Dovetail School

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Last Saturday I attended a hand-cut dovetail class at Highland Woodworking, taught by local woodworker, Jim Dillon. I was excited to take this class as it was my first go at any sort of classroom instruction in the craft. I have to say, it was really enjoyable. For one, this was the first time I’ve used a proper workbench. I am completely sold and am already looking at bench plans on Finewoodworking.com as a possible next project. Just having a flat reference surface and a proper vise makes an amazing impact on the quality and repeatability of my work. I don’t know how I’m getting along without this essential tool.

Jim did an excellent job of teaching the six hour class. I’d say it was about 10% classroom instruction and 90% doing, with him coming around and checking on our individual progress. We started out doing two to three rounds of single dovetail creation. My first attempt was of course, pretty terrible. So was the second. The third however, showed some promise. I think the main issue I was having was a lack of experience and accuracy with my Japanese dovetail saw. I love how sharp and effortless these saws are, but I’m not a fan of the long handle and the flexible, ultra-thin blade, though I do enjoy cutting on the pull stroke. I’ve been holding out for a proper Western style saw, and when Jim informed the class that by attending, we’d get 10% off in the store, I jumped at the chance and picked up a Veritas 14 tpi Dovetail Saw during lunch break. Fortunately, I had already budgeted for tools this week so this really worked out.

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There is something to be said for using the right tools. This saw fits my style (and my hand) perfectly. My saw cuts were immediately more accurate. The short, rigid blade on the Veritas gives great feedback while working. The angle of the handle leaves little doubt as to how to handle the tool, whereas the Japanese style with a loooong straight handle means I’m using slightly different grip styles all the time. All in all, a good buy, and all reviews seem to suggest that this is on par with the respectable Lie-Nielsen version which is about twice as much money. I do like the looks of the Lie Nielsen as it’s tricked out in brass and all that good stuff, but in this case, sheer functionality wins the day.

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With my new saw in hand, I made quick (sort of) and accurate (mostly) work of the last part of the class, a simple box build. I have never been able to hand saw anything as accurately as I did this little box. There were plenty of tiny mistakes, but I imagine with a few thin shims and some cyanoacrylate glue and sawdust, it’d look close to perfect. I look forward to practicing my dovetails here and there and finally including the joint in a formal project. This might be perfect for a little box to store my meerschaum pipe.

It seems that the majority of the craft can certainly be explored solo by reading books, watching videos and practicing but there is simply no substitute for good classroom instruction with an expert on hand to give a word or two to steer you in the right direction.

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