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.

January 26, 2017

5 Dovetail Techniques and Tools You Don’t Really Need. 

As the Undisputed Dovetail World Champion, I feel that I have a duty to give back of myself to the dovetail world. It’s the least I can do to with the position I now hold.

Ha, ha. Ya right.  Just as soon as I’ve finished getting my nails done.

Really I’m just thinking back to when I first dreamed of the day I’d be a real woodworker that knew the “Dark Art” of dovetails. It’s funny now how mystical they seemed at the time. One of the reasons they seemed unobtainable was that it seemed to require so many tools. I’d attended the demonstrations, watched the videos, and I’d sat through the sales pitches. I did the math on what my first set of dovetails would cost in tools, and at over $800.00, I’d still be without a workbench, a marking knife or even a mallet.

It took a few years to be able to afford all the tools in the “beginner” set, but along the way I managed to find an affordable mallet (no longer available), and a marking knife. $500 later I had a usable workbench as well.

All told, it must have been about 5 years from the day I discovered the idea of dovetails to the day I cut them, and that’s just silly.

It didn’t need to be that complicated.

  1. You do need a workbench, and if you don’t have one, I’d highly recommend downloading The Naked Woodworker video. Had I just had access to this one resource when I first started, I’d be years ahead of where I am now as a woodworker.
  2. You will need a vise, or holdfasts like are shown in Mike’s video above.
  3. You need a Dovetail saw. Duhhh…. You can’t go wrong in product or price with the Veritas Dovetail Saw
  4. You need a Chisel. Ya, just one chisel, if you have a set already, please don’t throw the rest away, but if you don’t, just get one 1/2″ chisel. That’s all you really need to get started. Again, you can’t really go wrong with Narex if money is tight.
  5. I like using a Fret saw to remove the waste. Rob Cosman sells a pretty good one on his web site,  although I’d personally pass on the Hockey tape…
  6. You need a square. Would you believe you can lay out your dovetails with just a square? Ya! I’ll show you how later, but even the angles can be laid out fairly accurately with just the tip of your finger and your average square.
  7. You need a pencil. I like using a mechanical pencil because the mark it leaves is uniform. It never dulls, so it fits everywhere the same, line after line, after line.
  8. You need a mallet. NOT a carvers mallet, and NOT a hammer. I like a larger mallet, or even better, a mini sledge.

Oh and one last thing…. You NEED flat and square material. As a beginner, this should be the most challenging thing to get your hands on, but the flatter and the squarrrr’errr your material, the better off you will be.

That’s it. That’s all you really should need to get started, but there are other tools you will see out there, all of them I use regularly, that you don’t really need to have to get started.


  1. Dividers – Dividers are great, but they add steps to your layout. If money is tight, you can get by for now without them.
  2. Rebate plane – First introduced to me as the “140 Trick” it’s used to make a shallow rabbet on the back of your tails. This aids in holding them against the pin board so it doesn’t slip while transferring the layout. It’s a really good trick when done properly, but Rebate planes are tricky to set up, and learning to use them well can be a hard learned skill. Again, it’s a great trick, but if done incorrectly will make learning dovetails all the more difficult.
  3. Marking knife – I found using the marking knife the most difficult skill to master with dovetails. It’s a real trick to mark all your lines accurately without accidentally moving the tail board out of alignment, and really that is a big reason people use the 140 trick. If you just want to cut some dovetails, the transfer is way, WAY easier with a pencil. You can learn how to use a marking knife later if you want.
  4. Dovetail marker – Remember how I said you can layout your dovetails with just a square? I’d much prefer to use and Dovetail marker as it is way easier, but if you don’t have one yet, don’t let it stop you.
  5. Marking gauge – You use a marking gauge to create the base line for your dovetails and also your pins. I have a few of them and they are great, but lately, for through dovetails, I’ve just been using my chisel.

Again, they are all great tools to have, they are all very, very useful, but you don’t really need them to learn how to cut your first dovetail.

If you would like to see how you can cut a reasonable dovetail with just 8 simple tools, I made yet another dovetail video.


February 25, 2016

Hey you kids! Get off my airspace!

When I started this blog some 4 and a bit years ago, it was all about me. I started it to fulfill a need to document my journey in woodworking.

My blog, about me, for my sake.

Me, me, me, me, me.

Over the years, I’ll admit that I’ve gotten a little distracted with petty man crushes, sharing what I’ve learned, and the promotion of getting out there and meeting other woodworkers.

For this I am very sorry.

I meant no harm in it all, but in truth, I must admit I have strayed from my sacred task.

I forgot who the most important woodworker in my life was.

That woodworker is me, and so I owe myself one very sincere apology.

So let me return to the golden era of fairwoodworking where I was content to post what ever tickled my fancy, not for the good of mankind, but for my sake. So that in the years to come when I lack the strength to work in my shop, I can still look back and marvel at how truly brilliant I really am. “What a fine lad”, I’ll say as I struggle to impress an uninterested nurse.

Those will be good days.

It hasn’t happened for a while, but every now and then I get the urge to make a video. Lately it hasn’t so much been videos, but honest to goodness feature films. Unfortunately, I had no script or even a worthwhile story line.


I did however stumble onto some really great soundtrack sounding music, and I have a video camera, so how could this go wrong?

What ever could go right while chopping out the waste from half blind dovetails?

How can that be interesting?

What can you learn from watching my video nay Feature Film?

Don’t care!

This is my blog, and I’ll make videos of what I want.


April 29, 2013

Gang Sawing

Filed under: dovetail,Picture issues,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 8:56 pm

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

T’was out’n’about reading amongst the blogs a while back.

A respected blogger (and, one of my heroes) wrote how he finds gang sawing his dovetails to be faster.

Since I’m all about the speed, I thought I’d better give it a try.

I’d also just picked up a hand screw clamp that really helps out with wider boards. It was actually quite handy with keeping the two boards together while getting them into the vise. It’s really important that they stay perfectly aligned with each other. Otherwise it could make for some really sloppy cuts.

The idea here is that with the two boards in the vise together, you will save time with layout and sawing, so I tried it out.

Marking the layout, I guess is faster since you only do it once, however, my dovetail marker is too small to complete the line across the two boards, so I did have to take the time to extend the lines with a square.

Again, sawing with the dovetail saw is faster, but if there is any part of dovetails that I feel I’m quickest at, it’s sawing the tails. Then you have to remove the waste. If you are like me, you would cut it with a fret saw, but at an inch and a quarter, that fine little blade would be no match for it.


Coping saw!

I’d never used a coping saw for this purpose, I use it for coping…

With a wider, deeper blade, you can’t just cut straight across. (sorry, no pics…) Instead , you have to start by cutting down with the curf, and then cut an arc until you are cutting parallel with the base line. This leaves you with a little triangle that didn’t get cut out. Then you have to turn your blade to cut in the opposite direction, and make a second cut. In my opinion, this makes it take just as long as sawing the two boards individually with a fret saw, but I also don’t like the coarse cut of the coping saw vs the nice fine cut of the fret saw. As a result, I also found that I had more waste to chop out with a chisel.

All in all.

I’m not sold yet, but please don’t let this stop you from trying it.

I don’t like it, but you may love it, and then you can tell all your friends how great it is.

And it’s always nice to be able to recommend something from your own experience rather than because a guy named Chris said it was good.

March 21, 2013

Curly birch goes with walnut

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


This box is an important one for me. As usual, it has no functional purpose, but it’s still a bit of a big deal.

The beauty of photography is that you can hide a world of sin with the right camera angle, and a tight depth of field. However…

For the first time, I’ve built a box that doesn’t really have a bad side.

Now don’t get me wrong, dovetail perfection is still not quite within my grasp, but any gaps you find on this little sucker, you gonn’a have to search for them.

Cutting a raised panel is not that hard, but getting all the angles to line up with the corners, and also get a nicely planed surface on the end grain is a little harder.

Ok, I cheated a little.  I usually cut the grooves with my plow plane, but this time, I used my powered router. I have to admit, although I hate my router, I hate most all my power tools, that is a great way to cut some grooves!

I also had the forethought to align the birch so that it shows the curls better when it is NOT upside down.

The box is pretty close to perfect, but the lid? It? It was perfect. A lid with a matching raised panel. Without flaw.


And it looked like donkey poo when I put it on the box.

So I made a simple squared edge lid, that is not perfect, but I managed to fix it.

Somewhat fixed…

November 1, 2012

If failure is not an option, it wasn’t much of a challenge.

Filed under: dovetail,Fair Woodworking & Hand Tool Blog,Picture issues — fairwoodworking @ 9:37 pm

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


Sports equipment ads are funny.

The macho swagger, the promises that their product will make you invincible, the superhero catch phrases saying real men fear nothing. It’s a mockery to intelligent thought.

Healthy fear is the intelligent side of your brain reminding the moron side of your brain that you can’t actually fly.

My favorite dumb catch phrase?

“Because failure is not an option”.

Yes I saw Apollo 13, and yes the line fits there, but unless your mountain bike is the spawn of said spacecraft, you better give your head a shake before that low hanging tree branch at the bottom of the mountain trail does it for you.

Now let us never speak of it again.


Anyways, the really great thing about screwing something up royally, is that it makes for something to blog about.

Exhibit A

Well I guess it doesn’t look so bad. I did sneak past the base line a couple of times, but it looks pretty tight. What’s the problem?

Well… The tail board is in backwards…

Exhibit B

Spin them around so the outside faces out, and you now have the single worst cut dovetails I’ve ever cut.

Thankfully this was just a practice joint, but I’m going to have to lay off the paint thinner in the future.

So the question is, what did I do wrong? The gap from the base line is consistent, the angle of the pins vs the tails are pretty close. It has all the apparent makings of a flawless joint, but it is not.

It took me a while to figure it out, and it would have been a cool trick, had I planned on it.

I think I’m going to keep this one.

October 11, 2012

Time. You’re a cruel master.

Filed under: dovetail,Picture issues,Skill development — fairwoodworking @ 3:58 pm

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


What I’m about to do, may or may not be interesting… For you…

I’ve cut quite a few dovetails now, but I’ve gotten to wondering what parts of the process are truly my strengths and where I seem to drag a little.

What I did was cut the joints for another small box, but this time I took a picture at each step. I could then use the time stamps of the pictures to track my performance, and also see how long the whole process takes me. I’m not racing, just trying not to get distracted.

As a point of reference, professional cabinet maker Frank Klausz builds similar boxes in the form of drawers in about 20 min. Let’s see how I compare.

7:03pm Wood is fully dimensioned, and ready to go.

7:28pm First steps, Scribe the base line, do the 140 trick, and lay out the tails for all four joints.

25 min. Frank Klausz I am not. Surprise!!!

7:34pm Cut first tails, cut shoulders, cut out waste with fret saw.

6 min.

7:40pm Cut second tails.

6 min. Hmmmm…

7:46pm Third tails.

6 min. Interesting.

7:52pm Fourth tails cut.

6 min. Oddly consistent…

7:58pm Get my chopping block set up, and sharpen a couple of chisels.

6 min. Come on! Really?

8:13pm Chop out the waste, both sides of first board.

15 min. That’s 7.5 min per side.

8:25pm Chop the waste on the second board

12 min. 6 min per side. That’s it… I need a beer.

8:41pm Transfer the lines, cut the pins, and fret saw the waste on the first end.

16 min.

8:55pm Second set of pins.

14 min.

9:12pm Third set of pins.

17 min.

9:24pm Fourth set of pins.

12 min. We’re done! Yay!

No wait, still need to chop out the waste to the base line. Boo!

9:49pm Chop out both sides.

27 min. 13.5 min per side.

10:09pm Chop waste on last two.

20 min. 10 min per side.

10:25pm Glue pins and tails, bang together, ceremonial wiping of the glue squeeze out with plane shavings, and square up box.

16 min.

Total time 3 hours 22 min.


It wouldn’t kill me to get a little faster.

Or would it…?

August 1, 2012

Piston fit drawer

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


I wouldn’t say I’m the type to get too attached to my projects.

Not normally anyways, but from time to time, without meaning too, a bond forms with a project.

This becomes a problem when you are making it for somebody else.

In these cases, to let go hurts the heart like the time your dog ran away, or you lose a family air loom, or when you discover you are out of milk after you’ve already poured your cereal.

As with a number of other things I make, this was being donated through my woodworking club to go to our local children’s hospital in their annual fund-raiser. I’ve been trying to improve/learn a better sense of proportion so built the carcass  based only on proportions. There was no functional purpose driving the dimensions.

As soon as I committed to the dimensions, and started cutting my tails I became convinced that I was building a very funny looking box.

It can be a little deflating when this happens, but I chose to take a deep breath, and just try to survive the experience, like when you make a wrong turn in a bad neighborhood, or when uncle Jerry beats you to the bathroom.

The quality of the pine I was using was a little suspect, and almost too soft to work with, and not just a little ugly, but I tried to make due. You know you are going to have a hard time when a freshly sharpened blade still allows tear out in BOTH directions…

Despite my concerns, as the assembly came together, I found I’d become enamored with just about every aspect, every dimension of the finished project.

How can you not fall in love with a project when it motivates you to make new tools, learn a new form of dovetail, as well as mortice & tenons? With all that, I also wanted to try out making a true piston fit drawer. As cool as all the other stuff was, it’s nothing compared to a well fit drawer!

But is the finished project as sweet as I seem to think it is? Or is it as dumb looking as I thought it would be originally? I’m struggling with objectivity here.

Is this a case of love being blind. You know, like when a parent can’t see that their kids are funny looking, or when your lucky underwear becomes a bio hazard.

So presentation day comes along, and it’s time to say goodbye. When we all got together, each one of us had to give a few words on what we made. While I was demonstrating how smooth and awesome the piston drawer action is, I accidentally let it slip that it was going to be a little hard to let this one go.

Later, being the only hand tool guy in the group, it’s not unusual for a small crowd to gather around whatever I’ve made. Mostly I think it’s because they can’t believe anyone could actually make something with only handtools, but this time it was different. This time they were debating what to do with this little box. The consensus was that while it was really cool, and the drawer was kind’a fun to play with, no non-woodworker would pay more than $5 for it.

In the end the others approached me to ask if I wanted to take it back. In exchange I could then make something less personally significant.

Clearly design is not my specialty…

But no matter, it sits on my desk now. It’s empty because I really have no need for such a little drawer, but every now and then, I pull the drawer open so I can close it again. You can feel the resistance of the air as it rushes out of the bottom.

5 bucks….


I should also mention that although the drawer slides very smoothly, I found that the air pressure gave it enough resistance that you had to hold the carcass when you opened it. I ended up buying some rubber bumpers to give it traction.

I think I paid $2.99 for the bumpers.

Five bucks?
No, no. I’m fine…

June 22, 2012

Dovetailed Pencil Box 2.0

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


I like building stuff….

But I’m not great at following directions, so building something based on plans, well… I’ve never successfully done it. Ahh, who am I kidding, I can mess up macaroni and cheese.

I prefer to design my own stuff, but I’m not great at dimensions, and aesthetics.

I just like building stuff.

It’s a good thing too, because a lot of times I have to build it wrong so I can see what I want to do right the next time.

The last time I made a pencil box, I found it disproportionately tall, but we can rebuild it. We have the technology.

This time, I started out with this.

It’s another piece of discarded stair tread. Again it shows signs of being birds eye maple, but not as nice a piece as I used “here”.

With a sliding top and raised panel bottom, you need to make grooves. I originally started making them stopped grooves, but it’s slow and painful work. I finally gave up/lost interest, and changed to plowing through grooves.

That change left me with two options. Either have a gap showing on the tails, or switch to shallow tails like I did on the bottom of my “simple box”.

And here I learned a valuable lesson. When I learned to cut dovetails, I was told to cut my pins and tails a little long, and then when the joint was completed, plane them flush.

I remember once seeing a video of somebody asking Frank Klausz how much longer he cut his pins and tails. His answer was so typical. Something like, “I just cut them right”

I remember thinking, “Ya, that’s great for Frank, but I’ll never be as good as he is”, and I just wrote it off as another statement by a master that has forgotten what it is like to be a newbie.

Shallow tails are not that difficult to make, but precision when marking the base line for the pin board is critical.

When you mark the thickness of the tail, you do it from the outside face. When you mark the base line on the pin board, you reference off the end of the pins, but if they are longer than the tail board is thick, the socket between the pins will be too shallow. The solution I had to work with really sucked.

I had to guess where the baseline should be.

From now on, I’m listening to Frank’s wisdom.

He may not remember what it’s like to be a newbie, but he does know what he is talking about.

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