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.
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.
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:
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.
Over the years I have written many times about how cabinetmakers, and just about all craft workers, were paid by piecework. This was very true in the UK and marginally true in the US. The slum workers documented by Jacob Riis were paid by piecework. Workers bought materials from wholesalers, usually on credit, and delivered them complete, done at so much per piece. In the cabinetmaking world, even as early as the late 18th century, there were published price guides detailing how much a crafts-person got paid for particular tasks, although except in the best shops these prices were routinely discounted.
Whole trades were organized like this. The chairmakers at High Wickham, for example, divided the tasks of making a chair into over 40 jobs, each paid a different rate. In order to make a decent living, workers had to specialize otherwise they could not get fast enough and the tool requirements grew unaffordable. All these people were considered independent and were paid by the piece and charged for bench rental, assistance, materials, heat, and even electricity after it was introduced into the shops. Rates were determined - in the higher-end industries, and by better firms - by negotiation with representatives of the craftsman (in many cases, unions). The formulas could be mindbogglingly complicated. Lower-end firms simply didn't pay the union rates and had lower fees. In good times, when labor was scarce, there might be a bonus on top of all this. In bad times, when labor was hungry, rates would be discounted. Pricing in the London Book of Prices didn't change from its publication in 1811 until at least 1860, mostly because there wasn't much inflation and there was also lots of pressure to keep wages down, but also because rate changes over time were done as multipliers from the basic rate. The published rates were also prone to lots of abuse - discounts, arbitrary charges, bringing in outsiders so that established craftspeople could not get enough work. Prior to the invention of machines, skilled labor could fight back. It's not an accident that craft unions were the first unions that had any power, even as early as the 18th century. Craft unions also pioneered insurance for injury, work stoppage, and loss of tools. (Tools were stamped with the owners name for insurance requirements).
The trend toward wages based upon time rather than the completed piece came about as more and more industries mechanized. If in order to produce something you needed labor, a piecework wage to a craftsperson who brought their own tools and ways of working (within certain bounds) was the norm. As machinery and capital investment became more important, skilled labor was less important and a day wage for a machine minder became the norm.
Payday, in cash, was on Saturday. In many trades the craftsmen took Sunday off and then Monday, the theory being that they needed extra time to sleep off the weekend drinking. But St. Monday as the "holiday" was called also was a call to independence. If you could work hard Tuesday through Saturday and make your production quota, why should the independent worker show up on Monday? By World War II most of these practices had died out or had been banned, mostly because whole craft industries collapsed. For example, when the chair-making industry in High Wycombe collapsed, it didn't mean people didn't want chairs; rather, the public just wanted different type of chairs, and the craft system could not adapt to them. New factories, built outside the old world of craft emphasized capital and machines over tradition and in many cases were built far from the old centers of craft. The piecework tradition was broken.
The important thing to understand about these working arrangements is that nominally the craftsman was independent and had total responsibility for quality of production, tools, and equipment (such as it was). What they didn't have was any ability to individually negotiate price or claim any responsibility of the company for continuation of work, a good reference, insurance, or vacation.
Does this sound like Uber? or any company in the new "sharing" economy? It should. And what we learned over the past centuries is that when you have individuals with no real control over the working conditions, and a company that no commitment to its workforce, it will end badly. In the case of the piecework crafts, eventually it turned out that massive spending on capital and mass production made the individual redundant, and a coherent unskilled workforce working on an assembly line was far more economical. Recently Uber arbitrarily lowered the rates it pays its New York City drivers and is investing millions in the technology of self-driving cars to replace thousands of "independent" drivers. Customers love Uber (and Lyft, Gett, Via, etc.) because they make hailing a cab a lot easier than the often dismal NYC taxi experience and most of the labor and work issues don't effect the customer.
Is there any difference between a 19th century Sheffield grinder renting a wheel from a workshop owner and a web designer renting a seat from WeWork or any of the other co-working spaces?
I mention all of this because when someone talks to me in glowing terms about the new job-creating "sharing economy," the phrase doesn't conjure up in my head hipster kids (anyone under 37) doing cool stuff when they want to but still having time to go mountain climbing. I think more of hordes of smart, well educated individuals working round the clock on some project until they either burn out or their employer loses their funding. And I think of Jacob Riis; I think of St. Monday; and I think that in two hundred years we are back were we started from.
First of all, thanks to everyone who met us in Amana for Handworks 2017, and to Jameel and Father John of Benchcrafted for putting on another great event.
Thanks as well for the great reception our poster has gotten. For it I have to thank Tim, TFWW's designer, and Kate, our poster designer. And I want to thank our favorite woodwright for this photo.
I constantly get asked which plane is which, and while our limited edition poster on plane spotting has some basic profiles (and get the poster while we still have some - it's a limited edition and we are almost out), I thought it might be worthwhile to give you some links on how to do serious plane spotting.
Most of these sites don't go into the minutia of different versions of the same tool, but some sites do. If you're spotting planes because you want to use them, the most important aspect of plane spotting is figuring out if the version of an old tool you are about to get has the right features.
For an overview of wooden planes, including illustrations of just about every permutation of wooden planes, John Whelan's book is the way to go. If on the other hand, you want to get more information on the dates and manufacturer of a wooden plane you already own, then Guide To The Makers of American Wooden Planes (temporarily sold out) is the way to go.
As we head off to Handworks 2017, I find myself really looking forward to the feeling I have had at the two previous Handworks show, namely, being part of a community.
In a way, it's not a shock that the marvelous tool show that Jameel, Father John and the whole Handworks team have developed should inspire such a feeling. After all, we assemble together from all parts of the country, diverse in our backgrounds, political views and other interests, but united in our great appreciation and involvement in woodworking and hand tools. For the time we are together, our unity and sense of purpose is evident.
Surprisingly, lately I have been feeling a sense of community from a less obvious (to me, anyway) source: Instagram. Tools for Working Wood's Instagram account was built up by thirtysomething TFWWers, visual artists who were already on Instagram. Initially Instagram participation seemed like one more item on a Things To Do list, so I wasn’t sold. But more recently I’ve been surprised how much I’ve enjoyed playing - both as a exhibitor and as a viewer.
Look! There’s a beautiful piece of furniture handcrafted in Australia. Look! Flowers and produce from Hepzibah Farms, the Talledega, Alabama farm owned by Charlie, TFWW’s very first employee. Look, there’s an amazing guitar crafted by our customer. Look, a new Lost Art Press book. A new tool, a new cabinet, a new celebrant of our ancient craft of woodworking.
By giving me a chance to see their work, and by tipping their hats - with “likes,” comments, and questions - to my news, we establish community.
Over the next couple of days some of us with come full circle, as Instagram friends meet in person for the first time at Handworks -- and real-life admirers become Instagram followers. These actions will add a welcome new dimension to our relationships, but fundamentally we already have something important in place: a shared sense of community.
The picture above is of a miniature toolkit and other items by Bill Robertson, who showed off some of his work at Handworks 2015. One of the nation's foremost miniaturists, he works to dollhouse scale so that lathe is only a few inches long. Everything Bill makes actually works - which is totally amazing. I am looking forward to seeing him again this week.