Bg-P-Wodwrkng-art - 11/3/02
"Beginning Period Woodworking" by Master Tamlene ap Guidgen, O.L.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
By Master Tamlene ap Guidgen, O.L.
Craftsmanship can be defined in a lot of ways. A fairly common usage includes the statement “do your best work in all tasks”. Something that is often misunderstood in this statement is the difference between doing your best and perfectionism.
Doing your best means that you must reach a compromise between your absolute best work (which takes a very long time), and work which is of good quality but still allows you to get something done. Almost everyone errs on the side of trying too hard to do perfect work, and thus getting very little done.
Perfectionism includes the work which commonly graces the covers of magazines like Fine Woodworking. Work like this is something to aspire to, and be inspired by. It takes a huge amount of experience to do work of Fine Woodworking caliber.
It is very important to include the amount of work you get done in any estimate of how close you are to “working at your best”. If you only do one piece each year, your abilities will not improve very much. Twenty shoddy pieces each year will also not improve your abilities much. Neither case is “working at your best”. You must strike a balance, and realize that medium quality work actually represents your best work in the long run.
Do not be a slave to your ruler. Measuring things as a specific number of inches is a fairly modern concept, and can take over a project unnecessarily. What usually matters more than inches is proportion. Sometimes there is important dimensionality, but what counts is that something fits, not that it is so many inches. I often measure in hand spans. If you want accuracy, you can mark the dimension carefully on a piece of scrap. For proportion, a pair of dividers works well to pace off the work. Rulers are useful things, but please keep an open mind and avoid being compulsive about them.
Power tools are very oversold. Also oversold is sand paper. Both are extremely useful in their place, but in a home workshop their place is limited.
Hand tools are generally faster, have fewer health hazards and are much more pleasant to work with than power tools. In order to know the truth of what I am saying, you must be willing to work with a hand tool long enough to gain some proficiency with it. Only after some mistakes and slow work will you begin to see the efficiencies inherent in a given hand tool.
Power tools can speed up repetitive work. Very little of what is done at home is repetitive enough to justify the time spent setting up a power tool and cleaning up the amazing mess afterward. Also not justified is the noise and dust, and the sheer amount of space occupied by power tools. I own many, and speak from experience. I only use a few.
There is another aspect of hand tools which is really nice. Hand tools give you the option of spending money to acquire them, or spending time to make them. Most any hand tool can be made for almost no monetary expense. If you don’t believe me, come to Unser Hafen Blacksmithing Guild some time. We’ll make you some tools.
Some tasks are repetitive enough that power tools make sense. Rip sawing (reducing the width of a long board) is really a lot of work and not terribly entertaining. Rip sawing is very sensibly done with power tools in these days of no apprentices. Surface planing of rough lumber is also sensibly done with power equipment.
Surface smoothing for finishing is not a good use for sand paper.
Most surfaces are much better attacked with a hand plane and a scraper. To make a coarsely smoothed surface very smooth takes a lot of time with sand paper (power or hand sanding). A plane and a scraper do the job quite quickly. As a surface gets more curved, or smaller, planes and scrapers make less sense and sandpaper makes more.
Hand tools make you work up more of a sweat than power tools. Would you really rather go to a health club than do wood working?
If you sweep the floor clean before you start, and throughout your work, it is much easier to find pieces of wood which accidentally chip out that were not supposed to be removed. The piece can easily be glued back with either yellow wood glue or cyanoacrylate glue, with none the wiser.
Making wooden joints often involves careful marking of your piece of wood. If your marks are not in the right place, you have no hope of sawing or chiseling accurately.
You rarely need to mark a specific distance on a board—rather, you may need to mark an identical distance (however long) on two boards. The tool used for this task is a marking gauge. It consists of a sharp point attached to a stick. The stick is in turn held by a block of wood (fence). The mark is made by putting the fence against the edge of the board to be marked and scoring the surface of the board with the sharp point. The distance between the fence and the sharp point is adjusted by a clamp which holds the stick to the fence.
Another type of mark you need to make is a mark perpendicular to one edge of a piece of wood. To do this, you need an accurate square (you also need a nice straight edge on the wood, discussed later). You can buy a good square, or make a cheap one accurate by adjusting it. A good test for a square (and also for your marking ability) is to draw a line around the entire circumference of a board perhaps three or four inches square. Does your line meet the starting place exactly?
How you make a mark can also affect accuracy. A pencil line, even a fine one, has a lot more error in its width than most wooden joints will tolerate. There are two ways around this error. One is to use a knife edge to scribe a very fine line, and then work carefully to this line. The other way is to use a pencil line, and then fit two pieces to each other (and promptly mark them unambiguously as belonging to each other). Either way works well, although if you use a pencil, it should be a fine one.
First, start with sharp tools. You cannot cut accurately (hand or power) with dull blades. See the appendix.
Whether you are cutting with hand or power tools, watch the wood and the mark, not the blade. Making an accurate cut requires practice and attention. A saw cut needs to start straight. You cannot force the saw direction without ruining your accuracy. Cutting straight is easy when you start straight.
You can avoid cutting past your stop line if you realize that it is not necessary to cut all the way to it. You only need to cut to within one saw kerf of the stop line. When all sawing is done, clean up the tiny bit remaining in the corner with a chisel.
Starting a cut with a hand saw is sometimes a bit tricky. At first, the saw will sometimes jump and shudder everywhere except at your mark. This is typically caused by either using too coarse of a saw for the hardness of the wood, using the wrong type of saw (crosscut vs. rip) or putting pressure on the saw. Even after a cut is started, you will get the most accurate cut if you let gravity feed the saw. If you should end up having started the cut slightly in the wrong place, instead of trying to force the saw to your will, lay the saw down almost flush with the surface and gently broaden your starting cut until you can saw in the correct place.
You can plane a much better straight edge by hand than with a power jointer or router. To do this, you need the longest (sharp!) hand plane you can find. I use a No. 8 jointer plane, which is about 24 inches long. You must have some arrangement for holding the board to be planed without requiring any attention from you. Your cuts will not be true if you have to hold the board with your elbow and knee while you plane. At the start of a cut, push down on the front of the plane only. At the end of the cut, push down on the back of the plane only (at the handle). Think of your action as trying to plane a concave edge, and you will end up with a straight edge. Eyeball the edge when you are done—it should be absolutely straight after only a little practice.
If it is important to have the edge exactly at 90 degrees to the face, lay the board on it’s face, spaced about 1/8” above the bench. Now lay the plane on it’s side, and plane the edge. If you do a lot of this, you should build a fixture for it so that you don’t wear a groove in your workbench.
Spend a lot of time before you apply glue arranging your boards so that matching edges end up next to each other. Mark adjacent edges (and front/back) so you can find the arrangement again. If you choose and arrange your boards carefully, most people will not realize that your nice wide board is glued up from smaller ones.
To glue two edges together with no gaps, the edges both need to be absolutely straight, and at complimentary angles to each other. The edges do not need to be at 90 degrees to their faces. To joint two boards to match, lay the boards next to each other on the bench in the preferred final orientation. Now pick them up, and fold them as if there is a hinge joining them. Clamp them in your vise this way; back to back or front to front. Now joint the edge. If your planing results in a nice straight edge which is a bit off of 90 degrees, you will still have a flat panel when gluing is done since the errors in the two boards will cancel each other.
If you are forced to close gaps between boards with a lot of clamp pressure, something is wrong. If you have done your edging right, you should be able to apply glue to the edges, push and wring the edges together and get them to stick to each other with no clamps, just the surface tension of the glue. Try it some time, it is a lot of fun.
Don’t use an excessive amount of glue. Some books and articles will admonish you to “get the right amount of squeeze out” when you clamp. The right amount of squeeze out is none. You do need to make sure glue coats the entire edge (both pieces!), so in practice you get some squeeze out. The ideal would be to have glue just come up to the edge and no farther. When you apply glue, make sure it covers each edge completely, in as even and thin a layer as you can.
I usually space my clamps between one and two feet apart for edge gluing ¾” thick stock. It is nice to have more clamps than you think you need in case a problem comes up when you are clamping. Alternate the clamps top and bottom to keep the surface flat. With one inch and thicker stock, you can get away with a lot in terms of clamp spacing and uneven pressure between clamps if your edges mate nicely. When edge gluing ½” and smaller, you must be very careful to get even clamping pressure. Tighten the clamps little by little, so that they all reach final pressure together. As you tighten, check the face for flatness, to make sure you are not introducing a cup into the panel.
Take great care in making the faces of your boards all lie in the same plane. This can save you a tremendous amount of work later. If you tighten your clamps little by little, it is much easier to adjust the edges. If you adjust the edges with the clamps too tight, you will introduce a bend in the board. If you have a hard time with this, or have a panel which must end up with a really flush surface, invest in a doweling jig, and put dowels in to align the edges.
A block plane is specially designed to be able to plane end grain.
If your plane is very sharp, and you take a nice thin cut, end grain is fairly easy to plane. Be careful at the far end of the board, however, as it is easy to tear a huge chunk off of the edge. You can either plane both ends against the middle, or else clamp the board to be planed firmly up next to a piece of scrap to support the far edge. Sanded end grain looks nothing like planed end grain.
When two pieces of wood are attached rigidly to each other, and the grain on one piece is perpendicular to the grain on the other, a split will inevitably develop with time. Wood expands a lot more perpendicular to the grain than parallel to the grain.
A lot of period chests are made with cross grain construction, and have the splits to prove it. A lot of known world workmanship also has cross grain construction, and will either split or come apart at the cross grain joints in time. A common chest design in the current middle ages has grain running horizontally front and back, with grain running vertically on the end pieces (which extend below the bottom of the chest as legs).
There are three reasons for building chests with cross grain construction—ignorance, “its period”, and expediency. I feel that only the first reason is valid. The second reason is not valid—there are many period examples of chests with no cross grain construction, including properly constructed cases and also frame and panel. The third reason is quite questionable in my mind. If you are not interested in your work lasting, then you must have quite different motives from my own.
If you want to risk your tools, you can try using a high speed motorized grinder. Several things can improve the risk:
Š slow the grinder down to 1725 rpm
Š get “cool” type grinding wheels
Š back the blade you are sharpening with a larger piece of metal (a heat sink). Before grinding, dip the assembly in water. The water wicks up between the two pieces of metal ensuring good thermal contact.
A much better choice is a hand powered grinder—not because of any hand tool mystique, but because it is extremely difficult to overheat your tools with a hand grinder.
Either of the above methods should give you a hollow ground edge.
Use either a small square or a sharpening jig to check your edge accuracy
Before you can sharpen the edge you rough shaped, you must polish the back of the blade. You need to gradually move to finer and finer abrasives in the polishing process. I follow any rough grinding with a fine Carborundum stone (“India” stone), followed by a Washita stone. If the tool is a particularly nice one I end up on a “Soft Arkansas” stone. There are at least two finer grades than “Soft Arkansas”, but I have not found them to noticeably improve matters in general woodworking.
The back should be very flat and shiny when you are done. Only when the back is polished does it make sense to fine sharpen the edge of the blade. You only need to get the tip of the hollow ground edge sharp. Now you can proceed to sharpen the hollow ground side.
When you sharpen a blade, hold it very near the edge, and move the blade in small circles. You will have much better control of the blade angle.
A lot of the time, sanding makes some sense. Surfaces which have grain pointing different directions (such as curves) can be insanely difficult to work with edged tools.
Flat surfaces are very efficient to smooth with a plane after you have some practice in its use. If you have never used a plane, get a small block plane, read about how to use it and use it for a bit on every project you make. Using a plane without any experience and not using sandpaper at all will slow you down a lot. Get some woodworking done while you gain planing experience gradually.
Sanding is most effective if you start with a coarse enough abrasive. Your abrasive must be almost as coarse as the irregularities in the surface. Typically, start with 80 grit paper (60 grit if you are trying to remove a bunch of wood). 80 grit paper is good for removing typical power tool marks, like a machine planed surface. If you want your surface to stay flat, wrap the sand paper around a flat block rather than holding the paper in your hand. Sand all areas which need it with #80 before changing grit size.
The largest jump in grit size you should make is about 1.5 times as fine. If you started with #80, your next choice should be no finer than #120, followed with no finer than #180, etc. If you take larger steps, it will make your sanding take a lot longer. At each grade you use, be sure to sand all of the areas you sanded with the previous grit. Work in high contrast lighting, like direct sunlight, so that you can see the scratches in your work from the previous grit. Take them all out before going to a finer grade. If scratches show up after you start on a new grit and don’t sand out quickly, you should consider going back to a bit coarser grit for a while.
For everyday projects, you can stop at #150 or #220. There is little point in using any finer grits on items you plan on taking camping with you. For surfaces you want smoother that are made of harder woods, it can make sense to go all the way up to #600.
I don’t know a lot about finishing, so I use a couple of easy methods, oil finish and varnish.
Oil finish brings out a lot of inherent color in the wood, and is available in ‘natural’ and various stains. A couple of good brands are Watco and Deft. Read the directions! I do not recommend linseed oil or dried linseed oil, as they take a lot longer to dry.
Oil finishes can be enhanced by applying a wax after they are quite dry. You need a wax intended for the purpose that is compatible with an oil finish. Watco makes a wax specially made to work with their oil. I haven’t done much of this, but it can be very pretty.
Varnish provides much more protection to the wood than oil.
Varnish soaks into the wood and hardens, making the wood surface much more tolerant of abuse. Most varnishes also provide much more protection against water than an oil finish. If your wood will spend a lot of time in sunlight, get a polyurethane varnish for outdoor use.
The difficulty in using varnish lies in not getting little hardened drips of varnish at the bottom edge of your piece. Varnish also takes the patience to apply several coats. I use Last and Last brand primarily because we have some left over from when we did our wood floors. Read the directions!
It is very important to read the directions on finishes.
ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT is the fire danger which finish saturated rags or paper towels represent. As the finish dries, a small amount of heat is generated. If the heat is confined, like in a wadded up towel in the trash can, the material can spontaneously combust hours later. I throw my finish rags in the wood stove.
I prefer a satin finish to a gloss finish. Try both, and see what you like.
Dovetail joints are really fine things. They are both esthetically pleasing and amazingly strong at the same time. Mortise and tenon joints are strong, not much easier than dovetails, and when you are done, no one can see all of your work!
Dovetail joints have a bit of terminology associated with them. One side of the joint is called the tail, because the fan shape is reminiscent of a spread dove’s tail. The other side of the joint is called the pin (why I have no idea). Be careful as some authors reverse this.
Using an accurate square, draw lines perpendicular to your reference edge to mark out the lengths of wood you will be using. Remember that your saw cut has width, and keep the saw in the same place in relation to your line. Either cut on one side of the line, or down the middle of the line, but do the same thing the entire length of the board.
Do not cut your stock to final size. Allow yourself some room. The pins and tails of your joints (on each end of the board) should be perhaps 1/32” extra long, so that when the joint is assembled a bit extra sticks out. This allows you to end up with a flush surface (by planing away the excess), rather than a sunken one. You should also expect to do some finish planing on the other edges, those not involved in a joint.
The edges of your boards should be cut square and even. Any wavering in the edge, especially in the end grain, must be allowed for when you mark your stock so that you don’t end up with a recessed tail. If the end grain is not square to the edge you may have such misalignment that it will be impossible to assemble all four corners at once.
Check your pieces after you cut them with a square and straightedge. If the end grain is not square to the reference edge, or if your cut wavers, it is usually a lot easier to plane the end smooth and square now. You should also compare sizes on pieces which need to match each other. I often plane two pieces at once in the vise so that they are exactly the same size. If they are not the same size, your box will be trapezoidal instead of rectangular.
Mark the orientation of your boards if it is important (mainly for appearance). You will have a hard time figuring it out later.
Set your marking gauge just a bit more than the thickness of the boards you are using (1/32” or so). Lightly score the boards to be dovetailed together, along the edges to be joined. I usually score face, back, and edges for each board in each joint. These marks indicate the edges of the pins and tails. The marks also show where the inside edge of the board forming the other half of the joint lies. If your marks do not end up straight lines, your finished assembly will show gaps along this edge.
You must have very good lighting to cut dovetails. You must have light down on your bench for marking and measuring. You must also have light from the side (or below) so that you can see while sawing. Get a lamp which you can place where you need it and you will save lots of frustration and squinting.
There are a lot of sequences which work in cutting dovetails. I like to cut the tails first, but it also works to cut the pins first.
Begin by deciding how many dovetails you are going to put in an edge, where they will go, and how big they should be. Some of the considerations follow:
If you space your dovetails unevenly (as I almost always do), put them near the high stress points. In a box, the stress is mostly along the top and bottom, especially the top edge.
Evenly spaced dovetails, especially with pins and tails the same size, is what you get out of a dovetail template. Why try to imitate a router? This is kind of a modern argument, one that didn’t occur to people in the middle ages.
At the edges of your joint, there will typically be either half of a tail or pin. Half of a pin is stronger than half of a tail, and a better choice.
I usually mark the centers of the tails first, once I have decided on a layout. In marking the tails, please note that accuracy is not critical. The pins will be sized to fit the tails by marking them from the finished tails. Whatever angles, size and spacing your tails end up with, your pins will be cut to match.
If your tails have identical spacing on two or more corners, it is a lot easier to mark the locations on a piece of scrap and transfer the marks from the scrap to both corners. This greatly reduces mistakes and speeds up the work.
Use a pencil to mark the tails. With ring-porous woods like oak, it is easy for a knife mark to get lost in the grain. Also it is difficult to draw a straight line not quite in line with the grain using a knife blade. The grain pulls the knife off of the line you are trying to draw.
Draw the tails using a bevel gauge. I set mine to an angle of about 1:6 (1 over and 6 up). People seem to use a variety of angles, including 1:8 and 80 degrees. Draw the tails between the scribed line and the end of the board. Now go along the edge and X out all of the pieces which are to be removed (in pencil). Look carefully at what you have drawn. Did you really cross out the scrap, not the good parts? Are you tails drawn right, or are they reversed? Look carefully, this is easy to mess up!
Using a small square, extend the lines you have drawn straight down the end grain across the thickness of the board, marking each side of the tail.
Put the piece of wood in a vise, edge up. Start sawing along the mark in the end grain until you have a shallow groove. Now rotate the saw so it is pointing straight up and down and make a shallow groove along the face of the board. Now angle the saw more and more, joining the two saw marks you have made along the diagonal. Be careful not to cut beyond the scribed line on the face of the board. By working back and forth along these grooves, you can guarantee that the cut will be in the right place when it comes out the far side of the board. This is a good thing to practice a lot on scraps of wood, either making square or angled cutoffs. Remember not to force the saw.
Saw carefully along the pencil lines, on whichever side you choose, not quite up to the scribe line. Once the cut is deep enough that the saw is self guiding, bring the saw horizontal and saw down almost to the scribe line. Check both sides of the board as you approach the scribe line so that you don’t unknowingly saw past the line on one side of the board.
Since you are going to use the tails to mark the lines for cutting the pins, the size of each tail is not critical. This is, however, an excellent chance to practice your sawing to a line.
Now you need to remove the waste from between your saw cuts.
Before you start, once again examine your X’s marking the waste pieces to be removed. Are you sure they are in the right place?
You can use either a fine turning saw or a chisel for rough stock removal. I use a mortising chisel.
The type of chisel you use for rough stock removal is not critical, as long as it is narrow enough so it doesn’t score the inside edges of the tails. Your chisel must also be tough enough to deal with rough stock removal. Many bevel edge chisels will chip if you use them for chopping.
Each time you start work in a new spot, ask yourself if that spot is really waste material. Every time you pick up the board you are chiseling on, you must clean the area underneath it. A small chunk of wood can make a nasty dent in the surface.
First remove most, but not all of the waste. Leave a bit of waste, maybe 1/16” in front of the scribe line. Chisel down onto a piece of scrap on your workbench so that you don’t cut into your bench. Chop down, and then chip out the part you have cut through (from the end grain). Proceed like this at least halfway through the wood, and then turn the board over and finish the cut from the other side.
Now move your chisel to the scribed line. For this cut you might want to sharpen your mortise chisel or use a bevel chisel. Tap the chisel gently with a mallet to set it in the line, and then tap a bit harder until you are about halfway through. Do the same thing from the other side and you are done removing the waste.
Your chisel needs to be either exactly perpendicular to the board, or at an angle which will give you more clearance in the middle of the cut, not less clearance. When the joint is assembled, you will not be able to tell if you have undercut the middle part of the tail. Waste left in the middle results in unsightly gaps after assembly.
Take the time now to trim up the sawn edges of your tails with a chisel. The edges don’t need to be perfectly smooth, but they should be pretty straight. A fine saw or a knife can also be useful. If any of your tails ended up with wavering edges, straighten them up now.
When you cut the tails, you were cutting at an angle to the grain in the wood. Cutting the pins is directly along the grain. This can be a problem, especially if you are using one of the very fine Japanese pull saws. To see why, you need to understand the difference between rip saws and crosscut saws.
When you are cutting across the grain, the smoothest cut will be had with a saw whose teeth are shaped like tiny knives. This type of saw will cleanly sever the wood fibers. Crosscut saws have teeth shaped like knives.
When you are cutting with the grain, a different shaped tooth is needed. . If your saw teeth are knife shaped (crosscut), the saw is going to follow the wood fibers. To allow the saw to be guided, a chisel shaped tooth works best. Saws with chisel shaped teeth are called rip saws. When you cut the pins, you are cutting in the same general direction as the grain, but probably not exactly the same.
Japanese back saws have teeth which are extremely knife shaped.
This makes them very difficult to guide in cutting pins. (There is a type of Japanese saw intended for ripping, but it is not very common.) Small European style back saws have teeth which are sort of a hybrid between rip and crosscut. European style back saws work well either crosscutting or ripping. If you are unsure of your saw, try cutting a scrap of hardwood along a line just slightly off of the grain direction and see how well it works.
Finally you can start on the pins. First you need to mark them on the piece of wood you are working on. The marking is done using the mating piece of wood as a template. There are a lot of ways of doing the marking. I will describe the approach I use, which works well for me.
Clamp the piece of wood which is getting the pins cut into it in the vise, pin edge up. Raise the wood a small amount (1/16”) above the bench surface. Lay the mating piece of wood on top, aligning the reference edges. Try to put the bottoms of the tails (end grain) just over the inside edge of the pin board (did you check to make sure you know which is inside and which is outside?). You can judge the edge location by using a knife blade as a sort of feeler gauge. Alignment is very critical. Now place a large weight on top of the tail piece of wood. It is critical that neither piece of wood moves during the marking. Check your alignment again.
Using a very sharp pencil or a sharp knife, mark the pins using the holes in the tail piece as a template. You must be careful to put the mark at the very edge of the tail holes, but you must also be careful not to push the tail board and move it. A knife works well here as you are marking in end grain, but you must be careful not to shave off the bottom corners of the tails!
Another thing which you must be very careful about is how you mark the pins out on the opposite end of the board you are working on. There is only one right orientation for the two ends. You want to end up with a box, not a zigzag of boards. Pay close attention to which face is inside vs. outside and make the inside face the same for both ends of the board.
Once you have marked all of the pins, slide the tail piece of wood away from the pin piece. Immediately mark both edges to indicate that these two and no others go together, and also indicate which face is inside and which face is outside. I often make cut marks with a narrow chisel inside the pins and tails. You can easily make a line, a cross, a star, and a hatch mark (1, 2, 3, 4 cuts). Put the marks where they won’t show in the finished work, but not in the waste. While the two boards are in close proximity, cross out the waste portions of the pin board. It is much easier to mark the waste correctly if the tails are sitting right next door.
Now put the tail board out of the way, and raise the pin board high enough in the vise to mark the face and to saw. Using a square, extend the lines you drew on the end grain down one face to the scribe line. A pencil works best here since you are drawing with the grain.
Now saw the pins. Your saw must not cut inside the lines.
Cut so that the saw kerf is entirely in the waste. If you come inside the lines into the pin, you will have a gap. How close you come to the line depends on how good you are at marking and sawing. The closer you can come to the line (i.e. the more practice you have), the quicker and easier dovetailing will be for you.
As with the tails, saw starting on the end grain to make a shallow groove, then angle the saw around to make a groove part way down the face. Work the cut down to just a saw kerf above the scribe lines on both sides of the board. Once you have all of the cuts down to the scribe lines, you remove the waste with a chisel just like when you cut the tails. Be careful of the fact that the pins are wider on one face than the other.
Fitting is difficult at first. Your goal is to shave away at the places on the pins where there is too much thickness, until they exactly fit the holes between the tails. You should take your time, making fine shavings with a sharp chisel, and frequently checking the mating pieces against each other. If you prefer a file or rasp, by all means use it. Shave the tails as a last resort, as I find shaving the tails is a good way to make a mistake. The more dovetails along a corner, the more difficult the fitting.
The ideal fit that you strive for is one which you can assemble and disassemble without using a mallet (just barely). It is terribly easy to damage your wood surface with a mallet. The fit I usually end up with needs light mallet work to assemble and disassemble. If you experience any resistance to assembly, try coating one side of the joint with chalk on the rubbing surfaces. Partially assemble the joint, and the chalk will mark the high spots you need to work on. You can also look for shiny spots on the pins (compressed areas) to indicate high spots.
Some books will recommend a tighter ideal fit, on the assumption that the pins and tails will slightly crush each other on assembly and fit each other better as a result. I have used this approach with good success in soft woods like pine and cedar. I would not recommend using a this approach in hard woods, as it is too easy to split something. Cherry in particular is a bit brittle and you must be careful not to have too tight a fit.
Before you glue, take time to think about how you are going to finish your boards. You probably want to fine sand the inside pieces before assembly, and you may want to finish the insides of the boards before assembly, depending on how you are planning on finishing your wood. I usually do not finish before assembly, but I am less picky than a lot of people.
Before you glue, clear your bench top. Place within easy reach a square, all of the clamps you own, cardboard to pad the clamp jaws, towels, a mallet and a scrap block of soft wood to shield your mallet blows. It is probably a good idea to get someone to help you the first time you glue up a box. I usually use yellow (aliphatic resin) wood glue. If you have a complex assembly or have not put many joints together before, use white glue. White glue is not as strong as yellow glue, but it takes longer to set up.
If you are making a box, you must glue up all of the corners at once to make sure everything is aligned. Apply glue to all of the hidden surfaces of one joint on at least one piece of wood. Some books recommend applying glue to both pieces, but I worry about the extra time taken allowing the glue to start setting up before assembly is done. This can be pretty messy, and you must be careful not to get glue where it doesn’t belong. Work efficiently, and try not to panic. Assemble each joint before applying glue to the next one.
If you should still be assembling your corners when the glue starts to set, please don’t panic. Glue which is just starting to set is really not a problem if you deal with it in the right manner. Do not use your mallet to persuade a joint which is setting. Glue which is beginning to set responds best to steady pressure, not impulsive pounding.
After all of your corners have been glued and assembled, check your corners for squareness. Put pipe clamps around the outside of the joints to snug up any remaining gaps in the dovetails. Watch where you put the clamp jaws as your pins and tails should stand just a bit proud of the surface. Adjust the tension on the clamps gradually to square up the box. Your box will probably not be perfectly square; reach a compromise between the wood and your pride. Let the glue set overnight.
The next day remove all of the clamps. The protruding ends of the pins and tails can best be made flush with a block plane. Now is also a good time to work carefully with a plane to make the edges of adjacent pieces of wood meet exactly. Set your plane really fine and be careful not to tear up the opposite piece.
Break all edges of your assembly with a block plane or fine sand paper. You will never see the difference, and your work will be much more comfortable to hold. If you use a plane, be careful to work both ends against the middle. Now is a really bad time to tear out part of an edge.
When you are making a box, you must decide how to attach the bottom at the beginning. One method is to cut a groove the same size as the bottom thickness on the four sides of the box, so that the bottom is raised from the lower edge of the sides. If you are making conventional through dovetails, the groove must stop before it reaches the edge of the board or it will show on the outside. Cutting a stopped groove is difficult with hand tools. A better solution is to cut the groove all the way to the edge of each board and put a mitered dovetail over it. Look at a picture of this joint in a book to see how it is done. It is not too hard, but takes a little practice. The grooves should allow the bottom some room side to side for expansion and contraction.
Be sure that the grooves on each of the four sides all line up with each other when you fit the dovetails together!
Assembling a box with a grooved bottom is only a little bit trickier than a dovetailed frame with no bottom. Assemble two of the corners, then slide in the bottom and assemble the last two corners. Do not glue your bottom in place. Gluing this joint would result in cross grain construction. Leave the bottom floating so it can expand and contract without stressing your joints.
A very elegant addition to a box is a shaped footing. This is really very easy to do if you use the right sequence. Cut a groove for the bottom a couple of inches above the edge of the boards. After the groove is finished, draw a pretty curve on the couple of inches of each board below the bottom and saw out your footing.
You can make the footing a separate frame (from the main box frame). This short frame needs to be larger than the box, and has a groove cut around the top edge just large enough for the box to drop into. The two end up getting glued together. If you make the groove around the top edge of the footing tall enough, you don’t need to stop the groove you cut in the box to hold the bottom. Run the bottom groove all the way to the edge of the board, and let the footing cover it.
There is another way to attach the bottom with a separate footing piece. Assemble and glue the four sides of your box. Cut a bottom board the same size as the outside edge of the box. Make a small four sided frame (dovetailed, of course), larger than the outside edge of the first box. This will turn into a footing. Cut curves in the edges to decorate. Before you assemble the footing frame, cut a groove along the top edge deep enough for both the bottom and the main box to drop in. The bottom will be supported by the frame, and the box will sit on top of the bottom. Both the bottom and a piece of the box need to drop into the groove. Remember not to put glue on the bottom or you will end up with cross grain construction. The frame needs to fit the box fairly well. You may want to cut the groove with two steps, so that the bottom sits in one, and the box sits above the bottom in the other step. This will help in keeping glue away from the bottom.
A very nice way of assembling the legs of a small table with a central pillar is to install the legs with sliding dovetails. These are pretty tricky to do right. Fitting is much easier if you cut your dovetails at a steeper angle than normal.
An excellent place to buy hardwood locally is Mr. Clyde Hetzel in Laporte, Colorado. Mr. Hetzel is 84 this year, and has been in the lumber business for a long time. He is fun to talk to if you take the time, and has reasonable prices on a good variety of American hardwoods (typically $2.00 to 2.50 per board foot, except walnut). Some of the wood is air dried, which can be good if you remember to measure the moisture content before using to make sure it is dry enough. He often has walnut, oak, cherry, Kentucky coffee tree, sassafras, mulberry, hackberry, ash and incense cedar.
Mr. Clyde Hetzel
If you want some veneer (just veneer, not attached to plywood), there is a very good source in Denver, B & B Rare Woods. They have very high quality veneer at good prices (the expensive fancy veneers get as high as $3 per square foot). Their pile of small stuff sometimes goes for as little as a quarter per square foot. Dave Bilger is the owner. He enjoys talking about the wood and doesn’t care if you buy small quantities.
A place to buy tools and books locally is Wood Emporium. Loren has an excellent stock of hand tools, including a lot of carving stuff. Sometimes his prices are a little high compared to mail order prices.
Loren Ballard, owner
618 N. Garfield Avenue
I find sharpening scrapers difficult, mostly because I haven’t had much practice. There is a neat little tool ($15) called a scraper burnisher which makes sharpening scrapers a snap, available from the people below.
28544 N. Hwy. 67
Woodland Park, CO 80863
I strongly recommend all of Roy Underhill’s books if you are at all interested in working wood with hand tools.
The Woodwright’s Shop
The Woodwright’s Companion
The Woodwright’s Workbook
The Woodwright’s Eclectic Workshop
all by Roy Underhill, University of North Carolina Press
Other useful books include:
Woodworking with Your Kids, by Richard Starr. A good book for adults to start learning about hand tools.
James Krenov’s books. A mixture of philosophy and methods.
Old Ways of Working Wood, by Alex Bealer (out of print)
Custom Tools for Woodworkers, by J. Petrovich, Stackpole Books
Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood, by John Alexander, Jr., Taunton Press
Fine Woodworking Magazine
Copyright 2002 by Steve Smith, <sos at alum.mit.edu>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.