Cutting Dovetail Joints With a Router Jig

My woodworking skills are, to be charitable, dodgy. But working with wood is an unavoidable necessity in our old house. So towards the end of 2017 I began taking woodworking classes in an effort to raise the level of my craftsmanship and the first practical project I tackled was redoing some drawers in the kitchen. In order to do that I needed to cut some dovetails.

Dovetail joints are used most often for making drawers. The arrangement of the joint makes for a drawer that resists racking. Dovetail joints also prevent the front from coming off with repeated use. Even without glue the joint wants to stay together. It’s also, I think, very attractive.

The two most common dovetail joints are through dovetails:

Image: Wikipedia.

And half-blind dovetails:

Image: Wikipedia.

Since I’m working on faced drawers I used through dovetails. I hope to make some furniture soon that will make use of half blind dovetails.

To cut my dovetails I used a router and jig both made by Porter Cable. There are some other jigs on the market that work just as well but, judging from the reviews, I’d avoid the cheap models. Setting up a dovetail jig is a time intensive process and somewhat confusing in terms of orientation and adjustment. It took me the better part of a day and some repeated YouTube viewing before I made a functional joint. An inexpensive pair of digital calipers made fine tuning the jig a lot easier.

Once the jig is set you can crank out a lot of joints relatively quickly. You attach a guide to the bottom of your router and simply move in and out of the metal guides that are clamped on top of the wood. You cut the tails first and then flip the metal guides to cut the pins. My Porter Cable jig I have does through dovetails, half blind dovetails, rabbeted half-blind, sliding dovetails, box joints and miniature versions of all these joints.

Someday I will cut a dovetail joint by hand, but I’ve got a lot of drawers to fix and I appreciate the efficiency of using power tools for this task. While dovetails cut with a router have a machine-like uniformity, I think they still look a lot better than joints done with screws.

I give myself a mixed review for my first attempt. The drawers work fine but there’s room for improvement. I’m still learning and I gained a huge appreciation for drawer details such as dimensions, wood grain orientation, material choice and hardware options. I can also see using this attractive joint for other projects around the house such as boxes and cat furniture (!).

Now I wish I could unsee my dovetail apprenticeship. The modern world is full of shoddy drawers and once you see the world through the rubric of the square and solid dovetail joint, the sight of a screwed together drawer could tip you into a fit of zealotry. You might just burn down your local Ikea.

I’ll do a longer blog post about retrofitting old built-in drawers when I get around to redoing the bathroom cabinets. In the meantime let’s please #MakeAmericaDovetailAgain.

The Wondrous 1-2-3 Block

In my attempts to raise the level of craftsmanship around the Root Simple compound I’ve come to appreciate a few simple and inexpensive tools associated with the cloistered world of machinists. One such tool is the 1-2-3 block that I’ve found many uses for in woodworking.

These blocks of metal, sold in pairs, are named after their dimensions, one inch by two inches by three inches (they also come in larger sizes such as 2-4-6). Mine have both threaded and un-threaded holes allowing you to attach and pass through bolts. You can bolt them together square or at an angle. They have a million applications:

To see if a tool is square.

To clamp pieces of wood together to guarantee squareness when gluing.

To attach a machinist’s dial (a another inexpensive tool that will get its own post).

For woodworking, a cheap set from Amazon will work fine. I assume machinists will want to seek out higher quality 1-2-3 blocks. They make a great, if heavy, stocking stuffer for the precision impaired members of your household . . .

A Victorian Life

A conversational tangent on our podcast this week, in which we mentioned Victorian interiors, prompted Root Simple reader Misti to leave a link to a blog post about Dennis Severs’ amazing Victorian house in London,

Dennis Severs was a Californian who left the land of palm trees and bright tan landscapes and came to London in the late 1960s. After giving up on studying law and driving a horse-drawn carriage, in 1979 he bought a derelict eighteenth-century house in Spitalfields, the most poverty-stricken area of historic London. He already knew that he wanted to slip backward in time. So he renovated the house slowly and in keeping with the age. He washed the floors with tea, he acquired the right furniture, he toasted bread on the fire.

After his death in the 1990s, Severs’ house became a sort of museum that you can visit.

Severs reminds me of the neo-Victorian couple that got thrown out of the Butchart Gardens last year for violating an oddball rule forbidding “period style or historical dress.” The couple, Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman, have a blog, This Victorian Life, where you can read about their adventures involving corsets, pince-nez glasses and high wheeled bicycles (!).

While we were recording the podcast I also referenced Mario Buatta, a.k.a. the “Prince of Chintz,” known for his four-poster beds and heavy drapery. I don’t think I’d want to live in one of Buatta’s houses but I mention him for his Victorian sensibilities and as a reminder of how fast design ideas can fall out of favor (with the exception of midcenutry modern).

113 Open Floor Plans and Dog Sports

On the Root Simple Podcast this week, Kelly and I discuss fire safety problems caused by open floor plans and modern materials and Kelly shares her favorite dog sports (picture above is of our Saluki Ivan in front of a neighbor’s non-open floor plan house). During the podcast we refer to our open floor plan fire safety rant, “Your Open Floor Plan is a Death Trap,” as well as Shigeru Bans’ wall-less house. Then we get to chatting about dog sports including canine nose work, agility, lure coursing, obedience and barn hunting.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.