Fair Woodworking

April 13, 2017

The 3 Minute Dovetail Challenge

Filed under: dove tail,dovetail,Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Skill development,Video — fairwoodworking @ 8:13 pm

Seven months ago I got a little hooked on cutting fast dovetails. You may think it’s silly, but it’s no different that racing the 1/4 mile or timing how fast you can complete a level on your favorite video game. Shortly after I started, I competed in the WIA Handtool Olympics and was very surprised when I won the Dovetail competition with a time of 5 min 41 sec.  That is a good time, even a very good time, but for some reason I didn’t believe it was what should have been a winning time. I’ve written before about how I’m not really comfortable with the idea that as a joke, I have blown way out of proportion.

You do realize you are reading the immortal words of The Champ right?

By the time I’d returned home from WIA, I’d become very dissatisfied with my accomplishment, although I was still thrilled with the Bad Axe Saw I won! I knew I could do better, I needed to do better to feel that I’d earned one of the nicest saws I’d never paid for.

Since that time I’ve cut countless dovetails in secret. I’ve studied tape both my own and that of the masters, I’ve tried new techniques, and reworked old ones. Really, I’ve a little bit obsessed on a silly little task to see what I, an ordinary guy with very ordinary skills, could do.

I had to bite my lip when I discovered that a regular guy could get under the 4 min mark. I had to sit down and stare at the wall for a while, when I reached 3 min 30 sec, and wonder how this was possible. I remember the day I discovered that I was just 9 seconds short of Mike Siemsen’s time, and had to go back to re-watch the video to be sure it wasn’t running slow. (In Mikes defense, if you have ever really watched that video, you will see that Mike made a couple mistakes he’s probably never made in the past ten years, and had it not been for that, he would have come pretty close to Franks time.)

Somewhere during this process, I had passed that arbitrary number that I thought was a “respectable” winning time, but there was still the Holy Grail. My hero! Frank is the supreme grand poobah of dovetails.

And that was my White Whale.

When you get in to the 3 min mark, every movement counts. The 3 min mark is a time I hit a lot for a good long time. Really after that point you feel like you have to take the rotation of the earth into account to improve. 2:36 is a time that I knew had the potential to elude me for years.

If you’ve watched the video you now know that just about anything is possible.  As I mentioned in the video, it was just a test run. I’d hit a bit of a wall and as I mentioned, I have found that recording a run gives you a chance to see what you are doing wrong.

Apparently I did something right this time, but I also saw some little nagging issues that I’ve been working on resolving.

I know I goof off a lot here on the blog and on other forms of social media. I talk a lot of trash, and claim to be some big shot. I’m just having fun. Most of what I say is at best a partial truth, but this next statement is as real as I can make it.

There is an amazing amount of skill locked inside of your hands. It will remain locked until you put in the work to release it. No amount of positive thinking will do what a little hard work and determination will do.

You can’t because you don’t, not because you don’t believe. Belief comes from seeing the accomplishments you previously thought were impossible.

I’d also like to give a shout out to those of you out there in Instagram land that seem to have grabbed a hold of this idea and are diving into this challenge already. Watching you guys (hopefully one day it will include some girls) fills me with glee. Let’s make the next Handtool Olympics a blood bath of killer times!

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.

September 10, 2016

The Man in the Mirror

Short story, I’m a lame techno geek, and I’m too easily obsessed with things that probably were intended to just be fun.

See? That wasn’t so painful?

Ok. Long story?

Hand tool skill is the culmination of many finer, smaller skills that can really be a trick to pull together. As a beginner I was just happy if I didn’t cut myself. As you improve, your internal skill monologue grows, and good motions are obvious in a sea of bad motions. That is if you can remove yourself from the task at hand and watch yourself working. Unfortunately, that level of self awareness is pretty much impossible so you really only have two options. Get someone as skilled as you or better to watch you work, or film yourself with your handy digital camera as God intended.

For the past week I’ve been practicing cutting fast dovetails to compete in the Handtool Olympics at the upcoming Popular Woodworking in America, and I’ve found right off the bat it was less about working fast as it was removing every best practice that was not absolutely necessary.


No Marking gauge

No dividers

No Dovetail markers

Marking knives are a no, and…

My beloved shallow rebate on the back of the tails?


Heck! Tails first is even out the window since I’m pretty sure pins first is faster.

All I’m left with is a Dovetail saw (no crosscut saw), a fret saw, one chisel, a pencil and a mallet.

I feel like such a minimalist!!!

Once I got comfortable, I was sure I could be faster, so I tried to work quicker, and wouldn’t you know it? My times got slower… How could that be?

What I’m coming to realize is that speed is not about rushing so much as it is about removing the slow bits. The hesitations, the missteps. When you make a mistake or are inefficient with your movements the penalty is wasted time, and possibly the need to fix a mistake.

So I got out my camera and shot this little video. It’s pretty easy to see where I’m loosing time.

How I handle the wood, keeping track of what side is the inside, and what is the show side. – If you always place each piece down exactly how you will need it, you don’t have to rearrange later.

Hesitations and lurches with the saw. – I’d thought my sawing skills were pretty solid, and they aren’t really that bad, but it still isn’t a true extension of my arm.

Transferring the pins to the tails. – What a mess, I really need to relax at this point.

How I handle the chisel. – I’m actually pretty happy with it. I feel I’ve really improved in that part although I totally blasted past the base line on one spot of the tail board.

Anyways, feel free to have a look and see if you can pick out some of the flaws in my actions, then chuckle to yourself when you see that I split the pin board.

Ah well. It happens some times.

Who would have thought I’d have so much fun practicing?


If you want to see how the pros do it, watch Mike Siemsen go head to head with Frank Klausz.

July 11, 2014

The truth about Full Blind Dovetails

First off.


Lies are best wrapped around a kernel of truth.

The truth hurts, and…

When there’s no pain, there’s no gain.

And we all need a little gain.

So when I started hearing rumors told by big fat (but mostly skinny) liars, I had to check it out.

**The Lie**

Full blind dovetails are easier than through dovetails.


The claim is that because the dovetails are hidden you can’t see if they suck. The joint doesn’t suck if you can’t see that it sucks.

This is the premiss to lying through joinery.

Where is the truth?

Through dovetails tell the truth about how really truly horrible we all are, and the big bosses don’t want us to know how bad they are.

Where is the truth?

Through dovetails are simple to cut, but for the beginner, they can seem complicated. Full blind dovetails are somewhat more complicated, and they can seem more complicated even when you know what you are doing.

The great thing with full blinds are that even if your saw can’t find the broad side of a line, you still have a chance at making a nice looking joint.

And really, the truth is overrated.

So here is my overrated conclusion.

1. Through dovetails need less tools, less skills, and involve a simple process.

2. Through dovetails show all, ALL, your mistakes.

3. Through dovetails are easily recognized on most projects.

4. Fullblinds need more tools, and more steps.

5. Unless you lean on a drill press and a handfull of other power tools, Fullblinds can take a little longer.

6. With fullblinds, only the most savvy of wood workers will know you did anything more than a half lap joint.

7. Fullblinds will impress the heck out of savvy woodworkers that don’t know how easy they really are.



October 25, 2012

1. 2. 3. 4. I declare a bum war!

Filed under: dove tail,Picture issues,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 3:09 pm

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


Hold on!

Sorry, wrong blog…

No, today I declare war on something else.

Sloppy dovetails.

There and a number of different camps on appropriate dovetail etiquette. Two major camps. The first say that antique furniture is full of dovetails that are gappy, and with saw cuts that blast through the base line. I agree that this is the most historically accurate, but in those days, you hid your dovetails. Today, most people that I deal with don’t know the difference between a box joint and a DT, and they don’t have a clue what is historically accurate, they just see what they see.

The second major camp sees the modern day dovetail as a decorative accent to a woodworking piece. I would say that I am for the most part stationed in camp #2. I’m not trying to reproduce historical pieces, nor do I attempt to re-enact historical techniques. I don’t dress up in pajamas, and work by candle light either. I work in a heated shop, with electric lights, and usually the TV is on as well. The fact that I use hand tools, and like to use traditional joinery does not make me a historian.

So when I look at my dovetails, I don’t look at the gaps as historically accurate, I see them for what they are.


I didn’t intentionally put the gaps there, they appeared there despite my best efforts to avoid them. The gaps may not bother anyone else, and you may even think I’m being too picky, but to me, if it’s part of the decoration, the joint has to be tight. Air tight. It’s no different than I would feel with inlay work. If I decorated a box with inlay (not that I’m capable of that yet) I wouldn’t be happy with gaps, so why would I with dovetails. If I had a picture professionally framed, I’d not be happy paying for a frame with gappy miters, so why would I expect anyone to be thrilled with anything other than tight dovetails?

I have a house full of practice boxes. A number of them were not intended to just be practice, they started out as gifts. But when I was done, I didn’t feel like they had what it takes to be truly desirable gifts. Yes the receiver would value them because they knew I made it, and put a lot of effort into it, but were they really able to justify its value based on its own merit? In my eyes, they do not.

So Dovetails!

I’m callin’ you out!

I’m returning to the old dovetail challenge until I’ve got them beat. I need to get better, and then I need to get faster.

But mostly, I just need to get better.

I’m not in a race.

Oh, and by the way. If you are wondering what’s up with the bum war reference. It was a game we played as kids involving a trampoline. I don’t remember the rules, but it seems like it always involved one of us crying in the end.

I don’t know…

April 23, 2012

Dovetailed Pencil Box in Pine

Filed under: dove tail,dovetail,Hand tool,Picture issues,Pins,Tails,Things I've made — fairwoodworking @ 2:02 pm

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


Last year, I joined my local woodworking club just in time for their annual woodworking challenge. They give each member a 4 foot long 1×6 board of clear pine with the goal of building something with it.

There was the option to add another wood if we liked so long as it was not any more than the board we were given. With this size of box, the provided wood was just enough.

We donated the finished projects to our local children’s hospital and were sold at their store. As I understand it, they are fund-raising so they can buy some badly needed equipment that they can not fit in the budget.

It went together pretty well, but I’m not a big fan of the dimensions. It’s roughly 4″x4″x8″, and in my opinion, at least an inch too tall.

As is my way, I like to use a raised panel for the bottom.

I don’t know why I like the sliding top design so much. Could just be that it is less expensive than a set of hinges…

March 26, 2012

A simple box with only hand tools. Part 6

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


Click HERE to read the whole story.

Again, not to rag on my good buddy Roy, (he doesn’t actually know I exist…), but he didn’t even touch on for a moment about creating the shallow tail.  You don’t want to take this step while cutting the tails because you can’t mark your pins with a shallow tail. This step has to wait until I have marked the pins. In my case, it was good that I waited until ALL the pins were totally finished since I had to start again from scratch on that one piece.

Here is what I did.

I started by scribing a line with my marking gauge from the outside face to just shy of the groove. Be careful along the side of the tail not to bruise the shoulder with the marking gauge!

Then with the dovetail saw, rip at an angle as much as you can (on the waste side thank you very much) again without bruising the shoulder or the next tail. You can see that in this case you’d best do as I say, not as I did. That wee little nick of a kerf mark will require a lot of work to plane down away. Ah, well. That is for another day.

From this point I tried a couple of different things. I tried sawing along the base line, but again you can only saw a small angle part of it. What I found worked best, I didn’t take a pic of, I chopped it out with a chisel like Frank Klausz chops out the waste in his video (see link way above) until I’ve reached where the shallow tail begins. Then a quick chop with the grain splits the chunk out.

A little paring and she’s ready to go.

March 19, 2012

A simple box with only hand tools. Part 5

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


Click HERE to read the whole story.

Well I’m back on the horse, and ready to get going again. Today’s topic… Miters, Shallow Tails, and the screw-ups in between.

It’s been a rather humbling experience so far as I document mistake, after mistake, after freak’in mistake, but I have to remind myself that this is only the third time I’ve dovetailed a box before, and it’s only in my mistakes that I seem to learn. Today’s errors are not earth shattering, but will leave their small reminders in the finished project. Below I am caught in the act of transferring from the tails to the pins.

It’s a tight spot for the knife to get into, and I was not able to fully reach in all the way, as the angle of the blade point is steeper than the miter. As a result, I had to carefully extend it later, but that is not the important issue to show here. The real issue is the thin black line showing between the two boards just to the right of the blade. Do you see it? It’s a gap that is a result of me not lining up the base line to the pin board. I didn’t see it until I down loaded this picture, long after I’d cut the pins and discovered that the pins did not fit tight against the base line. I know what some of you are thinking, “I should have used the 140 trick”. Well it’s not that simple. The first issue is that when doing a mitered shoulder you need the two boards to be the same thickness or the miter would not line up on the outside corner. As the 140 trick makes the tail board slightly thinner, it could be a problem. I’m sure I could have figured out a way to do it, but at the time it was way too much like math. The second issue has to do with the fact that the opposite end of the box will have an open groove for the lid to slide out. If I do the 140 trick, the ultra shallow rabbit will be visible along that exposed part. In hind sight the solution for the second issue is to plane down to the new rabbited height after transferring the lines. (did that make any sense?) Anyways…. Error number one.

Error number two. In Roy’s video (May I call him Roy?) that I linked to before, he moves a little too quickly to cover everything. I’m not ragging on him, it’s only a half hour show, but he just made it look too darned easy. Have a look at the picture below.

I drew an arrow to the issue. After I very carefully scribed the shallower base line, I then with apparently no thought to it, cut right down to the regular base line. Here is where the danger lies. The shallow scribe line is on the waste side of the cut. As I carefully cut, I’m watching the pin side, and can’t see the scribe line. Blam!!! I went right past it.

I’ve never been big on marking the waste and all, but for the next set of pins I went a little into over kill. Note how I extended the shallow tail scribe line with pencil so I wouldn’t miss it? Anyone want to bet that it did help? Ha, ha, ha.

Not everything was failure in this round, and if I may, I want to show a little more on how the reflection of the blade helps me saw better. When cutting the pins there are two critical parts (in my opinion) of the saw cut.

Starting the cut. – This part is where you determine the cut location. This is the moment where you either split the knife line, or you miss it. There is plenty out there that covers this part, I won’t get into it. I want to share about the second part.

Finishing the cut. – Below is a finished cut.

Here I can see for myself that I pretty much nailed it. I’m not worried about the fact that there is a hair between the saw and the pencil mark. What I look at is the line on the opposite side of the pin and its reflection. The spacing is even. If I know I split the knife line when I started the cut, and these two lines are neither in a pyramid, or V shape, I know I’ve pretty much cut perfectly straight down. There is no reason to believe that the pencil line perfectly splits the knife line so I don’t bother trying to cut to it. Splitting the knife line on the top is enough if I just cut straight down.

Just for fun I tried something.

Rather than mark the line I wanted to cut, I marked a line a little way from the line. It was a little scary, but have a look. Even at this point you can see in the reflection that the lines are parallel. Give it a try. It’s kind’a cool. And yes, it did work.

On cutting the miter. There was temptation for me to cut the miter before the pins. Don’t do it. Leave it alone until the end. When you cut the miter, you cut away your very important knife line for the pins. Learn from my misery…

And one last thing, before I go.

Sticker your wood when you are not working it…

March 12, 2012

A simple box with only hand tools. Part 4

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


Click HERE to read the whole story.

Note – If you have not watched the links from the end of Part 3, this next part may not make all that much sense.

Seriously, go back and watch them.

Today I prove that I am smart like tractor… Having successfully completed plowing all the grooves, and it’s time to get into some wood work that is a little sexier than the dimensioning of materials. It’s time to start the layout and cutting of my tails.

You may say that the layout spacing is a little complex, but the extra seconds it took and an extra set of dividers removed at least one or two pins from the layout. It will save time in the end. If you will picture in your minds eye, the tail on the right will be the shallow tail. On the left will be the mitered shoulder.

When I flip the board around you can better see how the tails relate to the grooves. Now the shallow tail is on the left, and the mitered shoulder is… uhhh… Uh, oh… It seems I’ve plowed away the material where my layout line should have been. Oh, this is bad, very bad. Some of you may see the solution, others may not.

Here’s what, at the time seemed like a brilliant solution. I took some green painters tape and taped over the groove, then marked the layout line on it. Lickedy split! Problem solved. The tape was a little sloppy, but it held long enough to make a half decent cut.

It was then that the lights came on. The reason for the mitered shoulder is to hide the groove, so I’d marked the line on the wrong side of the groove! I want to thank those of you that saw this from the beginning, but kept quiet so as to not ruin my story. This may have made a mess of my spacing, but here you go with the tail laid out correctly.

And again with the miter cut out.  That was a bit of a tricky cut, but not too bad.  Before you try this kind of cut, make sure you have a real good handle on the basics of cutting a regular tail.

With that out of the way, I want to share some things that have helped me with cutting dovetails.

The first thing you need is, to be able to cut a straight line. I think that more often than not, bad form with hand/arm movement is to blame, but it is hard to see for yourself if you are doing it wrong while you are sawing, and most of us don’t have a pro to watch our form. I found a trick that is as simple as looking in the mirror to help you out. It’s looking at the reflection in the saw blade. For starters watch this video, note the angle of the camera at the 2:20 mark. It’s very similar to your view when you are sawing. Now don’t look at the saw, or his hands. Watch the reflection. Note how the wood in the reflection does not move. The reflection tells me that this guy knows how to use a saw. Next time you are sawing, have a look at the reflection and see how good your form is.

The key to a good tail, other than a straight cut, is that the cut be has to be square to the board. If you look at the pics above, you will see that I mark the lines with a pen, and you may think that I cut to them. If you do, you are wrong. These lines are strictly for layout, and composition. Who is to say that my square didn’t slip while I marked the lines, or that the pen didn’t write a little fatter on one side than the other? These kind of issues could be big problems once I get to the pins. Once again I rely on the reflection. If my blade is square to the board, the reflection of the wood is in a consistent straight line. If not, you are in for trouble. Once finished the cut, again I don’t reach for my square, instead I press the blade against the cut and look at the reflection. You don’t need a square to see that the cut below is not square, the reflection very clearly angles off to the left.  Yuck!

So how do I fix this? In the past I would leave it and try to pare it later after I’d cut out the waste, but it never really worked very well, especially when the pins were narrow, and it was really  hard to tell if I’d pared enough. Now what I do is I re-cut the curf with the saw. Essentially, I hold the saw against the offending area of the tail, and I use the set in the teeth to trim back the excess until the reflection tells me I’m done.










In many ways I don’t feel that cutting dovetails is so much an art as much as it is a strict adherence to a basic set of rules.

When cutting tails first

  1. Keep your tail cuts square.                                Check
  2. Cut straight                                                      Check
  3. Pare precisely to the baseline                            Check
  4. Transfer from the tails to the pins accurately        Check
  5. Split the knife line on the pins                             Check
  6. Cut straight                                                       Check

Oh, and one more thing….

7. Cut on the waste side…                                         Ah, crap!

Wait, wait!!!  One last rule

8. Have some left over material to replace the un-repairable mistakes.                         Thank goodness!

If you recall from the beginning, I had to rip about a 4” strip off the board? Well that is my backup wood. Cut it in half, and glue it together. Shown above in the clamps overnight.This may not seem like that big a deal, but this is a huge blow to the project. Now I’m at a complete standstill until I get this piece dimensioned and caught up to the rest of the project. Flattened, thicknessed, sized, and squared up. Man, I’m bummed!

March 2, 2012

First halfblind Dovetails

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


With new tools come new tasks.

Having completed making both a set of Skew Chisels and a Fishtail, there was no excuse not to give halfblinds a try.

The sawing is a little more difficult than through dovetails, but similar in nature to sawing mitered dovetails. Having essentially two versions of the same tool, I thought it best that I give both a try.

First I tried the Fishtail. The entire process was trial and error, but I got through it pretty well. Will need to improve the gaps along the tops of the tails. The Fishtail worked pretty well I thought, but having never used the skews I had nothing to compare to.

The second halfblind gave the Skews a chance to win my heart. I’m all for dedicated tools, so I can see an easy victory here.

I pick up one of the Skews and go to work cleaning out one of the corners. Give a little pare along the base line, and then move to trim the angle cut off the pin… Hmmmm…. The skew angle is backward…. Set down the one and go to work with the other for a sec. Now I need a square edged chisel. Put down the skew, and grab my regular. Now I need the skew, no wait, the other skew.

With all the picking up and putting down, it’s a wonder I didn’t cut myself. It really took no time at all for me to see how much more effective the fishtail is for halfblinds.  It does the work of both skews without any transition time, and still works fine as a square edged chisel.

I really can’t see ever using the skews for halfblinds again, but I’m sure they will come in handy some day .

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