wood for beginner dovetails
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- This topic has 10 replies, 6 voices, and was last updated 1 month, 4 weeks ago by Colin Scowen.
30 January 2023 at 10:21 pm #789334
What’s the best type of wood for beginning to practice dovetails? (non-project)
Try a few in pine, but if you want to have useful practice you need to be using hardwoods.
That is because pine compresses easily so is both forgiving and frustrating.
To keep the cost down you could try poplar? Not a true hardwood but much harder than pine.
Keep your chisels sharp and regularly sharpen. Keep your pencil / marking knife sharp, and get a dovetail angle jig.
Darren.31 January 2023 at 2:10 am #789360
Linden (Basswood) is good for practice as well. In my area (Texas) it’s significantly less expensive than pine.
It’s also exceptionally lightweight.
When I first started, someone told me to practice dovetails with “hard maple” because it was not compressible and required a lot of accuracy. That was very bad advice which, had I followed it, would have guaranteed failure, at least for me.
Perhaps I just lack natural ability, but I began by practicing just individual cuts for hours and hours and then dovetails for hours and hours. And I continued practicing for years, just as I practiced scales every day back when I played classical guitar.
So for me, the best beginner woods were (a) inexpensive since I used a lot (b) easy to saw cleanly and (c) a bit compressible since accuracy takes time to build and you want some decent level of success to avoid frustration. I tended to use cheap pine and pine like woods, but also any scraps I had laying around. Some of that cheap wood was not great because it did not saw cleanly, but hey, it was cheap. I quickly did try some poplar since I had some scraps and dabbled in a bit of oak. Ultimately, you do need to move to harder woods such as oak. I never did try hard maple since I never built anything with it.
I am not sure everyone would agree, but I found sawing skills were far far harder to acquire than chisel skills, so I was not at all worried by the fact that some of the woods I used did not chisel very well, especially with my rudimentary sharpening skills. For me it was all about the sawing.
Darren mentioned using a dovetail angle jig. I assume he means one of those magnetic jigs that holds the saw at the correct angle as you saw. I bought one but for some reason never used it. I know some hand tool workers start with them and leave them behind once they get the hang of the angles, and others start with them and use them forever. I do wonder what experience others had with them.31 January 2023 at 5:07 pm #789502
Most all of the dovetailing I have done has been in SPF. My personal experience is that the most important thing is to be able to saw square across the end of the board (I am a tails first guy). You don’t need to have exact angles and spacing, as you transfer whatever angles you cut to the pin board. If you cut those well, you are a long way towards getting things right.
The other advantage to getting one bit right and then moving on to the next, is that you can more easily identify if you get something wrong. For example, if you are working on your sawing, then you want the tails and pins to match well. SO don’t worry too much if the depth is not perfect, concentrate on the fit.
If you are working on your chiselling and chopping to the knife wall, then don’t worry too much if the tails and pins are loose. Keep all the slivers and parings, as they are good for filling in any gaps.
Just keep making things. Boxes, screwdriver stands, toothbrush holders, anything. Notice I don’t use the word practising. Whatever you make, make it to be a finished useful thing (even if it is only an L shape doe’s foot that you can clamp in your vise). It changes the way you focus on things.
Colin, Czech Rep.
Pine is excellent. 1×4 clear “pine” from the home center will be fine. It’s a good width to get a couple tails into. When this feels comfortable, try oak.
To be clear, the jigs people are talking about are layout jigs, not cutting jigs. I’d not use a cutting jig. You will be cheating yourself. And, you don’t need the layout jig. You can use a square and sliding bevel gauge. You don’t even need the sliding bevel and can just eyeball the angles. For the sake of learning to cut and fit them, the angle doesn’t matter.
If you take the “tail first” approach the Paul teaches, there are a couple things to understand before you practice. You will cut the tails first. For these cuts, two things matter. First, getting started dead square across. Second, once you lay the saw over a bit to get the angle of the tail, do not try to correct the angle. Accept what you get. Again, the angle doesn’t matter, but cutting a flat plane matters very much. So, get square across, lay the saw over a bit to get your tail angle, and then just let it ride.
Second, regarding the pins, you have three challenges. You will transfer the tail angles from the tail board and you must learn to start dead on that angle. It only takes a little practice. Second, if you trace the tails with a pencil, you need to understand which side of the line to cut on. Watch while you are tracing the tail and you will see that the pencil cannot go under the tail. All of the pencil lead is in the waste and all of the pencil line must be removed to make space for the tail. So, you cut to remove the pencil line. If things always come out too tight or too loose, review this step. Finally, the third thing is to learn that, once you have the saw started dead on the angle of the pin, you need to cut perfectly square down the face. Do this by dropping the heel of the saw to set the vertical angle. Just like for the tails, you do not want to make corrections to the path of the saw, so you need to learn to get this vertical cut. I find that, when transferring the angled pin line around the corner and square down the face, the line doesn’t always line up exactly right with the line on the end grain. So, although you saw to remove the line on the end grain, you may take more or less of the line running along the face. Don’t worry about that…use the line along the face to tell you your direction and focus on staying parallel to it. When your layout skills are perfect, the face line will cut out just like the end grain line, but at the start, it may help to focus on stayign parallel.
All of the pencil lead is in the waste and all of the pencil line must be removed to make space for the tail. So, you cut to remove the pencil line.
SORRY!! All of the pencil line is in the pin that you are creating, so all of the pencil line *REMAINS.* Leave the line! When the work is in my hands, I see what to do, but just typing, it can be confusing.
I wish the edit button hadn’t been removed.31 January 2023 at 10:32 pm #789590
Agreed, lack of edit button is a major step backwards.
I tend to use the vertical lines on the pin board as a guide for the saw plate to stay parallel with, rather than aiming to remove them. On the pin boards, as I need all of the pencil on the end grain to stay visible, its just easier in my head to leave the verticals too.
Renaissance Woodworker did a nice video on 5 exercises to improve your sawing on his YT channel. It seems to work along the same lines as sports training. You never go straight in to competition, you first practice, and then you warm up.
Colin, Czech Rep.
I agree about staying parallel to the vertical lines on the face of the pin board and not worrying about whether you are on them, left, or right. They just show direction. It’s the line on the end grain that gives the location. In my first message, when I was talking about taking them out, it was part of my original error. When layout skills are honed, the kerf will look the same relative to the line on the end grain and face grain, but in the mean time, there’s no need to mess up the dovetail through misunderstanding (like in my original message 🙂 ).1 February 2023 at 6:39 am #789639
Another plus to building open projects (L shape or U shape, or N shape or C shape (presumably depending which way you hold the thing)) is that once you have a nice fit on the sides of the joint, you can see if there are gaps on the inside / outside of the pin board, and then re-score the knifewall and re-pare which lets you fine tune the joint and only makes the pins longer. (Doesn’t work on the tail board though.)
Colin, Czech Rep.
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