Saturday, April 14, 2012

[Schoolbox2] Glued and Proud

A dirty secret of hand tool methodology is that the "proud" or protruding dovetail pins in the above photo are just fine. They will be planed flush with the tails once the glue has cured. This is the type of knowledge which, when shared,  could literally result in death in the days when guild secrets were taken a bit seriously by modern "information wants to be free" standards. There are even now probably some woodworkers who don't want this type of thing known. When a casual observer looks at a joined box, they don't really think about how it was done, they are just amazed that it all fits together so perfectly. This is not that much different than drywall in a modern home, where the depressions from the screws are taped and "mudded" over, and then blended and sanded flush with the sheetrock, followed by a couple layers of liquid plastic (or "latex paint") which are smeared over it to further conceal the truth. Arthur C. Clark claimed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and traditional woodworking is certainly no exception to that maxim.

I marked the above dovetails to be exactly as tall as the mating board is thick, and the joint went together very tightly, perhaps my best yet. So why are the pins sticking up? It could be minor inaccuracies in my planing, in my setting of the gauge, in my marking, or that the joint is not quite as tight as it looked/seemed. But this is all a good thing! I will plane those nubs off and the surface will be as smooth as glass. This is so liberating as to be mildly exciting. Its almost as eye-opening as the realization that much measurement can be done away with as well. Make one board as tall as the other, no need to know if its 18 3/64th or 458.1906 mm... just hold them next to each other and plane the taller one down until you get shavings from both boards! A straight edge or a handplane will tell you if two surfaces are flush long before a human eye or hand will, and in almost every case, the human eye and hand are all we care about. I had no idea traditional woodworking would be so compatible with my personality, worldview, and humble abilities.

The 2nd School Box has so far gone together well, despite the oops incident in labeling. This time around was also indeed much faster, and the dovetails are my best yet. Its very gratifying to see the results of practice panning out. Even if the results are exactly the same (aka "as bad") as my previous attempt, its wonderful to be faster, more at ease, and have more fun while doing it. For my first dovetails during "dovetail month", I was tense and unsure on nearly every step of the process. After about 5, I no longer had  to consult notes to make sure what the next step was, it was just a question of doing it properly. Now, I know the steps inside and out, but start to question the very subtle nuances: should the saw be moving a little faster or slower? Should the chisel be skewed a bit? Does the music playing make a difference?

I should note that sharpening all my chisels before this round of dovetailing was a good move (how can it ever not be?). I need to do it more often, since the transition from very sharp to passably sharp is a slow and subtle ramp, and it is one best avoided altogether. I am redoubling my efforts to never dip below very sharp, and this round of joining has indicated this is a good policy. I was able to chop to the baseline with almost no tearing at all, and although this surface is never seen, that leaves me with a good feeling.


  1. I agree with you on the joys of, essentially, 'building by eye' - it's my method too. But it doesn't work for everything. For this job the proud pins, and a smaller than planned box, may be of no consequence, but if you were routinely cutting part of the joint too deep like this for making, say, drawers, wouldn't you end up with drawers that don't fit?

  2. Good point Rob... I suppose I would start slightly oversize in that case. I do not think sloppiness or laziness is any kind of ideal, and certainly aim for perfection. I did want to make the point, though, that for a vast majority of projects, good enough is good enough!