”So far in the series, if you’ve been with us all along, you’ve seen us work with green wood and it’s been rather rustic kind of work. Well today we’re going to start doing some bench work… with seasoned wood.”
This is a double header, we’ll start out with frame and panels and end up learning about dovetails. This is quite a contrast, as Roy mentioned, compared to the ax chopping we’ve seen all season. Of course we’re not switching all the way over to fine woodworking. “You can refine these beautifully, you can do absolutely perfect work…that’s not what we’re doing today.” Roy can cut a nice dovetail, I’m sure. But he understands that he has a lot of new woodworkers in his audience and he can’t have them thinking every dovetail has to be pretty! Since the very first episode he’s shown a remarkable ability to appeal to a wide swath of skill sets. It’s one the things that most impresses me about the show. “Today you will see how to cut very rough, off the wall, cavalier kind of dovetails, and you can take this information and refine it as much as you want. This is for those of you who have not done it before”
I am pretty sure he said we’d start with panel frame construction first, but here we go with the dovetails. No matter, I’m ready to follow wherever he leads, and another thing I appreciate about our fearless leader is his willingness to use cheap pine. If he’s not splitting logs he found in the woods he’s working with boards he found goodness knows where. There’s no pressure to do everything with walnut and mahogany, in the Woodwright’s Shop pine is just fine!
He starts with the pins first, which goes contrary to what I just said about appealing to “the every man” because, in doing so, he just alienated half the woodworking world. Tails first, pins first, it’ll start a brawl in any bar! But it isn’t long before we see why he prefers to do it this way, and an entire generation of “pins first” woodworkers has followed his example. But for me, as a “tails first” man, it’s hard to watch…
The first step in a Roy Underhill dovetail is to mark the depth of the pins with a gauge set to the thickness of your “tails” board. Of course your pin and tail ends must also be square, but you already knew that. You want to cut your pins with the saw at a 1:5 angle, which means getting out your carpenter square and bevel gauge and setting the blade on the 1 and the 5. Of course you can just eyeball it instead, which is what Roy does. It doesn’t matter if you angle’s a bit off, you’ll be cutting the mating tails to match it no matter what the angle is. Roy suggests that a coping saw, “about the first tool you get as a child”, is best for removing the bulk of the waste between your pins when dovetailing pine, but hardwood is better done with a chisel. I disagree here since I use a coping or fret saw on all woods, pine or whatever. But who am I to contradict a guy who’s been cutting dovetails since I was in diapers cutting… well...
“How embarrassing, you see my face turning red.” We can’t see his face, but we did see him snap that coping saw blade. Happens to the best of them. Of course the best of them has a spare saw laid handily on the bench next to him for just such an occasion, so work continues unabated and the tails are soon ready to go. That’s right, no chisel work, no paring or fitting, he did it all with two saws and nothing more. He did say these were to be cavalier dovetails.
Marking the tails is easy when you do pins first, which may be why he does it that way. The gaps between the pins are easier to get a pencil into than are the triangular gaps between the tails. Later in life Roy never uses a pencil to mark his dovetails on the show, instead he uses the saw itself to transfer his marks. “You really get into practice on these fellas… you wait until you’ve got a lot of dovetailing to do and you do all the dovetailing at once in the shop…. And that way you get in practice, you really get geared up for this type of work.” Today, however, Roy appears to be a little out of practice. I’ve seen some ugly dovetails in my day, mostly ones I cut myself, but these suckers are truly something to behold. Crooked, some with large gaps, others splintered from being too tight, but we’ll forgive him since he’s cutting them without a chisel in about thirty seconds! “I was a little more cavalier than I should have been on this one, perhaps.”
No matter, toss it in the corner and move on to the frame and panel.
“One of the things I really want you to get out of this series, if anything, is an understanding of how the behavior of wood dictates what good design is.” Frame and panel isn’t just about what looks nice, there’s a reason every cabinet door has looked roughly the same for centuries. A door made from one wide board would cup within a few days. But, by setting panels within a frame, the wood can move all it likes. The rails (horizontal pieces), and the stiles (vertical pieces), and the munton (center stile in large doors, also called a mullion in window construction) keeps the flat panel flat.
Just as the dovetails started with a marking gauge, the frame and panel starts with a mortising gauge, a double pin marking gauge that makes its first appearance on this episode. “This delineates where our grooves go, it shows us where our tenons go, and also the mortises.” One gauge, one setting to mark all of it. What could be handier? How about the beautiful plow plane Roy pulls out to cut those grooves! We see a lot of this and other plow planes in future episodes and I am always impressed with how he just picks them right off the bench all tuned, sharpened and ready to go. In the real world there always seems to be some fiddling necessary to get a clean cut, especially with the iron combination planes. While I assume he does his fiddling behind the scenes, he may just have the same mysterious connection to his planes as he has with the trees. I’ve got a team investigation it as we speak.
“Your frame is going to look only as good as your accuracy is on the cuts.” To produce an accurate tenon he uses a knife and try square to gut a groove along the shoulder for his saw to ride within. Ever since I first saw this episode I’ve used that technique. It’s really a good idea that can make all the difference in a lot of cuts. Of course he didn’t invent the technique, but he brought it to the common man. He also introduces many to the idea of splitting the cheeks off a tenon rather than sawing them away. This is not the task for the faint of heart! If the grain isn’t straight you may have yourself a mess, but he reduces the risk by splitting some of it, and then finishing off with a chisel. Playing it safe is sometimes the best way to go.
I love to watch Roy chop mortises. Most people nowadays drill out the bulk of the waste, only using a chisel to clean it up. But the powerful accuracy of a mortising chisel and stout mallet just seems more pure to me, and evidently Roy as well since a chisel is his primary mortising tool in most episodes.
What would an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop be without a lesson in wood? Roy teaches us a bit about Victorian golden oak and what makes it quarter sawn. That’s what he plans on using for the panel on his door. At least that’s what he’ll do when the cameras aren’t rolling. For now he’ll make his panel out of pine, faster and easier for television. As he uses a plane to shape the raised panel he reminds us not to drag the iron across the wood on the back stroke. It’ll dull the plane faster. Good advice, just what we’ve come to expect from The WoodWright’s Shop!
The following article is a commentary written by Stumpy Nubs which includes his description of the episode and thoughts as he watched it. Only the phrases within quotation marks are the exact words of Roy Underhill.
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