Fair Woodworking

April 9, 2017

Consider pins first with a withering eye

You are not getting any younger. Unlike myself who is ageless and perfect, you are getting older with every word you are reading. And so, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with same old arguments in pins vs tails.

Actually that’s not true.

Although whenever I’m looking to make a dovetail look or fit really good, I’ll pretty quickly go to tails first. But in the case of the historically accurate dovetail, good enough was good enough for 99% or possibly even 100% of the time. I think perfect dovetails, as much as I love them, are a modern misinterpretation of a historically un-exotic joint.

Recently while discussing the low Roman work bench the thought came up that on such a low bench, it’s nearly impossible to transfer from tails to pins because it’s so low and doesn’t have a vise.

So there you go.

Strike number one for tails-first. You need just the right type of bench to transfer. Conversely you could transfer from pins to tails while sitting on the sidewalk nearly as easily as any of your most functional workbenches. Now that I think about it, I can hardly think of a step in tails first that doesn’t call out for a better tool or a slick new idea to make the next step easier. You need a vise, and some thing to rest the tail board on while you transfer so the other end doesn’t wobble in the air. You need shallow rebate, you need a thin marking knife, you need dividers. And that all seems odd seeing as they are promoted by being easier than pins first because you don’t have to perfectly cut to the lines on the tails.

As true as this is, I gotta stop you for a sec…

Are we not woodworkers? Are we not to at least some degree Handtool Woodworkers? Have we not belittled power tool only types with how we don’t need to know the angles of cuts because we just strike a line and cut to it? Is not the line of the dovetail striken, striked, struck… for our sawing pleasure?

Yes, with all the gizmos, tails first is easier for beginners, but you should only be a beginner in the beginning. Once you get some experience, sawing to a line shouldn’t be that difficult. We really need to get past this very weak argument.

Ever try to saw to a knife line in bad lighting? That’s right. You need a work light to get that sweet raking light. But you only need the raking light for the knife line. In most woods a pencil line is easier to see, especially as you get older and your vision starts to fade. But a pencil won’t fit between the tails when we do those smart looking narrow London pattern dovetails. Not a problem if you’re pins first.

It’s just a thought.  I’m probably wrong. But what if the predecessors of our hard core pins first advocates didn’t really care what method was easier for the apprentices to learn. What if what they really cared about was that their method be possible no matter where the next job took them. Good bench, no bench. Good raking morning light, or a grey cloudy day. Young clear eyes of an apprentice or the weak old eyes of the master.

As I’ve gotten older, and I resisted accepting that I may need reading glasses. Switching to pins may be worth considering for my withering eyes.

Ahh… Who am I kidding? I got two work lights. I can see anything!!!

And this bench! What can’t it do?

And that reminds me!

Why the Hell would I be transferring pins OR tails on the sidewalk?

Honestly? I don’t know if I ever will strictly choose one or the other.

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3 Comments »

  1. This is an interesting concept, that the process of someone working on a low bench in poor light might dictate a method that seems less ideal in our context. Next thing you know you’ll be wearing shoes with buckles and puffy shirts to figure it out.

    Comment by Jeremy — April 10, 2017 @ 8:12 am | Reply

  2. I prefer neither pins or tails first. Just saw by eye… It is called the hammer last method.

    Comment by Bob — April 14, 2017 @ 9:32 am | Reply


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