Debasing the Dovetails

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The real challenge in teaching a class on “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” is this: How can I make woodworkers cut dovetails as fast (and accurate) as possible?

When I first began teaching tool chest classes, we weren’t able to glue up the carcases until late, late Wednesday night or Thursday. Then it was a mad rush to get the rest of the chest completed.

Since then I have learned to put away the “encouragement whip” and get out the “punishment whip.” (I wonder why women rarely take my classes?)

Today – the second day of the course at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking – we have a third of the 15 chests glued up. The rest will be glued up on the third day before lunch. This is a frickin’ cake walk.

What has changed? Well, to be honest, I am a poor teacher at best. Honest and true. But I have learned a few tricks from some fantastic teachers. Here are two of them.

1. Teach the information is small, manageable bites. Send students back to their benches to perform one operation. Repeat. This is from Trevor Smith, a high school physics teacher in Troy, Mich. The dude is an amazing teacher. I watched him teach for one day and learned more about teaching that day than in any other time period.

2. If you say it will happen, it will happen. Advice from Doug Dale, one of the outstanding assistants and teachers at Marc Adams School of Woodworking. If you set the goal for the day as “you will finish this particular operation,” then – surprise – the students achieve that goal. Weird.

And there is one thing I bring to the table: debasing the dovetail joint.

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I do not treat this joint as a holy relic – St. Christopher’s duodenum. It’s a mechanical joint that is easy to cut if you break it down into small bites (thanks again, Trevor). None of the operations in cutting a dovetail is hard. The only thing that is difficult is being consistent with every operation.

With five chests together today, and all of them looking really, really good, I feel justified in drinking a beer.

— Christopher Schwarz

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13 Responses to Debasing the Dovetails

  1. Rob Sitze says:

    Took a short dovetail class last year, found out I don’t have the patience for it. But they sure look great.

    • ceplawn says:

      I agree. Only where needed. Thru tennons are an option and then there cut nails. I assume the bottom keeps the chest from rotating out of plane. Still there are better joints for this application. But hey—dovetails sure look good!

  2. I’m currently teaching two 12 year old boys and a 14 year old boy how to build small dovetailed boxes. I’m not going to tell them that this is a “hard” joint until after they have finished planing the joints flush.

  3. ramseyguitars says:

    “If you will it, it is no dream. Over the line!”

  4. Clay Dowling says:

    The joint is only as hard as you make it. I’d much rather cut dovetails than bridal joints.

  5. MattC says:

    If your expectations exceed your abilities, the joint will always seem difficult because you are never satisified with the results. Until the latter exceeds the former (which it probably never will to the degree you want it to), admire your work and learn from your mistakes. Plus keep some shims and water putty handy.
    Not preaching, I just have to tell myself this every day.

  6. Mark Maleski says:

    If you didn’t feel justified, would you still drink it?

  7. joshuawpierce says:

    I can’t hear any form of the word “debase” without hearing the Pixies in my head for the rest of the day. Thanks!

  8. Trevor Smith says:

    Thanks for the mention Chris. I am pretty sure I have learned much more from you. Good luck to you and the students as all of you work to complete the tool chests.

  9. mikeandike says:

    Putting away the encouragement whip and getting out the punishment whip? Awesome…one of my all time favorite Simpsons episodes. Back when it was truly funny.

  10. klcollins96 says:

    I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn to cut dovetails from Trevor personally. It still goes down as one of my favorite woodworking classes. I proudly display my first dovetail that I cut in his class in my workshop. You can learn a lot from reading (thank you Chris). But nothing connects the dots like making your own shavings and having a good teacher to guide you through the little struggles.

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