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  • Fred

Dovetail schmuvtail.

I'm working my my next little shop project: a first aid kit to keep by the door. I currently have a small store-bought first aid kit, but every wood shop with a bunch of dangerous equipment probably needs a true trauma kit with a tourniquet, some quick-klot and plenty of band-aids.

Here's a description of the basic design (no visual plans on this one -- it's all in my brain). It's basically a four-sided box that's 19.25 inches tall by 11.75 inches wide and 5.5 inches deep. These sides are all joined with dovetails. After the four-sided box is done, a back will be added in a single piece. The back will be nailed and glued on. A single piece front will be hinged for the door. I just happen to have some pretty wide boards from the twisted and crazy pile at the lumber yard that will work well for a front and back panel.

To start, I selected a piece of rough cut lumber from the rack. I jointed two adjacent sides and ran it through the table saw to make sure the edges were parallel and smooth. Then I ran it through the planer to get the last side parallel and smooth as well as the thickness I was looking for (0.75 inches).

I then cut all the pieces to size and used a marking knife (I actually use a straight blade carving knife which works great) to lay out the cut lines. These are lines that go all the way around the end of the board the thickness of the board that will be joining (usually all boards are the same thickness). You can see the cut line in the photo at the top where it crosses the bottom of the tail I cut. These lines let you know how far down to cut your tails and help you chisel the bottom of the cuts straight after you do most of the work with the saw.

I hand cut my dovetails as I mentioned in my post about the toolbox (seen in the background of the photo above). To make them more consistent, I made a dovetail jig out of maple.

There are similar designs available commercially that include a magnet to hold the saw flat on the side when you're cutting. Since I don't have a magnet, I use my left hand to hold the saw flush while I cut with my right. This means that I have to clamp the jig in place (since my left hand is too busy to hold the jig). Here's what it looks like when I'm about to cut into the board. You can see the discoloration on the jig from the saw rubbing against it.

I use a Japanese combination pull saw to cut dovetails most of the time. I actually prefer it to the dedicated dovetail saw that I also have. It's called a pull saw because it cuts on the pull stroke versus the push stroke that western saws cut on. If you've ever tried to cut something with a western saw and had the saw blade buckle and skip while you were trying to push it through the wood, you know how annoying that can be (plus it scrapes up your workpiece). With the pull saw, this is not an issue. One side of the saw is for ripping (with the grain) and the other is for crosscutting (across the grain). I use a plastic guard to keep from cutting my arm off. This thing is sharp! Of course, pretty soon, there will be a first aid kit with a tourniquet, so if I do cut my arm off...

After cutting the tails, I use a coping saw to cut out the space between them. I don't have a picture of this, but imagine a coping saw cutting out the space between them and that's what it would look like. Then I use a chisel to smooth everything out and make it even (no picture of this either, but you can see the chisels on the right of the picture above).

I would have liked to have gotten more done today, but I spent a good deal of time cleaning my table saw blade. It had a load of pitch (that's wood, sap and sawdust that gets stuck to the blade with use) on it and wasn't cutting very well. I also spent some time cleaning the planer.

It's not all glamorous dovetail cutting in the wood shop. Sometimes, you have to do a bit of maintenance too. I'll update soon with further progress on this project.

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