Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Practice for Cutting Dovetails

If I were the type to make New Year's resolutions, I might resolve that 2014 is the year I take my hand tool skills to a new level (To clarify: I'm not the type, so I'm not resolving that!)

But if I were, and I wanted to do that, I would identify a specific skill to improve, and then set aside a regular time to do just that skill over and over. I think that's a different approach than most woodworkers take. Most of us, wanting to get better at cutting dovetails, might commit to making a project with dovetails, so we attempt killing two birds with one stone: make a project we want (or are being paid to build) and improving our skill at the same time.

This is a trap set for us by our fixation on productivity. We are woodWORKERS after all, so we should be WORKING on something USEFUL - - or we're wasting our time! Never mind that if we're trying to focus on learning this new skill, while at the same time trying to focus on a project we want to build well, our two separate agendas will compete for attention and we'll make progress on both projects much more slowly than if we gave our full attention to one or the other.

Golfers go to the driving range. Tennis players practice their serve. Musicians rehearse. Why shouldn't woodworkers focus on improving their skills one at a time as well? This is a concept I picked up from Ian Kirby and Mark Duginske. Gary Rogowski also has a great exercise for warming up to cut “real” dovetails by practicing on a 1 x 2.

This exercise is designed to do several things: develop your eye, develop your trust in your eye, and develop your hand's ability to go where your eye says.

In the photos I'm using a piece of yellow poplar ½ inch thick and 3 ½ inches wide. That's the wood we use to make a little box in my dovetail class. I think a 1 x 4 would be just fine for this, or a 1 x 8, or a 2 x 6. It can be any species you have on hand, it just needs to have a square end. But you'll be turning part of it into scraps, so probably don't use ebony for this exercise.

Let's go!
  1. End square, right?
  2. Clamp wood for sawing in your vise. Try to clamp it vertical. Then check it for vertical with your square. See how close you got, just by eye?

  3. Close your eyes. Move your hand in its natural sawing motion as you slowly bring it down until it touches the wood. Stop! Open your eyes, see if the saw is square to the wood. If it isn't, change your stance. Move your rear foot right, or left, close your eyes, and try again. Repeat as necessary until your natural sawing stroke is square to the wood. This step is important, as it prevents you from fighting against your own body as you move the saw straight forward and straight back.

  4. Put the saw square across the wood and make one or two light strokes, just enough to start a kerf all the way across the end of the board.
  5. Put your square next to the kerf and check.

  6. Put the saw square across the wood and make one or two light strokes, just enough to start a kerf all the way across the end of the board.
  7. Put your square next to the new kerf and check.

  8. Repeat all the way across the end of the board, about 1/8” apart. If you think to, saw from left to right, so that your previous kerfs are out of sight as you make your latest attempt. (I assume everyone is right-handed, with a dominant right eye, like me. If you're not, adjust.)

  9. Next try sawing straight down. In each of the kerfs you just made, make four or five strokes, trying to saw perfectly vertical kerfs. Check your work with a square as you go.

  10. Try to be mindful. Don't simply “Cut, check, repeat,” but as you're checking, think about whether or not you just made a square cut, and if it strayed, why that happened.
  11. WAX OFF! I love saying that. Cut the board a fresh end . . .

  12. . . . make sure it's square . . .

  13. and make some more practice cuts!
  14. When you're pretty good at square cuts, and vertical cuts, try your hand at angled cuts like you'd use for tails.

You don't have to do this every day for hours at a time. Occasionally making a few cuts this way, and thoughtfully checking them after, will give you much more confidence in your hand and eye.

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