The Cabinet Maker at School… part 2


After breaking down the rough stock and flattening it all by hand, the next step for the School Box is to dovetail the carcase. I’ve written about dovetailing before, and I followed the same process for the School Box. Although I don’t intend to rehash that step-by-step guide again, there are a couple of points I will flesh out.

I suppose that had I been following the text from the Joiner & Cabinet Maker to the letter I would have cut my pins first. At some point in the future I will have a concerted attempt at getting to grips with cutting pins first, but not today. I learned to dovetail by cutting tails first, and that way makes a great deal of sense to me. As I’ve barely cut any dovetails since I finished the sliding trays for my Anarchist’s Tool Chest in December 2014, I thought I would use the School Box as an opportunity to refresh my preferred dovetailing method. In other respects I did broadly follow this section of the Joiner & Cabinet Maker – like Thomas I used five tails per corner, with the tails on the front and back of the box and the pins on the sides. I did however use a more striking 1:4 slope for my dovetails, as I find the strong slope to be very attractive.


Laying out the pins

Two experiences dramatically improved my dovetailing over the past couple of years.

The first was attending the Anarchist’s Tool Chest course with Chris Schwarz, partly because Chris’ way of teaching dovetailing is excellent and demystifies the whole process with clear, useful, techniques. But also because a five-day dovetail death march is the sort of intensive learning experience which always improves technique. The second experience is using the Moxon vise. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to press my Moxon into service, and having the work piece raised off the bench by an extra 5″ definitely makes for a more pleasant and comfortable experience. More importantly the increased height improves sawing ergonomics, which makes for a more accurate saw cut. I’m looking forward to experimenting further with the Moxon and will write more fully about the benefits of the vise once I have logged more bench-hours on it. One final observation for now is that the Moxon also helps create a really efficient workflow when fine tuning the joint – having a full 24″ between the threads meant that I could have boards in the vise at the same time for final paring and clean up, which allowed me to work my way along two edges before flipping the boards over and cleaning up the opposite ends.


The Moxon has sufficient capacity to hold two boards simultaneously, for efficient fine tuning.

To get a good tight fitting dovetail I aim to saw on the waste side of the pencil line of the pins, rather than on the line itself – this gives a tiny amount of additional material which will compress to fill the joint. In contrast, sawing bang on the line can remove too much material and result in a gappy joint. The difficulty I used to find with this is that the line becomes distracting, and my saw hand wants to cut on the line rather than against it. To encourage the saw to cut against the line, I press the tip of a finger nail into the knife kerf on my pin boards, and run the saw plate against that nail. In the photo below, you can see that the right hand side of the knife kerf has been removed by the saw, but that the remainder of the kerf (and of the pencil line) remains – this is what I’m looking for when I cut my pins.


I may never tire of workshop macro photography

The more waste you can remove with a coping saw from between the pins, the less there is to chisel away, which makes for a more efficient dovetailing experience. I’ve been trying to be more daring with how close to the base line I cut with my coping saw, with the target being a clean cut just above the base line without bruising it (as shown in the picture below). My chisel can now drop straight into the kerf of the base line and pare away what little waste remains, for a nice quick fit.


Be daring with your coping saw cut, and there will be minimal waste to pare away with your chisel

One of the keys to a good fitting dovetail is to ensure that there is no junk left between the pins or the tails, and that the baseline has been pared so that it is perfectly perpendicular to the face of the joint (a little undercutting in the centre of the joint is also ok). The Sterling Tool Works Double Square when fitted with the fine dovetail rule is an excellent way to check that the baseline is in good order, as well as confirming that the edges of your tails are parallel.


Finally, to remove the half-pin from the tail board, paring a ramp from the waste to the baseline will guide a fine carcase saw to remove the waste with no paring needed to clean up that part of the joint.


Once the joints had been cut and cleaned up I knocked each corner together individually to check that the fit was not too tight, and that the tails wouldn’t crumble or the boards split. The joints were then coated in hide glue which I’d warmed in a mug of hot water, and knocked together using the leather covered face of my 24oz Blue Spruce Toolworks joiner’s mallet. The assembled box was then put to on side so that the glue could cure.



4 thoughts on “The Cabinet Maker at School… part 2

    • Thomas is so judgmental 😉 I don’t think he’ll like the changes I’ll be making in my next blog post…

      I remember you tried pins first. I will, at some point. Clearly you’re a braver man than I.

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