something to do with leaving less end grain exposed and thus preventing seasonal exchange of moisture (which over time leads to the drawer fronts becoming wonky), particularly when coupled with cock beading. A fellow that goes by the name of Jack Plane wrote a nice blog post on the subject of the London-pattern dovetails.

    • billlattpa says:

      For drawer fronts. in particular half blind, I would agree. On a through dovetailed box, however, the thinner pins just leave more of the tail end grain exposed.
      I think they have a time and place, where I would have a problem with them, if you can call it a problem, is that somehow a super thin pin is considered more difficult to saw. I disagree there, if your saw is sharp and has thin set they are no more difficult to saw than anything else. In fact, I used a hacksaw once and it did a great job at it.
      I guess my point in all of this is, I think a greater hallmark of craftsman ship isn’t necessarily the fact that ultra thin pins were sawn, but that the “perfectly” sized joint was used relative to the case size, if that makes any sense.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  5. mbholden says:

    While I like the look of a thin pin, the FWW book on period furniture quoted a builder who said he did like thin pins because they failed. Whilst I have not heard of that being a big issue, the quote has stayed with me and I make my pins larger but still smaller than the tails.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve never heard of the joint failing, but I suppose it could. On a very small box I can see how the thin pin would be more aesthetically pleasing, but I don’t care for the look of very thin pins and large tails, which it seems is the more popular way to saw the joint.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  6. TaDa Man says:

    I am just starting out, and I like the even number ratio philosophy from “By Hand & Eye”. That said, I like pins that are in the range of at least half the thickness of the board for “fine” pins, around 3/4 the thickness for “normal” pins, and the thickness for “heavy duty” pins. I also try to use tail to pin ratios of 1:2, 1:3, or 1:4 which ever has the best balance to my eye. And one last note, I like to use “full pins” at the ends as a default unless a half pin would look more balanced.

    • billlattpa says:

      The ratios you listed I pretty much stick to as well. The only difference being that for a very large case I prefer both the pins and tails to be much closer in size, not exactly identical, but close. I don’t have a specific reason why other than I like how it looks.
      And like you, I will only use full pins on the ends, anything else does not look correct to my eye.
      Thanks!
      Bill

      • TaDaMan says:

        I also do not like semetric pins and tails, they look too mechanical and like fancy box joints to me. I am going to start on a tool chest soon so I will have to give a closer ratio a look. 2:3 might be worth a try on sole test pieces to see if I like the look. More beefy in both directions.

      • billlattpa says:

        The only time I like truly symmetrical dovetails is on small width boards, such as 3/8 in width. Otherwise I prefer the tails to be larger, sometimes by double, sometimes less.
        Thanks.
        bill

  7. Its my understanding that thin pins are an English tradition. Since I’m not English, I like to cut my dovetails in an Italian tradition. My Grandfather came here from Tratino(sp), Italy almost a hundred years ago, which is up by Austria. Several years ago I saw Frank Klaus, an Austrian, perform a dovetail demonstration cutting wide pins first. Hence, that’s why I cut my dovetails pins first with wider dovetails.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve slowly come around to tails first (for some applications at least), though I learned pins first.
      I don’t really have an issue with thin pins. I’ve heard people say that they are more difficult to saw, but I think they are in actuality more difficult to transfer the marks, but to me the sawing portion is really just marginally more difficult.
      For whatever reasons, I just don’t care for the look of the joint. It’s nothing more than a person preference. Also, I knew what you meant concerning Trentino, not that I’ve been there, but I’m a big fan of Hemingway. (the Italian side of my family is from southern Italy for the most part, just FYI)
      Thanks.
      Bill

  8. Trentino, Italy. Couldn’t spell check on my phone. Haha

  9. As long as the joint is not visible, or as was typical not a feature (such as a drawer side) I like dovetails to look like they were cut instinctively, perhaps with the hint of a “defect” or two. I can appreciate thats not right on studio or art pieces but for me it keeps it real.

    • billlattpa says:

      I prefer the structural look, as I think that there is a beauty in joinery to begin with. Perhaps that is why I don’t care for the look of thin pins, as they, to my eye, don’t appear to be structural. At that, I don’t like fancy furniture in general. I won’t deny that there is a time and place for “fancy”, and I’ve always felt that any piece of furniture that is well made has a certain beauty to it. But as far as preferences are concerned, I will stick to the more utilitarian forms myself.
      Your (graying) friend,
      Bill

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