When I was first studying woodworking, I was taught that the Ancients (any cabinetmaker in the 18th or 19th centuries, but mostly the 18th century) would use really narrow pins as a decorative touch and also to show off their skill.
In the 1990s it became fashionable to use a fret saw to remove the waste between tails. This led me to the following questions:
Did anyone use fret saws in the 18th century to remove waste between tails?
Is there another reason for narrow pins?
Some baseline facts that would argue against the idea that fretsaws were traditionally used to remove waste:
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, fretsaw blades were hand made, usually by the craftsman using them. Marquetry and inlay makers started the day by making a blade. It would make no sense for a run-of-the-mill apprentice cabinetmaker to use a fragile, hand-made fret saw blade to remove waste. Moreover, blind dovetails, which of course are very common on drawers and things, do not lend themselves to having the waste sawn out.
No matter how you remove your waste, you want a clean chiseled baseline. The main reason for removing the waste with a saw is so that afterwards you can just put your chisel on the scribe line and push. The chisel will cut true and perfect. If you don't saw out the waste (with a fret or coping saw), when you chisel straight down on the scribe line, the mass of wood behind the bevel will push the chisel forward and past the scribe line. I was taught a simple and elegant solution: just start chiseling a hair in front of the scribe line and then stop when the chisels moves onto the scribe line.
I should note that I don't have anything against using a fret or coping saw to remove waste. But I am postulating is that in the 18th century it doesn't seem likely that this was done. Times of course have really changed. Today we not only have inexpensive fret saw blades that work well in thicker wood, we also have flush toilets and the option to use both modern conveniences, or one, or neither: it's up to you.
If you chisel your waste out and you use narrow pins, the narrowness is dictated by the smallest chisel you own. Since there are many examples of dovetails with pins that taper to a point, it is hard to believe that chiseling out was practical. Also, if you have ever tried it when the pin was narrow, you know that the waste just clogs up the space. It wedges in place and makes the task a slog.
Here is what I have been doing for the past couple of years: After I cut the tails out, I waste out the material between the tails by sawing straight down with my dovetail saw. This quickly clears enough material so that chiseling to the scribe line is easy. I need just two tools - a saw and one narrow chisel.
On soft wood, a thicker, less expensive saw works very well. You just clear the waste in fewer strokes - just the thing for an apprentice. But as one works in harder wood, the thinner kerf is easier and faster to push accurately and makes more sense.
As far as I know, there isn't a historical record to prove or disprove my theory, although maybe this blog will shake some informed comments. I do know, however, that this method is FAST. For a professional 18th century cabinetmaker, especially an apprentice grinding out drawers, it's efficient.
With narrow pins, you get wide tails. Drawers are mostly blind dovetails - you can't saw them anyway - but it's a lot faster to have narrow pins and wide tails than it is to have even sized pins and tails, because the pins get wasted away with the saw cuts. It's just as much work to remove the waste to fit a wide tail as it is to remove the waste to fit a narrow tail. You just need a wide chisel to match.
A few blogs ago I promised a class in hand tools. Two sessions of my dovetailing class are now on the event schedule BLOG,(973,here) and here. My goal is to teach hand tool usage as a practical thing, not magic. The tools we will use are very, very simple. I'm not trying to show you how you can make one prefect dovetail given enough time and equipment; I'm trying to show you that training your hands to cut straight isn't that hard. It's just like any sport that requires hand-eye coordination. We start at the bottom, and develop hand skill via a combination of simple technique, feedback on what we are actually doing, and practice. My goal is that by the end of the class every student will be producing credible work and be on the road to do greater and more complex work as their skills mature. Just in time for their 18th century apprenticeship.
You can register for the class here.
Time flies when you are having fun! Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my very first blog entry. I started my blog because everyone was doin' it, doin' it and we didn't want to be left out of the blogging trend. Also, we were about to move to Brooklyn from Manhattan and there was a lot of news to report. Over the years I have written on just about every woodworking topic I could fathom. I try not to write about the same thing again and again, but as we all know I do it anyway.
It's been a tremendously rewarding experience for me on several levels. Of course I think the blog helps drive traffic to the website, but on a personal level it's made me a much better writer, gave me an excuse to investigate things I would not normally feel justified to do, and - most importantly - when I write about a subject, I get to think about it in depth, and learning more is very rewarding. It makes me happy when people come up to me and tell me that they read my blog. If you write and people read your stuff - it's a perfect world, and what more can you ask for.
The biggest problem I have today is that my time is limited and I don't have the luxury of research that I used to. That being said, I like to think woodworking is an broad subject and I've only scratched the surface. I would be remiss it telling you that up to a few years ago I pretty much wrote every word of the blog, with help from Sally, my wife, to make sure the grammar wasn't embarrassing. However in the past few years Sally has come to the rescue on more than one attempt and ghosted a fair number of entries. I think the rule of thumb is, if the spelling is good and the writing compelling, it's a good bet that she had a real hand in authorship. I don't feel bad about this - I feel wonderful that I get such support from my family. Nobody works in a vacuum, and magazines have staff.
I do have a request: if you have a favorite entry, or a post you remember fondly, I would love to find out about it. Maybe we will do a "Greatest Hits" page.
Thanks again for all your support.
PS Even as I look back to 10 years of blogging, I'm looking forward to July 29th, when master luthier Ian Kelly will be visiting our Brooklyn showroom and carving Spanish Cedar into the neck of a guitar. He'll be using a Gramercy Tools rasp, a spokeshave and sandpaper, and of course his own skill. We hope folks in the NYC area will stop by and you are all invited! Ian will be there from 1 - 5 pm.
My mother bought this bookcase sometime in the 1940's, I think. It was sitting in my parents living room for over 40 years before they downsized and gave it to me. I brought it to the shop because my apartment already has too much stuff but I liked having it around. In our former location I had an office and had room for the bookshelf and a need for a place for my tool books, but at our current location I've struggled to put it to good use.
I still love the bookcase but I admit it's now in the way.
What continues to charm me about the bookshelf? I'm old enough to remember Scandinavian modern BI -- that is, Before Ikea. I had a Wim & Karen bed. Blond wood, simple and elegant lines. Nowadays the Scandinavian look has been co-opted by Ikea - though to be fair Ikea has also rummaged extensively in Japanese and other nationalities' aesthetics - so much so that some people assumed that the pricey Wim & Karen furniture was Ikea's. But Ikea stuff never had the details of this bookcase.
I love the carved in recessed handles of the glass doors.
I love the glass top. Were the mod-century owners expected to put a highball glass on their bookcases? Of course. No wonder they needed a glass top.
Historically, this piece dates from the early days of "modern furniture". Unlike a modern piece, everything is solid. The shelves are pretty thick but chamfered at the bottom to give the appearance of a lighter design. That's a good trick and worth remembering. Since this is the early days the shelves, pins are turned metal, not stamped out.
I find the details at the bottom - a base that mimics the main carcass but is upside down, very interesting, and the large miters at the corners perfect for a peice that is modern in look but not really in construction.
The bookcase is in pretty good shape, albeit with a lot of nicks and dents. So it might need some refinishing. The glass is in very good shape and moves smoothly on its track, which of course is the key. If you are interested in having it for yourself, $199 or Best Offer takes it away. (Actually, you will need to take it away. We will not ship it though we will help you pack the glass for safe transit.) If it doesn't move in a week or two, off it goes to a charity thrift store and later into a new home of admirers.
In other news - this Saturday is my free sharpening class and on Saturday July 29th master luthier Ian Kelly has volunteered to come to the shop and Carving a Guitar Neck for us and anyone who want to see how it's done. Lutherie is one of the most interesting branches of woodworking where everything is a combination of science, craft, & sculpture. So that's going to be real exciting and it's free.
|Back in the 1980's, when I took my first class in how to cut a dovetail, we used the following tools: saw, mallet, chisels, pencil, marking gauge, sliding bevel, square, and some clamps. We didn't use a dovetail gauge but set the sliding bevel to the appropriate ratio. We laid out the entire joint with a knife and pencil. I was taught to chop the waste out with a chisel - sawing the waste out wasn't common at that time. The lessons were slow and careful. The hardest part was sawing straight. |
More modern instruction might add a fretsaw to the list of tools for removing the waste.
I have two problems with this approach. In the late 18th century thin, fragile, fretsaw blades were hand made, usually by the craftsman. They were not tools you would use for the rough work of chopping waste. The combination square hadn't been invented but wooden squares were common. Pencils not so much. Tools were expensive, and while an apprentice would use the master's tools in the beginning, as you can see in the Joiner and Cabinetmaker, written in 1839, the idea of using lots of specialist tools wasn't common.
I also cannot imagine that the step-by-step instruction that we have today were used. Apprentices learned by paying attention, and mimicking their betters.
In a typical blind dovetail drawer, the pins would have been very narrow and the tails wide. While some folks have written that this was a style and done for aesthetic reasons, I disagree. If you make your tails wide enough, and with tiny pins, it's really easy to waste away the bulk of the waste with a few extra cuts of the dovetail saw. (Note: in the picture above the pencil lines are just there to make sure I cut the tails in the right direction. The lines aren't guide lines for the saw - or straight). Chopping with a narrow chisel to the line then finishes up the job. Regarding the drawer fronts, with the sockets for the tails you can't use a fretsaw for much anyway; a wide chisel makes quick work of the waste. Chopping a space for a tail in a blind mortise is about the same amount of work no matter what the size of the tail.
Dovetailing drawers was considered junior work.
A question: By trying to emulate the sparse 18th century toolkit of an apprentice or journeyman, and cutting out some of the extra tools and steps, would it be easier to teach a novice how to do this basic joint?
The answer would seem to hinge on the ability to consistently saw straight coupled with accurate layout. Everything else is pretty easy. But perhaps all activities needing hand eye coordination are similar? Golf, Basketball, Ping-Pong: All of these sports are about practice, not specific instructions for throwing a ball in each individual case. Once you master the basic hand motions, instruction can make you more efficient, and planning can make you more effective.
Back to the workshop.
If I asked you to fill up a glass with water and walk across the room with it, it wouldn't be a big deal. Humans as a group tend to try to stay level and straight. The same thing is true with woodworking. As a test, I asked some people in our store - both people who aren't woodworkers and those who are - to try to cut straight. We didn't mark out anything. The cut needed to be square on the top and sides. In the photo above, the marked cuts are by one person who had never done this before. The first cut was with a gent's saw. It's off a little. The next cuts were with our dovetail saw and they were spot on. Finally, the last cut was made with the gent's saw, but with a little instruction on how to hold the saw. It's dead on too. (The other cuts in the wood were made by different people in the past weeks mostly to test saws and don't have anything to do with this experiment.)
I'm wondering if the difficulty beginners have in cutting dovetails is that we think too much. The adult education tradition for woodworking comes out of school instruction, often teaching a roomful of students who are mandated to be there. This is very different from teaching a small group of adults who WANT to be there.
I am working hard on offering a class in basic joinery that relies on amplifying skills that we all already have - like carrying a glass of water without spilling.
So far the class tool kit consists of a saw, a square, a marking knife, a marking gauge, and a chisel or two. I honestly believe that our dovetail saw makes it easier for someone to saw straight, but I also don't want to require everyone who takes our class to buy one of our saws if they don't want to. But a gent's saw - which is the next easiest thing - is affordable. I'm still working on the schedule, pondering whether it should be just a class in cutting a dovetail or a series of classes over several Saturdays (or weekday evenings) in which we grind, sharpen, learn to saw, and then make a dovetailed box.
By the way our last two all-dayclasses, Modern Furniture Construction - Making a Kitchen Cabinet and a Building a Zig-Zag Chair went great and we are doing a second section on Modern Furniture Construction - Making a Kitchen Cabinet on July 8th. There a couple of seats still open click here for details.
On July 15th, I am repeating my popular free class Sharpening 101. You are all invited.
School’s out for many kids, and we were delighted to host one young woodworking enthusiast this week. He was just 7 years old, but clearly loved woodworking -- and clearly understood the value of hands-on instruction.
I'm also thinking of last minute Father's day gifts because the window for actual tool delivery is pretty small. So consider the gift of classes. Learning how to make something with the tools you have is easily as useful and having the tool in the first place.
I’ve certainly bemoaned the loss of shop class many times before on this blog, so I don’t think I’ll need to flog that horse again. Ditto the loss of woodworking classes at local YMCAs (and I learned woodworking at the YWCA that housed the Crafts Students League before the building met its inevitable end - NYC’s “highest and best use - as condos). With many traditional options gone, prospective woodworking students need to take advantage of whatever opportunities to learn woodworking that are available.
To this end, let me suggest a few:
For those in the NYC area, we’re offering Modern Furniture Construction classes with Sebastian Lata. This Saturday, June 17th, is Making a Zig Zag Chair, and another round of Making Kitchen Cabinetry will be offered on Saturday, July 8th. We were very gratified by our students’ satisfaction with the class. As one student wrote, “I just finished the class in Cabinetry and found it highly informative and a day well spent. It is rare to find a practitioner of this caliber sharing real-world knowledge and experience. Highly recommended!”
I’m also resuming free classes. By popular demand (complaint?) I’ll be offering Sharpening 101 on Saturday, July 15th. We have other classes in mind, ranging from hand skills to finishing, and we’re open to requests.
In Brooklyn Makeville Studio has a large calendar of a range of woodworking classes.
But of course not everyone lives close to a physical school.
Consider modern technology’s advantages (while you’re bemoaning changes) and take advantage of Chris Pye’s subscription-only Woodcarving TV. The subscription offers instructional videos for all levels of woodcarvers (including advanced woodcarvers), and the opportunity to ask Chris for personalized advice about your carving. I'm a big fan. Chris he has set up gift certificates on his site too. Prices are all in pounds sterling, but your credit card will do the conversion automatically so it's not a big deal. (Right now 1 pound is equal to about 1.3 US dollars.)
I am rapidly coming up to the ten year anniversary of this blog - wow! - and I expect to be back to more tools, techniques, and interesting wooden stuff in the next weeks.
Happy Father’s Day!
Father’s Day is not only a celebration of fathers, it’s a celebration of fatherhood. For most fathers, this means passing along values and traditions, and for woodworking dads, it means passing along a love of woodworking and craft.
For some dads, this can be done by having kids help along with a project. One of the many benefits of using handtools is how relatively safe they are to use. Woodworkers who (reasonably) hesitate to gin up the chainsaw for a father-child joint venture could consider some supervised work with one of our Flexcut carving sets.
When I was about 8 or 10 I don't remember my father bought be a copy of Whittling and Woodcarving by E. J. Tangerman and fifty years later I still find it inspirational. I should mention that at age 8 or 10 I wasn't skilled enough to do the projects - but fortunately I am now.
Other option: a finishing project. I can speak from personal experience that kids love finishing - and even love watching demonstrations of finishing. “Want to watch the wood! Want to watch the wood!” my then-toddler son shouted when I attempted to turn off a video demonstrating polishing. We sell many finishing supplies that are non-toxic and perfect for a joint project with your kid like shellac and milk paint.
We also sell many books that can help you pass along your love of woodworking to your kids or give you ideas for projects you could do together. Here are some great ones:
For the young (not a project book) Grandpa’s Workshop.
Wood Pallet Projects
Speed Toys for Boys
Kids Crafts - Woodcarving
Kids Crafts - Woodworking
I don’t underestimate the challenge of prying kids away from their phones, but I encourage you to try. The joy of working with your hands and making something of value is worth it!
For older kids and adults we have Roy Underhill's very fun novel Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker!
Of course, we have plenty of great other gifts for fathers. Here are some of our most popular gift ideas:
Hardware Store Saw
Ben & Lois Orford Spoon Carving Tools
Blaklader workwear (& for the bold dad with a hot workshop, the Blaklader work kilt)
The Joiner & Cabinetmaker
For dads in the NYC area
And of course if you don’t know what dad exactly wants, but you know he’d love a woodworking present, there’s always the option of a Tools for Working Wood gift certificate.(We’ll send the certificate via mail or email, in any amount you choose.)
I also wasn't going to mention this because I thought we were sold out but I totally screwed up the count and we have a few Plane Spotting Posters left. A few - under ten. First come first served.
Happy Father’s Day!
|The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.|