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Thread: Dovetail Question

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    SE Minnesota

    Dovetail Question

    Machine Cut vs Hand Cut

    I've been pondering this subject for a while and would like your thoughts. Why is that most machine cut dovetail joints look like zipper teeth (OK, box joints) while hand cut dovetail joints don't? The typical machine cut dovetails have pins and tails that are the same width. I've never seen a hand cut dovetail joint cut that way. Generally the width of the pins is but a small fraction of the width of the tails in a hand cut joint and there are usually a small number of pins relative to the machine cut cousins.

    Yes, I'll grant that with a jig such as the Leigh, the spacing can be more like you would do with a hand cut joint but it seems that even with the Leigh jig, many woodworkers shoot for getting as many pins and tails as they can in the joint.

    With the common comb-type jigs and router table-based jigs such as the Incra, zippers are the rule.

    Is it that those who hand cut dovetails are just plain old too lazy to cut a lot of them in a run? No, I don't really think that.

    I realize that there is more gluing surface area in the zipper-like joint but I don't think that is a valid reason when you can look around any antique store and find a bunch of old, hand cut joints that have yet to fail. And with the sorts of adhesives we have these days, there really isn't a need for the larger surface area.

    In my opinion, the typical comb jig type dovetails are not aesthetically pleasing. surely I'm not the only one who thinks that.

    So what say ye? Anyone?
    Irony: The opposite of Wrinkly

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    London, Ontario
    Yup. Agreed.

    Still, I think that these days, the hand-cut crowd often tend to make some pins as teeny-tiny-thin as possible, just to blatantly show that it is NOT a machine-cut joint.

    ps: but in all honesty, I have not seen that many Leigh joints to say if they are mostly done zipper style or not.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Sacramento, CA
    The biggest thing that limits machine cut dovetails IMHO is the router bit itself. The bits don't last too long on shanks smaller than 1/4" - so that really defines the thickness of your pins. That's one of the biggest distinctions between hand cut and machined - the distance between pins is "analog" in that you aren't limited to some overly symmetrical layout due to the width of your bit or the comb fingers. But, the saw and chisels I use are the bottom-end of my limitations - they set how small I can go - and a saw kerf is teeny compared to a 1/4" router bit's shank.

    The other VERY limiting factor in a router bit is the bevel angle. There are only really a handful of angles - 10, 14 and i think sometimes you'll see a 12 degree. When I hand cut, I'm not sure what the angles are but i work in 1:7 or 1:8 ratios. I'm told that's nowhere near a 14 degree router bit - i think it's closer to ten, though. That really distinguishes the hand-cut dovetail from a machined one, too. That angle really seems to scream machine cut for some reason. Maybe it's mathamatical instinct like the golden mean or the fibonacci sequence.
    Jason Beam
    Sacramento, CA

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jan 2008
    Austin TX

    I am right there with you. I really appreciate the craftsmanship of the hand cut dovetails. I find myself taking a peek at the sides of drawers and construction of furniture to see how they were made. Without changing the focus of the discussion, I guess I just love the hand work whether it is dovetails, mortise/tenoning, carving ... I guess that's why I like making the joinery for my dovetail boxes with my dovetail saw and chisels.
    Lee Laird
    Austin TX

  5. #5
    Alan DuBoff is offline Former Member (by the member's request)
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Last edited by Alan DuBoff; 02-27-2008 at 08:22 AM.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    I've been re-practising my dovetail technique, for the past weeks and apart from what has been said already I find it much more flexible in relation to proportions of pins and tails, slope angles, separation between them than router cut dovetails.

    The fact of needing a jig to cut them makes almost impossible to make different spacing on the same drawer joint for instance. What about different length pins on the same joint as well. ? Try to make any of these three with a router.
    Best regards,

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  7. #7
    Dave, with the modern invention of the internet I think you will see more and more of a rift between machine cut and hand cut dovetails. Let me explain...

    As others have said, machines require a certain amount of mass, remaining wood and cutterheads to perform safely. Hand cut dovetails do not. At the same time the ingenuity of man has no limits, and with the modern internet now, unmillable dovetails such as hounds teeth, micro-pins and tails, and even odd shaped dovetails like Lovetails and Pistoltails are on the web. More and morepeople are seeing these hand cut dovetails and the more they are seen,the more the machine cut dovetails look kind of stagnant, bland and crappy.

    Myself the first thing I do when I open a drawers look for dovetails...then I look for the tell-tale nick of a handsaw. When I do my own dovetails, I strive to keep that nick to only one spot...but I leave at least one so that there no question they were cut by hand!!
    I have no intention of traveling from birth to the grave in a manicured and well preserved body; but rather I will skid in sideways, totally beat up, completely worn out, utterly exhausted and jump off my tractor and loudly yell, "Wow, this is what it took to feed a nation!"

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    No, not all of SoCal is Los Angeles!
    Quote Originally Posted by Dave Richards View Post
    In my opinion, the typical comb jig type dovetails are not aesthetically pleasing. surely I'm not the only one who thinks that.
    I agree but the variable position jigs make that a choice not a requirement. The other thing that makes machine cut tails stand out to me is the width. You can only get so narrow and still allow the bit through, eh?
    Last edited by glenn bradley; 02-15-2008 at 01:45 PM.
    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    - Arthur C. Clarke

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Cedar Park, TX
    Jason's post got me wondering about those angles. Coulda dug out the trig tables but instead I opened SketchUp, drew a couple lines, marked off the ratios, then used the protractor tool to measure. 7:1 is about 8 degrees, 8:1 is about 7 degrees off of perpendicular.

    I think aesthetics has a lot to do with why DT router bits have such higher angles than the tried and true traditional ratios. Until the advent of A&C furniture, one seldom saw the joinery used in making a piece of furniture. Other than in more utilitarian pieces, dovetails and the like were most often covered over with molding or another part of the piece.

    With dovetails and other joinery becoming part of the "look" of the piece, the higher angles make it more obvious that there is an angle there.

    Of course these higher angles further detract from the ability to make more petite sized pins or tails.

    "If politics wasn't built on careful deception it wouldn't need its own word and techniques. It would just be called honesty, education, and leadership."
    Bob "Phydeaux" Stewart one day on Woodnet

  10. #10
    Alan DuBoff is offline Former Member (by the member's request)
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Last edited by Alan DuBoff; 02-27-2008 at 08:22 AM.

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