The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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A dovetailed box, and a tool to boot…

This past weekend I had planned on getting in a fair amount of woodworking. The weather forecast was looking good, with relatively warm temperatures that would help to melt the blizzard of 16′. Thursday night rolled around and I wasn’t feeling so hot. Friday morning I did something I rarely do; I called out of work. Saturday I wasn’t feeling so hot either, but two things happened that turned out to be fortuitous. Firstly, the tap wrench I ordered from Amazon arrived, and secondly, a friend of a friend gave me an old Superior crosscut saw that was in reasonably good shape. Those two developments spurred me into the garage to see what I could do.

The first thing I decided to attempt was to build one of the “Paul Sellers” dovetailed boxes that I had mentioned in a prior post. I had some scrap wood that I had prepped which was basically ready to go. I stuck strictly (okay, pretty strictly) to the videos I had watched: using all hand tools and sawing the dovetails tails first. Some of you may remember my disastrous attempt at tails first dovetails a few weeks ago. This time I did much better, but there was one speed bump.

I grudgingly admit that gang sawing is a real advantage…

On one of the tail boards I noticed a very slight crack nearly smack in the middle of one of the tails. (the next box will be made with some decent boards) It was very fine and almost looked like a pencil mark. I didn’t think anything of it until I did the test fit. The joint was snug, as it should be, but when I knocked the box apart for glue up the little crack became a split about two inches long. I didn’t panic, or put my fist through the wall, I just sawed three inches from each board, re-sawed the tails, and thankfully they fit snugly in the pin boards I had already sawn. I had hoped to make it an all hand tool operation, but the bottom board needed to be re-sawn as well, so I reluctantly ran it through the table saw and got dust all over my wife’s car. I glued up the assembly, set it aside to dry, and turned my attention to something I hadn’t planned on in the least.

My first “Sellers” dovetailed box. Hardly perfect, but not too shabby for my first attempt…

After cleaning up the glue and a light sanding. Joints are pretty tight and the box was surprisingly perfectly square…

Last week I had mentioned the Lee Valley (Veritas) Spoke Shave kit I had purchased more than a year ago. I decided to give it a crack now that I had all of the necessary components to get going. I started by milling up a piece of maple to the specified size using the table saw and my jack plane. I then turned to the instructions for the procedure. As I had mentioned in another post, the instructions were not overly complicated, but they weren’t overly clear either, and the sequence of steps was not, in my opinion, laid out very well. I marked the blank as indicated, used the drill press to bore out the holes, and then came to the somewhat nerve wracking step of tapping out the threads. I had nothing to worry about, however, as that step was happily straightforward.

One of the tapped and threaded holes bored…

On a side note, I have a drill press that was given to me more than 12 years ago. As far as drill presses go it is nothing special, and I don’t say that in a mean-spirited way. But things are funny. Not long after I received the drill press my mom’s husband gave me something called a “drill press vise” which I promptly put on the same shelf in my garage where I keep the paint, and I hadn’t considered it since. When it came time to bore the holes in the spoke shave blank I was wondering what I could use to not only hold the blank perfectly still, but allow me to move it without taking it out of registration. More than twelve years after the fact that vise popped into my head, I used it, and it worked brilliantly.

Continuing forward, I beveled the front edge 4 degrees using a block plane (as the instructions said to do) and scribed out the recess for the shavings to escape. The instructions recommended using a hand saw to make a series of kerfs, whacking them out with a chisel, and cleaning it all up with a paring chisel and a file, so that is what I did. That sequence also went pretty smoothly. I then had my first hiccup. The iron needed to be mortised into the spoke shave to fit flush. I achieved a perfect fit on one side, moved to the other side, had a minor slip, and left a little gap. It doesn’t matter in the least concerning functionality, it just bothers me knowing that it’s there.

Escapement sawn out, front bevel in place…

The next step was fitting the iron to the adjustment hardware. Once again this was a bit nerve wracking, but it went smoothly. I was very impressed at the quality of the threads, as the hardware tapped into it very smoothly but solidly. The iron fit well, and I was able to take shavings on both walnut and maple easily. I left it at that, as it was getting late. The last construction step is to add the brass wear strip, and that step will likely be the most challenging, as the wear is fitted into 1/16 inch deep “dovetails”, counter-bored, then screwed and filed flush. It involves making a filing jig and doing some careful fitting. Thankfully the kit includes enough brass to make a second wear strip in case the first is damaged or miss filed.

Iron fitted flush and hardware installed…


So if all goes well I will hopefully have a new and fully functioning spoke shave by the end of next weekend. If not, I have a few more pieces of maple that will serve as blanks to start again. As far as that Superior hand saw I mentioned. I removed the blade and hardware and got it cleaned up nice and shiny. I did not get around to cleaning up the handle just yet. In any event, I won’t be posting any photos or writing about that process anyway. The most you may get is an “after” photo, because I can’t imagine anybody wanting to read the details of me scrubbing clean a saw blade, and I don’t want to subject anybody who is nice enough to read this blog to that drudgery. I’m a woodworker, not a sadist.

For the sake of my saw

Last night I entered my garage not for the sake of dovetails, but for the sake of my saw. As I’ve been striving to become a better woodworker by doing the little things, saw-sharpening has been one area that I’ve neglected over the past few years. For the record, I don’t think you need to be a great saw sharpener to be a great woodworker, but I do think the ability to sharpen your saw from time to time is something that every woodworker should be at least competent at the task. So for the past few months I’ve been attempting to sharpen all of my saws.

Luckily for me, the results so far have been good. I have sharpened two rip saws, a cross-cut panel saw, and an old Craftsman back saw. I can say with complete honesty that every saw I sharpened has improved, in particular my Sandvik rip saw, which now works wonderfully. The only saws I have not sharpened are my Veritas carcass saw and Veritas dovetail saw, that is until a few days ago. Well, I actually didn’t sharpen the carcass saw yet, but I did sharpen the dovetail saw, but it wasn’t until last night that I actually used the saw in a practical application. So keeping in the spirit of experimentation, I sawed one set of dovetails with my Spear and Jackson backsaw, and the other set with the newly sharpened Veritas. Also, my marking knife was recently sharpened as well, for the record. The long story short is that the newly sharpened saw performed beautifully. The dust was fine, and the kerfs were crisp.

I took a photo of each set to compare the two, but both sets look pretty identical. My phone camera is nothing special, and fine detail is not its strong suit. So to really see what I’m talking about you would really need to see the cuts in person. I hope you can just trust me when I say that the second set sawn with the freshly sharpened saw turned out much crisper. The only disappointment was the horrible board I’m using, which is chipped and dented. The poor board notwithstanding, the joint is nice and tight.

This board is beat up and chipped, and the pins have some dings, but you can see how tight and crisp the joint is. I tried to erase the pencil lines but ended up making them worse. The “before” picture looks very similar so just take my word for it that this set is better.

After taking the steps and finally getting up the courage to sharpen my “fine” saws, for the first time in quite a while I feel like I’ve really gotten better. You could say that the maybe I am becoming better at sawing, and the sharpened saw has little to do with it. I don’t think so, though, because two years ago I was sawing some pretty nice dovetails with the very same saw, which at that time had only been sharpened at the factory. It is now sharper than it ever has been, and the first set of dovetails I cut with it turned out pretty nicely, even on a mucked up board. In this case, the saw made all the difference.

That’s better.

I went in my garage this afternoon after work to get in a little tool maintenance on a dreary day. Since I’ve been practicing sawing dovetails whenever I get a chance, I decided to sharpen a few saws and hone a few chisels while I was at it.

The other day I posted about the virtues of having a leg vise on your woodworking bench. I like to think I made a pretty strong case, but there is one thing I forgot to add: A leg vise can also be used as a saw vise. The wide face and deep offer both clamping power and room to spare. I simply use two scrap boards on each side of the saw, clamp it into the vise, and go to town. There is a drawback; you either have to stoop or sit down so do the filing, and considering I don’t like to stoop if I can’t help it I use a stool, though I would prefer to stand, unlike Wesley Beal ;).

Let’s see a face vise easily do this…

I sharpened my dovetail saw and my rip saw, as well as honed a few chisels. But I still had the bad taste in my mouth of the hideous tails-first dovetails I cut  the other day, so I  decided to do something about it.

Because I like to think I’m pretty good at sawing through dovetails, I decided on yet another different approach, I decided to saw left handed. I’ll let everybody in on a little secret about Mr. Confused; I am what is known as ‘Cross-Dominant’

Cross-dominance isn’t a preference for certain clothing, it is just means that I favor my left hand for certain tasks, my right for the other. For instance, I throw with my left hand and write with my right hand. I shoot a rifle left-handed, play a guitar right handed, and shoot a basketball left-handed. But when it comes to woodworking I favor my right hand. I saw, plane, and hammer with my right hand. In fact, I can’t think of one woodworking task where I favor my left hand.

This wasn’t always the case. When I was a kid I would likely have sawn or hammered something with my left hand. For whatever reasons as I’ve gotten older I prefer doing things right-handed more and more. Perhaps that is because I no longer play organized sports, and it was only when playing sports that my left-handedness came to the forefront. And for the record, cross-dominance offers no real significant advantage in life that I know of, though it may explain why I’m a decent musician and why I can type like the devil.

In any event, what brought this little experiment on is an odd little quirk I have when sawing dovetails. I’ve always had trouble with sawing the tail on the far left of the board. I can’t really explain why, but it has always been the case. I can saw a board with ten tails on it, and the far left saw cut always gives me grief, whether I saw it last, first, or somewhere in the middle. My idea was to saw just that cut with my left hand to see if it improves. Instead, I decided to try the whole joint left-handed.

Strangely enough, I had almost no problems using my left hand, and it felt fairly natural after a few seconds. The joint turned out pretty nicely as well, only minimal gaps and a nice snug fit. And though I don’t see any real advantage to sawing with my left hand, that far left kerf was a bit easier.

Left-handed dovetails, pencil lines look like gaps, but I assure you they are not…

The next time I get in a little practice I will likely be sawing with my right hand again, but I think I may try to saw just that far left kerf left-handed again. Whether or not it is just a mental thing, or the fact that the angle is physically easier to saw with my left hand, or a little bit of both, it seemed to work, and it seems worth working at.

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

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.

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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