The Dovetail Diaries

The advancement of one man's woodworking skills.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Putting some dovetails in the Dovetail Diaries...

The dovetail joint has been around for over 3000 years.  You would think that we would be used to them by now.  But what other joint commands such awe and strikes so much fear in the heart of an aspiring woodworker as the simple dovetail joint?  Heck, some amateur woodworkers even name their weblogs after them.

Now don't take it the wrong way when I call the dovetail joint a simple joint.  I know that it takes great skill to cut a tight dovetail joint.  Believe me, I know.  But when you inspect the joint it is a simple invention.  Cut the parts, pieces called pins and tails, in two pieces of wood so that an attempt to pull them apart makes the joint tighter.  One could cut a fine example of that joint with only a handsaw and a chisel and, of course, practiced skill.

It seems that there is much money to be made 'improving' on the creation of this joint.  Several companies make boutique dovetail saws that give the user every advantage.  In the past I've tried some 'informal' dovetails in pine with a cheap, flimsy saw.  The results were so abysmal that I decided I would probably never be able to master cutting dovetails by hand.  It was only after committing to building a Shaker side table as part of The Wood Whisperer Guild Build that I purchased a Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw and tried my hand at the joint again.

Fortunately the results were much better this time around.  Was it the saw?  While the saw definitely helped the accuracy, I think it was a confidence that I gained by committing to cut the joint properly.  Of course, a good tool can also inspire the user to step up their game.

You may think that a good dovetail saw is expensive, and I'll admit they are not exactly cheap.  I mean, it's just a saw for crying out loud.  But cutting this joint by hand represented not only a hurdle to jump but, believe it or not, a bargain.

You see, my router is an old Craftsman that belonged to my grandfather and it has a 1/4 inch arbor.  I was going to have to buy a new router jig AND a new router as the router jigs I was considering all required a dovetail bit with a 1/2 inch shank.  Several hundred dollars later I would be able to cut identical dovetails as long as the board was not over 24 inches wide.  The saw would allow me to cut dovetails of varying widths on a board as wide as I could find and for considerably less money.

Am I happy with my decision?  You bet.  I jumped in with both feet and cut my first dovetail joint on my project stock.  No practicing for me.  Actually, I cut the dovetails to secure the top rail to the front legs the week before and they're hidden, so we'll consider those practice.  The second joint on the other side of the drawer looked even better, so much so that I decided to cut through-dovetail joints on the rear corners of the drawer.  Each joint looked better than the one before.

On Saturday my wife and I stopped by the Woodcraft store in Virginia Beach, VA.  My wife picked up a dovetailed drawer corner on display and commented on how good the joint looked.  As I flipped it over I saw an illegible signature on the inside. I could make out that the first name started with an 'R' and the second with a 'C'.  The light bulb clicked on.

Maybe there is something to that 'practice' thing after all.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fixing Split Ends (Epoxy update)

Here's the 'during' photo from Saturday's epoxy fill.  I mixed 60 minute epoxy with black walnut sawdust.

One lesson learned was to use sandpaper to get a finer sawdust than from the table saw.  The sawdust in the epoxy looks rather 'chunky'.

A second lesson is to use fresh epoxy.  This epoxy was some I had lying around and it cured very slowly.  I was concerned that it was not going to cure at all.

I purchased some fresh slow-setting epoxy this weekend and will use it to complete the fill, as the area on the leg bottom did not completely fill because the epoxy was too thick.  I'm thinking that West Systems epoxy, as Marc Spagnuolo used in his 'Fixing A Knot' video, is the proper viscosity to fully fill the void.

I'm hoping the Loctite brand that I purchased at Lowe's will also do the trick.  If not, I'll head over to the local marina and plunk down $60 for a West Systems outfit.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Drawer fronts and miscuts...

This week I'm following with the program and making the aprons and rails for my Shaker end table.  I spent some time in the shop on Saturday and was able to cut them all to the proper size and thickness.  Well almost, but I'll cover that in a little bit.

I decided to cut my tenons with the table saw and clean up the faces with a chisel.  I then used my Lie-Neilsen dovetail saw to notch the corners of the tenons on a few, and pared the rest with my chisel.  I was very careful with the saw and didn't do too much damage to the cheeks of the tenon.  All in all, they turned out pretty good.

My tenons were a little too long to allow a good fit in the mortises, so I planed down the end grain a little.  I don't have very good planes yet, so I used my Craftsman low-angle block plane but soon decided I would be better off rubbing the tenon on the concrete floor.

Just for kicks I grabbed my Dunlap 3Dbb, which is basically a No. 4 size bench plane, and proceeded to shave off thin slices of walnut end grain that looked like brown plastic.  What a pleasant surprise.

Now to the issue of parts cut to the wrong size...

Somehow I dimensioned the drawer front in Sketchup at 3 1/8", instead of the proper 3 1/2".  I thought it was peculiar when I was cutting parts and checked the printout again, but it appears that somehow my printout was incorrect.

Fortunately, I cut the drawer front slightly oversize and I can fudge the tenon on the bottom rail to move it up and close the gap around the drawer to about 1/16 on the top and bottom.  By my calculations I'll have to trim 1/8" off of the aprons to make them even with the bottom rail.

If all else fails, I'll pull another walnut board out of the lumber rack and start jointing and surfacing.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Just Plane Easier Than I Thought It Would Be

I had a problem.  I needed to face joint the 5" side aprons for the Shaker side table, but my small jointer has a capacity of 4 3/8".  Obviously I was going to have to come up with an alternative.  I thought about making a sled from a sheet of 3/4" MDF, shimming the aprons pieces so they didn't rock and then running them through my 12 1/2" portable thickness planer.  The only problem was that I didn't have a piece of MDF large enough and really didn't feel like driving into town and wrestling with a 4' x 8' sheet of 3/4" MDF.

I decided to try my hand at planing one face flat and then running through the thickness planer.  I've never done this before, but I've seen the process done in a podcast from Shannon, The Renaissance Woodworker.  You can watch this in his podcast "RWW 77 A Contemporary Chest of Drawers".  The segment appears near the end of the podcast and he's flattening a panel for the chest of drawers. (Edit: Shannon presents a much more detailed demonstration in "RWW 30 - Thicknessing Stock The Old Fashioned Way", which I just discovered today as I work my way through his podcasts.)

Because I don't have a proper workbench, my biggest challenge was securing the board.  My angled passes were done by holding the board with one hand and pushing the plane with the other.  Obviously not an ideal situation, but effective nonetheless.  My straightedge reference was the table on my tablesaw.

How did it work?  Much better than I thought.    I was extremely nervous about trying this on my first 'fine' woodworking project.

Maybe it was beginner's luck, or maybe handplanes are not as difficult to use as I had imagined.  I know that I won't hesitate to grab one the next time I need to level a board.

Now to find the right workbench and an adequate straightedge...

Update on the epoxy patch:

If you've read the previous posting you'll see that I was planning to use epoxy to patch a crack in one of the table legs.  I ran a test on one of the cutoffs from the leg tapering operation.  As you can see in the photo, even with boiled linseed oil the results were okay, but not great.

I used straight epoxy because I had cleaned up so well that I couldn't find any sawdust to mix with the epoxy.  This evening I remembered to save some from the apron machining so I'll try it again with some sawdust for color.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

If it was a horse, I'd have to shoot it.

This evening I rushed home from work to taper my table legs before the live Guild session.  I decided that I was going to try to use my metal tapering jig.  I've used it once in the past on a side table that I made for my wife, and I hated every minute of it.  The saw blade was uncomfortably close to my hand near the end of the cut and I was never quite sure how to set it for the proper angle.

After looking at it for a couple of minutes I decided that it wasn't going to work for me.  I built the jig below, which is similar to the tapering jig shown in the last Guild session.

I was able to taper the legs and somehow managed not to taper the wrong side.  Unfortunately, I ended up with a crack in the bottom of one leg.  I laid out the cuts hoping to cut out the crack during the tapering process, but you can't win 'em all.

This will give me an opportunity to try some of the epoxy filling techniques that I've seen demonstrated.  Fortunately this is on the back side of the front left leg, so the repair will not be visible from the front.

I'll have this leg repaired and back in the saddle in no time.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

I'm a walnut man now.

I'm participating in the March Guild Build over on The Wood Whisperer community.  I've decided to build my Shaker side table from black walnut.  It was an complicated decision, based totally on the fact that I had black walnut in the lumber rack and had been waiting for an excuse to build something with it.

I didn't have enough confidence in my woodworking ability to actually pull it down and start sawing.  Well, that and I didn't have a working jointer, and all of the wood was rough sawn.  I'm pretty sure that one particular board was a stave in a barrel at some point.

Anyway, with a small tabletop jointer that I just restored (yes, restored...) I was able to joint the leg stock.  After creating a large pile of the most beautiful shavings you've ever seen, I had them planed down to the proper thickness.

It was finally time to mark and cut my first mortise.  A deep breath. Careful measurement.  Another deep breath, followed by the stroke of the marking gauge down the leg.  Fast-forward a little and we have the mortise as you see in the photo above.

What I really want to know is this...did anybody else know that walnut machines so, so much better than pine?  I had no idea, but I can't bear to think about going back.

I'm a walnut man now.