On the endless layers of simplicity (or, why the dovetail saw is mightier than the sword)


It was with some horror that I realised only two weeks before my course with Roy Underhill that I’ve barely cut any dovetails this year. This has mainly been due to losing workshop time because of the move, and then focusing on the parlour guitar and my Furniture & Cabinetmaking articles. But even though I know I can cut a half-decent dovetail (thanks to last year’s dovetail death march with Chris Schwarz) I thought I should get reacquainted with my dovetail saw and put in some practice before the course with Roy.

And then I had a slightly better idea. Because you see, it is always worth stripping a technique back to very basics, and revisiting the fundamentals, regardless of your current skill level. This is a training technique I have always found to be very beneficial (and enjoyable) in my martial arts training. Leave the complex techniques alone for a few minutes, take something simple that you know off by heart and break it down to its constituent parts, dissecting exactly what happens at each stage of the technique. So instead of diving straight in to those practice dovetails, I decided to spend a couple of nights running through the Night of 100 Cuts exercise. Now, I wrote about this exercise back in June last year, but in a nutshell it involves practicing each of the 5 cuts you use in a dovetail (square on and straight down, angled left and straight down, angled right and straight down, square on and angled left down, and square on and angled right down) in isolation. So 20 repetitions of the first cut, followed by 20 of the second cut, and so on.

And here is the interesting thing about repeating this exercise for the first time since the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course. When I first started using the exercise last year I thought it was all about training that all important muscle memory of what dead plumb actually felt like, and how that compares to a 1:4 angle slope for cutting tails. And yes, that is an important part of the exercise. But I think it goes beyond that. Much like when I start breaking down my favourite joint manipulations in martial arts training, this week I have found Night of 100 Cuts to be an opportunity to focus on each aspect of each cut. So what are my feet doing? Where is my centre of balance and weight distribution? How am I orientating my upper body and shoulders in relation to my sawing hand? How am I gripping the saw (like I’m cupping a baby bird, as you asked)? What is my left hand doing? All the same questions I would ask when breaking down a wrist lock (apart from the cupping action, we rarely cup in the dojo).

And then, how do all of the above change when I move from cutting the left edge of a tail (square across the board, downward slope to the right) compared to cutting the left edge of a pin (angled to the left across the board, straight down)? To what extent does my posture, stance, and movement change between the five cuts? It becomes a forensic examination of the technique from the ground up.

Building things is always more fun than practice cuts or practice joints, but practicing a high number of repetitions of each cut, safely away from a real life project, means that you can analyse and adjust each element of your technique, and understand what effect your stance and posture have on a particular cut.

Of course the ultimate aim is to not have to think about any of this, just to step up to the board and cut row after row of perfect dovetails right off the saw (what in Jiu Jitsu we refer to as “mushin”; a clarity of mind in which the body can react without higher thought processes interfering). But to get there, the mind has to do a lot of thinking, and the more we progress and understand a technique, the more I think it is possible to get out of a seemingly simple exercise like Night of 100 Cuts. Because as our understanding and skill level increases, we become more sensitive to the nuances of a given technique or operation.

Simplicity, it would appear, is onion-like in its layers.


5 thoughts on “On the endless layers of simplicity (or, why the dovetail saw is mightier than the sword)

  1. Well Kieran, I think you hit the nail on the head. Not many people I’ve taught have the self-awareness of their body to analyse the process as you have and that’s exactly what you have to do. Every hand tool operation is a series of movements and positions of the body that need to be practised over and over again to master. There is no short-cut to hand tool proficiency.

    If I haven’t done a technique in a few months, I take the time to go through the basic motions to get myself physically and mentally into the right space. If I forgo this step, disaster almost always follows.

    I end all my blogs with the statement ‘In order to understand, you must do’. No amount of reading and YouTube watching is going to help you master a tool or technique like actually getting into the shop and doing it.

    Nice bit of writing here Kieran and I don’t think you’ve overcomplicated it at all. Cheers…Vic

    • Hi Vic thank you for taking the time to read the post and comment! I think mindfulness can be a battle sometimes – we all want to dive into the project at hand, and practice exercises can feel like an unwelcome distraction. But as you say, practice is the only way to develop skills and techniques.

      Thanks again!

  2. Great read and good advice. I’m going to have to get on this while my shop is torn up. I’ve been putting of my ATC build long enough and I want my dovetails to be in top shape when I get started.

    Word on the street is that the spirit of Chris Schwarz haunts toolchests with gappy joinery.

    • Thanks James! The Night of 100 Cuts definitely works, especially if you repeat it over a period of time. I’ve just completed my third consecutive day and have noticed definite improvements in saw accuracy, as well as identifying some small things to watch out for. Which is a pretty decent return on a small amount if time invested.

      The spirit of CS definitely haunts gappy tool chests, and leaves behind drawings of unicorns pooping cupcakes on the offending chests. I’ve seen it happen.

      Will you be blogging about your ATC? My top tip is go for 8 tails per corner instead of the regulation 25 in the book. CS had us cutting 8 per corner on the class and it saves a lot of time, while still being bomb proof joinery.

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