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Vintage Tools


Tools and Woods with Bob Smalser

  Machine-cut Through Dovetails 1 of 6  

The lads I’m writing these for have been at it over a year now rehabilitating and using basic hand tools, and it’s time to develop mastery of the basic machines to increase efficiency.  I can’t think of a better place to begin than some basic through dovetails.

The dovetail is a utility joint for joining wood at right angles, one that will remain functional long after its glue has gone to dust, and remains the best joint out there for resisting tension stress like pulling on a heavy drawer.  It is often a better joint for carcass corners than the mortise and tenon, especially in thin, Victorian frame and panel construction found in many old yachts…

…and is also one of the easier and faster joints to cut accurately once you master visualizing the joinery principles involved.  Shucks, I even use them to join heavy gate frames like the two 7-foot gate leaves below... just like I do with hatch covers:

Drawers are their most common use, and I’ll begin a run of shallow utility drawers that will also double as tool trays for the shop on this fine rainy day.

I prefer solid, mold-proof, crossgrain cedar bottoms on drawers, especially in damp boat interiors...and also prefer thicker rough sawn stock as my starting point, as it makes for faster panel construction than planed stock.  Crossgrain heartwood bottoms are sound, beautiful, classic joinery, can be done almost as fast as using plywood, and more importantly, are a great way to use up all that rip waste that normally goes into the stove.

  I lay them up above after jointing them so they lay edge grain up for minimum seasonal movement.  So long as the bottom face remains flat against the bar clamps, the thickness planer will deal with any and all thickness variations easily. 

This cross grain bottom is 16 inches wide and 22 inches long.  If you only own a 12” planer, simply omit glue in that center joint, plane them after curing, then lay the two halves up again, using a little more care in alignment. 

No dowels or biscuits are required, merely squarely jointed edges…the planer takes care of most of the alignment and the glue alone is more than sufficient strength.  Trying to lay up the whole shebang at once and plane it across rather than with the grain remains a bad idea.

I prepare the stock for the drawer front, back and sides sized to fit the carcass opening, and mark which faces I want to display based on any defects present in the wood. This stock is spalted holly from a small log that was unsuitable for cabin soles in boats, and there is a bit of grain runout and checking. I’ll wait until I glue the drawer up before gluing any checks and splits to save time, and also mark where I’ll have to move a dovetail a bit so any defects don’t fall on a tail or pin.

Next I’ll groove all 4 pieces for the drawer bottom, cutting quarter-inch grooves, three-sixteenth’s deep using multiple passes on the table saw. Notice my blade insert is clearly marked on both sides at exact center of the saw’s arbor, and I’m careful to position a tooth on that mark before attempting to set the blade height to dado the grooves. As this drawer will also function as a tray, I’ve chosen to make all 4 pieces the same, 3/8” thickness.

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Winsted Tools




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