Friday, February 11, 2011

Half Blind Dovetails

Dovetails have become the so-called mark of craftsmanship and there is lots of information out there about them.  Let's face it, it's a classical joint and its use has been traced to ancient Egypt.  As the name implies, it's shaped like the tail of a dove and is traditionally found on drawers and carcass construction.  It's always been a goal of mine to achieve some kind of mastery hand cutting this joint -- maybe even an obsession!  For this restoration project I chose to use it even though I won't charge for my time to make it.  Partly because of the challenge and also, for the time period of that table it would have been dovetailed.  Thought I may as well use this as an opportunity to go through my method, one that's gleaned from many articles and web searches.

Lay Out
 First of all is the lay out of the joint.  On this drawer the angle of the tails are 1 to 6.  My preferences are to cut both sides of the drawer at the same time, saves having to do the lay out twice.  I also prefer to use a marking knife and then use a pencil to show the line better.  A trick here is to sharpen the pencil to an almost chisel like point so it rides in the marking knife track.

Coping out the Waste

There are a couple of schools of thought about how to remove the waste between the tails.  My preference is to use a coping saw rather than using chisels to remove it all.  Of course there are a couple of schools of thought on that as well -- coping saw or fret saw.  Well, as for me, I'd rather cope it.  Once that's done it's a matter of using chisels to pare down to the lines and clean up the corners where the tail and shoulder meet.

Lay out for Sockets

Once you're satisfied with your tails, the next step is to lay them out on the drawer front to locate the pins.  When I say socket I'm referring to the area between the pins that the tail fits into.  The plane that is laying on it's side provides a steady surface to lay the side piece on, it's checked with a try square to make sure it's in line with the front and then marked out.  In this instance, I had already painted the front of the drawer black which made it a little difficult to see where to cut.  I tried to use a white pencil and it was so-so!  At this point it's a matter of using a chisel and a mallet to remove that waste after cutting as much as possible with a dovetail saw.

Web Trick

I apologize for the fuzziness of this picture but I wanted to share a trick I learned about for helping to pare the web of the socket out.  The web is that small section of the drawer front that stays in a half blind dovetail.  What you do is take a piece of wood that is the same thickness as the web and use that to support your chisel while you pare it level.  In this case I used a 1/4" piece of MDF for that -- works great!

One Side Done
Here is one side of the completed drawer.  Must admit this is one of the better ones I've done.  In this picture you can see a new tool made by Lie-Nielsen that I basically purchased just for this project.  It's a 3/8", fishtail chisel and is excellent for paring the inside of the socket where a straight chisel just won't fit.  You may recall my experience with breaking one of my Japanese skew chisels, one fishtail does the work of a right & left pair of skew chisels.  The back is perfectly flat to make paring a breeze.

Another part of the ongoing dovetail discussion among woodworkers is that some say it's quicker to cut the dovetails by hand then to set up a router and jig to do it.  There are other ways to make a well constructed drawer using a tongue and dado joint cut on the table saw.  I kept a stop watch going and to do the entire drawer took me about 88 minutes.  Setting up the table saw with a dado cutter, making test cuts, then breaking it down could probably have been done in half the time.  I must admit though, the second board took me about half the time of the first one so with more experience I'm certain I'll get quicker.  I guess it all depends on how you like to do your work, for me; I'll take the quietness of chisel and mallet over the roar and dust of a router and table saw any day.

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