I'm trying to build a laptop writing desk, sometimes called a desktop
writing case. Just a small box with a hinged lid that acts as the writing
surface. I've tried learning dovetails by hand and can get close (well I
like to think so), but the fit is actually sloppy and rough looking, and I
don't have hours on end to practice. I tried doing them on the tablesaw, a
la Yeung Chan's "Classic Joints with Power Tools", and can get close, and
even decent on the scrap, but when the time comes to do them on the actual
stock, I have to use it for firewood because the fit is so sloppy and there
are ugly gaps. I can't get them all perfect, some are poor, others, worse.
Last night I spent 2 hours just on one 6" set of dovetails that I can't use.
And there is no more stock surfaced and ready to go. Another trip to the
I've tried skipping the dovetails to use a box joint instead. I built a jig
a la NYW, and can't even get the jig right! Just getting the key the exact
width of a 3/8" dado cutter is not easy. Then getting the spacing over 3/8
seems even more impossible. Norm whips it out in 5 minutes. I spent 2
weekends trying to get one built and working. I gave up on this jig. Tage
Frid amusingly writes: "It may be frustrating to get right the first time."
Then another book said to use a crosscut sled instead of the miter gauge for
box joints as the miter gauge is too inaccurate. I have the hardest time
just getting a crosscut sled perfect. It seems there are too many areas to
foul it up on. The back of the sled has to be exactly flat. The runners
have to fit the miter slots without any slop. The same runners have to be
exactly 90 degrees to the rear fence. The fence has to be perfectly flat.
If I can't get the sled and jigs built perfectly, how do I get the actual
joinery to work? With the money I've tossed away on the stock I've ruined
with ill fitting joints, plywood tossed away on crappy jigs, and even more
important, the precious time lost trying over & over to get something to
work, I could have bought a Leigh D4 and moved on. Does anyone else ever
experience this or is it just me? Arrgh! Please help!
First, take the weekend off. Let the aggravation subside before you try
I like to hand cut my dovetails. And your right, it's not easy to get nice
tight joints. It took me a lot of patience and practice to get them right
However, i got one of these for Christmas this year:
Check it out. It made handcutting dovetails SO much easier. IMO, even if
your a rookie, after a few trial runs you'll be making excellent hand cut
dovetails. In addition to the jig, I'd also suggest a marking gauge (I use
the Veritas wheel gauge) a marking knife (makes nice crisp lines a pencil
can only dream about) and a good set of SHARP chisels. If you currently
have no good method of sharpening your chisels, Lee Valley has a jig for
You can get it with or without a stone. I just use sandpaper from 220 to
1500 grit and then buff/polish on the flannel bench grinder wheel. Keep us
posted on your progress --dave
Second that emphatically!
For my money this is _the_ way to learn to make hand cut dovetails!
Whether you want to keep using it after you get the process down is up
to you, but it makes learning so much easier it is not funny.
As far as the box joint jig is concerned: If you're just starting out,
buy one rather than try to make it. For the reasons you've already
Use it for a while and you'll probably never have to buy another one,
but you want to make those first few joints as absolutely simple as
My theory is that as a beginner you need all the help you can get.
Think of it as training wheels for joinery.
"Sometimes history doesn't repeat itself. It just yells
'can't you remember anything I've told you?' and lets
fly with a club.
-- John W. Cambell Jr.
I feel your pain dude. Went through a similiar horror story myself
Now, I simply my joinery. Drawers get the draw lock joint on the router
table. It's very strong (can stand up to kids hanging on the drawer),
and full proof. Norm might turn up his nose at me when he visits me,
but I really don't care.
Don't feel compelled to use joinery that is a PITA. Remember, this is a
hobby, it's supposed to be fun. Just do what gets the job done. It can
be done nice, and your piece won't fall apart on you.
For your project, I'd probably just route a 1/4" dado on one piece,
then make a 1/4" tongue on the other piece. Make it so the dadoed piece
slightly overhangs when you put the corner together, and then sand it
flush. A nice, strong joint in no time at all. No wasted time or
IMHO, making hand cut dovetails is not for the faint of heart or for
those without time on their side. It is not easy, it does take practise and
it does take skill. Whether it is worth it in the long run is up to you.
Two hours on one six inch set of dovetails is not at all uncommon when you
are at the base of the learning curve. I had lots of dovetail problems
before taking a course; twelve weeks of one day a week. The culmination of
the course was making a box with hand cut half blind dovetails. Everyone
was able to do a creditable job. If all you want to do is make stuff, buy
the gadget. If you want the satisfaction that comes with learning get into
a course. Paying for instruction saves incredibly on the learning curve.
Box joints are easily made with router jigs. Check
http://us.oak-park.com/catalogue.html?list=boxj-- for pictures. Easily
reproduced. If you'd like to try them, let me know a real e-mail (if other
than the obvious) and I'll drop you some demo photos.
Been there, done that. I work a regular job that sucks 70 hours of my
life away per week, and when I get to "play" in the shop(1 car garage),
nothing is more irritating than making firewood instead of finished
projects. If you have more money then time, read on. If it's the
other way around, hand-cut joinery takes more time but sufficently
joins the wood.
I had a garage sale, sold all of my old junk, and then hopped on to
For about $4000.00, you can equip your shop with an INCRA TS-LS.
simply put, amazing. After the initial installation (1 day) I took a
scrap of wood and made a perfectly fitting double dovetail. It's so
tight that it doesn't require glue, although I would advise using it
My 4 grand investment netted me a Jet 10XL 3hp table saw, an Incra
Table Saw-Lead Screw (TS-LS) system, Precision Router Lift, a PC 690
router combo, a DeWalt 733 planer (used), a commercial style jointer,
mobile base, chisels, planes,sharpening tools, measuring tools, safety
equipment, and dust collector.
I put hundreds of hours into research, development, and design.
Incra has made me re-think woodworking altogether. I'm not simply
cutting wood, I'm MACHINING the raw material.
My solid myrtlewood sewing room with built-in fixtures and cabinets is
coming along nicely, thank you.
How can you justify spending that kind of change on yourself, while
your children's college fund suffers? Actually, it was an investment
in my house, my children's future, and myself. The custom woodworking
I have done would start at about 5K if I hired a contractor. I went
down to the county courthouse and got a business license, so now the
purchases became assets for the new business. Uncle Sam is going to
give me an incentive to get my business going, called Section 179.
Basically, it gives me back 40% of my purchase price in depreciation
the first year. It's to help spur the economy, which i was more than
happy to do. These tools will outlast me, and I hope my son will be
teaching his grandson how to use them one day.
One last note, with all of my cool equipment, there is no way to do
away with hand tools. I know of no planer than can produce the surface
that a hand scraper can. Keep your chisels, you will need them.
Best of luck my man.
Exhale. Again. Better now?
This is supposed to be relaxing and fun. If it's not, put it down, and go
watch Red Green on PBS. Or Roy Underhill.
Then mill up some practice stock, of some poplar or similar, and practice
some of those joints by hand. Having watched some really good woodworkers
cut dovetails with a saw, chisel and small mallet, what I realized was the
calm, relaxed demeanor that seemed to be required. Tension was the enemy.
It used to take a full apprenticeship to become a cabinetmaker with hand
tools. We expect an awful lot of ourselves these days, if we want to be
Lonnie Bird or Christian Becksvoort in a couple of weeks.
Deadlines are for working life. Enjoy the hobby. If it's late, it's late.
So, use rabbits or dadoes for the box. Quick and not that
difficult. No way would I try to do dovetails by hand, but
I'm not an artist and couldn't saw a straight line to save
OTOH, I kept reading about box joints hear and finally
decided to make a jig, a sled. Got it right the very first
time and couldn't believe it. From several posts I decided
to combined a box for the back and a movable back piece and
I built it so I could adjust the square figuring that no
matter what I did it wouldn't be square. I used a box made
of 3/4 plywood for the back because I couldn't find anything
that was straight or didn't have a bit of twist. Build a
box and cinch it up tight when you glue it and it just about
has to be square and straight. The only thing I would do
different is that there are three rabbits and 1 dado. If I
did it again I would make all of the joints dadoes for
greater accuracy. I combined whoever's idea of a movable
back that hold the pin and is adjustable with a 10-32 screw.
I've made two sleds and there is some fooling around to
get the runners right, but it just takes time. Fortunately
it is pretty dry here so I don't think the wooden runners
will be a problem (they are tight).
The key is that you assemble your dado (who cares about the
exact size it is if you always use the same combination of
blades) and make your first cut. Then you make the piece
that your are going to use for the peg and you just keep
adjusting the rip fence until the wood piece fits exactly in
the slot you cut in the bottom of the sled. Better rip
your peg from at least a 14" board and maybe rip more than
one piece when you get it to size cause you might need
several pegs. The real key is the adjustable fence, imagine
being able to adjust the distance between the pegs by 1/64
inch increments (half a turn of the 10-32 screw).
I never saw anyone use a sled, and now wonder why? I
learned quite a bit that I should have learned in the past
30+ years of building stuff. If you are in a hurry, then
throw money at it.
Dovetails, or any joinery, will only come out as good as your layout.
You may yet have problems with your technique, but to begin with I
suggest using a marking knife for the layout (darkening in the cut with
a pencil if necessary) and really taking your time, both on the first
piece you mark (pins or tails, I prefer tails) and the second, which you
scribe from the first.
((((((((((((((((((( Woodworking , especially joinery, does take
practice... hell I have been practicing for 40 years (not hours) and
am still learning....
I tried doing them on the tablesaw, a
(((((((((((((((( if you can get close using scrap then use more scrap
and take the time necessary to get it right...THEN use the Good
Again Practice...and patience... but cutting a pin that matches the
width of a dado cut really is not that difficult.....
Then getting the spacing over 3/8
. I have the hardest time
Again... I is not rocket science to build a sled...
With the money I've tossed away on the stock I've ruined
No comment except that you should not have even touched the good
lumber until you mastered the joint using scrap...
I could have bought a Leigh D4 and moved on. Does anyone else ever
Well I still do not have a Leigh jig.... No real need for one !
BUT I hear your pain...just remember that it does take practice..and
it takes time.... why not but a hundred bucks worth of number 2 common
pine and "schedule" yourself for lots of practice....
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