Marking dovetails - visibility

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Hi,
I'd like to inquire how you folks out there mark your dovetails. I've been spending a lot of time trying to handcut dovetails that fit tightly and consistently. I'm making progress, but I've still got a ways to go.
I'm having real problems trying to make a precise line that is also visible. I do pins first, and mark the tails from the pins. The problem comes in marking the tails from the pins. I use a marking knife (Veritas), and the lines are very faint and darned hard to see on the face grain.
Any suggestions on how you folks mark this joint, and how you improve the visibility of scribed lines would be appreciated.
Thanks, Nate
p.s. I have also tried using a pencil, but it seems that the lines aren't really sharp and I'm not exactly sure if I'm hitting the right line when I saw.
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Nate, You are on the right track. Mark with a knife then remark the line lightly with a pencil. The razor edge will be seen easily.
Dave

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Okay, I'll try that. The cut line is so faint that it's darned hard to find it for highlighting.
I was thinking that maybe my knife is too sharp, and that a scratch awl might be better. The Veritas knife is pretty wide and there's not a lot of room for it to fit between the pins.
Thanks for the suggestion.
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Nate Perkins wrote:

I think you'll like the cut then mark method. It gives you two lines and if you pay attention you can cut one of them away, which hwlps remind you what is waste. Dave in Fairfax
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Hi, Nate.
If it's a dark wood, try lightly rubbing chalk or talc into the cut lines, otherwise use a hard pencil to give you a fine line.
Cheers
Frank

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Frank McVey wrote:

White colored pencil...

I saw on the safe side and sneak up on the lines with chisels. It takes a lot longer, but it's safer.
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I try that, but my dozuki sees the knife line more clearly than I do, and says, "Yum." How far to the safe side do you start?
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I used to do it that way, but it took forever and I was never happy with the results. Finally, I just heeded the words of Klausz (or was it Kirby?) who said that you should always aim for a good fit from the saw. The more you pare and fit, the more chances there are for mistakes. And if you can't see the line well enough to saw, I wouldn't be too confident in your chances with a chisel either.
If you think about it, which tool is more likely to give you a straight line, a saw or a chisel?
Anyhow, the way I do it now is to scribe my pins from the tails by clamping the boards in place with Pony miter clamps and using my marking knife. I then extend the lines down the board faces with a pencil (drawing the line just on the waste side of the mark, so that I aim to remove the pencil mark when sawing).
If the wood is dark, I use a white pencil with soft lead and rub it across the endgrain mark. Then I wipe off the surface, and that leaves a bit of color in the scribed line. Again, I mark the board faces with pencil, and I don't have to worry about it being a tiny line (as long as I get it started just to the waste side of the scribed mark), because I am not splitting the line, but removing it with my saw.
FWIW, ever since I started aiming for a fit from the saw, my dovetails have been *much* better than when I purposely cut shy of the line and pared.
Chuck Vance
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Conan the Librarian wrote...

"le mieux est souvent l'ennemi du bien", which roughly means that the effort to make things better often leads to the deterioration of what was already good enough.
Jim
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For sure, Chuck. At one time it was a point of honour among craftsmen to have your dovetails fit straight from the saw, and it's not *that* hard. And, like you, I mark the pins from the tails. I know it's a controversial point, and that vice-versa will work just as well if you're doing a one-off, but if you're doing a run of 3-4 drawers, then, to me at least, it's a lot faster to gang all the sides together with clamps and saw all the tails as one. Then you split the gang and mark up the pins on to the fronts/backs individually for the best fit..
Cheers
Frank

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I *aim* to have them fit straight from the saw, but ... er ... let's just say that sometimes my aim is a bit off. :-) Still, by trying to split the line on the waste side, I might get half of them to fit without paring (if I'm "in practice").

You know I always seem to think of that *after* I've already started sawing the tail boards individually. :-) Thanks for the reminder.
Chuck Vance
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In *my* hands? Definitely a chisel. :) My saw cuts never come out quite right, and they're always too something. Too shallow, too deep, too steep, too crooked, too rough. Especially too rough. My saw leaves a really ugly surface behind that I *have* to clean up.
I've gotten better results by far using an Xacto razor saw, but it's slow, slow going, and the thing doesn't cut deep enough. I suppose I need to get some fancy, expensive, thin kerf, lotsa tooth dovetail saw before I can use them on a real project.
Yours might be advice to heed though. I've never felt able to turn out consistent enough dovetails to actually use them in a project involving wood that cost me money. I can get a few good ones, but never all good ones.
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Get a saw like the "Classic Gent's Saw" sold by Lee Valley ($25 CDN) and make a proper handle for it. Go to the following url
http://www.ucalgary.ca/~kmuldrew/woodworking/revelations_1.html
and you'll find a template for the handle near the bottom of the page. It only takes a couple of hours and a scrap of wood.

Practice cutting right to the line (once you have a decent saw) and use thin, reasonably hard wood until you get the hang of it (dovetails in 1/2" stock are much easier than dovetails in 13/16" stock).
Ken Muldrew snipped-for-privacy@ucalgazry.ca (remove all letters after y in the alphabet)
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hardwoods, that's all I've used it on.
Also, without going into the whole tailsfirst/pinsfirst controversy, my experience is that that pins marked from tails were more conspicuous, and that any error in the tail angle (not squareness) could be remedied on the pins.
Only one P in my real address/ Un seul P dans ma vritable adresse
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Given my results with chisels, I'm sorry to hear that. :-)

Sounds like a problem with the saw itself.

Not really, but if you have the cash, it won't hurt you. I cut dovetails with a $25 mini-dozuki "Z-saw" before I upgraded to the IT saw, and it did just fine. In fact, I still sometimes use it for cutting in softwoods.
What I gained with the fancier saw was efficiency and ergonomics. It's more comfortable to use, and it just cuts straight, *period*. Wherever you start the cut, the saw will go straight, and quickly. My dozuki, on the other hand, can wobble or drift if I'm not mindful of my technique.
FWIW, in my search for the "perfect" dt saw, I tried a few different Zona model-makers saws (similar to the Exacto). They left lovely smooth surfaces, but they were so slow-cutting that there was just too much opportunity for the cuts to wander. I think I would up swapping them to Larry "C-less". He doesn't actually do any woodworking, so I don't know if they would have worked better for him.

I'm sure others have mentioned this to you before, but probably the best way for you to improve to the point where you can trust yourself, is to take a scrap board (hardwood is probably preferable, assuming you will be making projects out of hardwood), lay out a series of tails and cut them. Then cut the end of the board off and repeat. Do the same thing for some pins.
You can compensate *somewhat* for a mediocre saw with that sort of practice, as you learn to control it. The when/if you do get a good saw, you'll find yourself breezing through the things.
Chuck Vance
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snipped-for-privacy@swt.edu (Conan the Librarian) wrote:

Hi Chuck,
I started this thread a while back, so I figured I'd post a followup. I'm a rank amateur trying to come up the curve. I've cut about 100 or so dovetails now (I figure at least 25 sets), and here's a few beginner observations. I don't offer these with any authority at all (the experienced guys here will run circles around me) ... but I offer them in hopes that other newcomers might benefit.
- The biggest thing for me was learning to cut right at the line. For me, the difference in making dovetails has been learning how to saw right. No downward pressure at all on the saw, and keeping the arm straight and steady, cutting with just the weight of the saw. I found that if I hit the lines right on, it fits without chiseling. For a while, I was trying to saw wide and then trim with a chisel, but I never got consistent fits that way.
- The second biggest thing was to mark the second joint (tails for me) really precisely.
- I guess anything precise will work for marking. I used several knives, but then ended up preferring a sharp scratch awl. The lines were more visible and it seemed easier to get into the gaps for me. I guess this is personal preference.
- I have tried lots of saws, including middling Japanese dozukis as well as western saws. All work, but my favorite is an open-handled brass backed dovetail saw I got off of Ebay, set with little kerf, and sharpened according to instructions I pulled off of the net. I like the western saw because it has just enough kerf that you can slightly adjust the angle as you start the cut. I suspect that my saw is not sharpened expertly, but it cuts darned good. Even a cheapie gents dovetail saw I pressed out the kerf on and resharpened will cut pretty straight and smooth. I think any saw can work well, depending on what you get used to.
Again, I don't pretend to be expert at all on this. Just offering the observations of a novice, in the hopes that it might benefit other novices.
Cheers, Nate
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n snipped-for-privacy@yahoo.com (Nate Perkins) wrote in message

All good advice, especially the idea of aiming for a fit directly from the saw. I will add one or two things: When sawing the pins (assuming you are marking them from the tails), aim for your sawcut to "split the line on the waste side". What this means to me is position the saw so that it just touches the scribe line but the kerf falls in the waste. Also, it helps if your first sawcut is used to simply establish a kerf across the end of the board. After the kerf is made, then you can concentrate on keeping the saw vertical as you cut downward. As for your comment on sawing technique -- one thing that helps to keep the saw straight and steady is getting into a stance that is comfortable. I'm a lefty, and I stand with my right foot slightly back, and my body positioned so that my shoulder is directly aligned with the joint. My arm is slightly away from my body so that I am not "crowding myself", but my elbow, shoulder and wrist are all in line.

Yep. My own preference is the Veritas double-bevel knife. I used an awl for a while, but it seemed to want to skip in my hands, while the knife is easy to keep referenced against the tail board. But whatever works best for you.
A big part of dovetails is simply getting accustomed to the tools you have, and being comfortable with them. It's important to be precise, but even moreso, IMHO, you have to be able to repeat your level of precision on a consistent basis.

No argument with that idea. Heck, some folks cut dt's with hacksaws. :-) My first experience with a good open-handled Western backsaw was a bit of a revelation. It cost me all of $15 (sharpened), and from the first time I picked it up, it just felt natural. The grip just naturally puts your wrist and hand in the proper position for precise sawing. (My only gripe with dozukis is those stick handles.)
Most new saws have way too much set, and that's likely to cause problems as the saw can wobble within the wider kerf. With a properly-set saw, it will be darned hard to adjust the angle of your cut once it's established, and that's the way it should be.

Good job. You've picked up a lot of the important techniques for cutting good dt's. Once a beginner has learned all of these things, the major thing left to do is simply practice until it becomes second-nature. At that point you can achieve the repeatability that makes it all come together.
One final thing: If it's been a while since you've cut some dt's, it's good idea to take a scrap board out and draw a few lines and make some practice cuts before you do them for real on expensive wood. Just like warming up for sports, it helps to get the proper muscles loose and get yourself focused.
Chuck Vance
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snipped-for-privacy@swt.edu (Conan the Librarian) wrote:

Good Japanese woodworking tools are exquisite. I figure there's a very good reason for that stick handle. I just don't know what it is.
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Some little tidbits from the Rob Cosman video (one of my wood show purchases) that I found helpful. Rob planes the endgrain of the wood prior to marking, leaving a polished surface that shows the lines better.
The other is a sawing technique I like. I have been starting a saw cut using my fore finger to guide the saw. He uses his fore finger and his thumb to guide the saw when starting the cut. He marks both ends of the cut line this way for exact alignment.
Rob uses a ball point pen to mark the tails in the video. I've used a black pen to mark walnut, and it works.
Two tidbits from my shop . . .
I have the $50 maginfying lamp (Woodcraft) that is on a goose neck mounted on my bench. I adjust the lamp to direct an oblique light across the marks or scribe lines. I don't use the magnifying lense for this, just the light. The lense is for sharpening handsaws.
After the saw cut is started, I make sure that the saw blade is vertical, and I move my fore finger to be along side of the blade for tactile feed back of the blade position. I just touch the blade lightly (to monitor, not guide the blade).
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I never thought to mention that. I usually plane the endgrain as part of doing the final squaring of a piece. I do it partially because I usually need to touch things up a bit for squareness after sawing, and because it just looks better to have planed endgrain when you'll be seeing it like in dovetails. And come to think of it, it does show scribe marks better.

So he basically notches the piece on either end of the cut before starting to saw? I might have to try that. I currently wrap my forefinger over the end of the board and use the side of it to reference the saw.

Gosh, I don't know if I can remember all the various ways I've tried to mark dovetails. Various colored pens and pencils, from black to white, to almost flourescent colors. Once on cocobolo I even made up a paper template that I taped across the end of the board. It worked, sort of. :-}

I think the importance of oblique lighting when cutting dt's is sometimes overlooked. My bench is set up near the entrance to the (south-facing) garage/shop door, and I do all my dt sawing with the work clamped in my leg vise and my back to the entrance. That way I always have the natural light source coming from an angle (except at midday). When needed, I simply turn on my bench-lamp (nothing more than an adjustable lamp mounted in a wood block with a dowel that fits into the dogholes on my bench) and position it for added light.

Sounds like the way I do it. Did you pick that up at Homestead or just come into it on your own? I know some folks talk about using their fingertip to start the cut, but that just doesn't seem very helpful (and is a bit dangerous). Using the side of the finger just seems more natural.
Chuck Vance
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