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Getting efficient at dovetailed drawers by hand

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Forum topic by Wintergreen78 posted 02-21-2020 09:45 PM 741 views 0 times favorited 17 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Wintergreen78

94 posts in 419 days


02-21-2020 09:45 PM

Im curious what kind of pace people consider reasonable for making drawers and what approaches people use to get more efficient. This is specifically about traditional basic drawers with half-lap dovetails in the front, through dovetails or a dado first the back, and a bottom held in a groove. I work in a one-car garage that also stores my bikes and has to be able to fit my car from time to time, so I don’t use or have space for any power tools.

I just do this for fun so I’m not under any pressure to meet deadlines, but when I’m working on something I like to feel like I’m making steady progress. My goal is usually to end up with something that looks well-made, but I’m not trying to make any high-style pieces that will have close-up photos of the joinery. For me, making one drawer per day is a pretty good pace. So, every time I think about adding drawers to a design I have to consider how much time I want to commit to building a piece and I’ve definitely simplified designs by removing drawers.

I feel like I’m pretty efficient at laying out dovetails and I expect to cut right to the line on through-dovetails. I chop the waste with a chisel. In hard wood I could see saving a little time by using a coping saw to remove the bulk of the waste, but for pine or poplar sides, chopping seems to go really quick. Half-laps take a little more time for me, but I feel like I’ve gotten pretty efficient at sawing them and removing the waste.

I usually do drawers one at a time. I’ll cut the parts out to rough size all at once and usually plane a reference face and edge on each part, but then I usually do my final thicknessing and squaring the ends on the parts when I start each drawer. I might be able to save a little time by thicknessing and squaring everything in one go, but working through a big stack of components in one long session sounds a little too much like work.

So, what approaches do you take to make drawers by hand more efficiently?


17 replies so far

View bondogaposis's profile

bondogaposis

5683 posts in 3031 days


#1 posted 02-21-2020 10:01 PM

Skill comes with repetition. If you make a lot of dovetail drawers you will get good at it and speed improves as you go, as all the moves become repetitive. You can really only go as fast as your skill allows, and trying to speed up the process will likely be counter productive. The way to get faster is to make more dovetail drawers. Instead of trying to save time by avoiding drawers look for opportunities to add more drawers to your work.

-- Bondo Gaposis

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Aj2

2789 posts in 2477 days


#2 posted 02-21-2020 11:12 PM

I have some very good techniques for dovetailing. But they are so specific to the way I work it’s meaningless to another woodworker.
Too much pride and ego that ride with this subject.

Good Luck nice work

-- Aj

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SMP

1889 posts in 585 days


#3 posted 02-22-2020 12:18 AM

Very similar situation as you. My machines are on casters. And i work in 1 or 2 hour chunks a few days a week. So for me, i’ll tend to roll out the machines one day and rip boards to width, joint, thickness, and cut to length one day. I don’t enjoy this part, it reminds me of meal prepping on Sunday evening for the week ahead. Something I have to do.. Then the next time I will spend the whole time just marking. Thats actually one of my favorite times. I just have a marking knife, marking gauge, steel rule, combo square and dividers out on the workbench. And just take my time marking all knife walls and visualizing everything in 3 dimensions(assuming I had spent a good chunk of time before all this designing and drawing out cut lists etc.). Once everything is marked I stop. The next day I’ll start cutting tails and see how many I can cut in the time I have. So say 2 hours. This depends on board width and how many tails etc. I may get 4-8 tails knocked out in that 2 hours. Next block of time I will transfer the tails to the other boards. And mark the rest up and start cutting those. Those take me a good chunk of time and slower than tails. So i don’t just do 1 drawer in 2 hours etc, but thats just what works for me.

View Wintergreen78's profile

Wintergreen78

94 posts in 419 days


#4 posted 02-22-2020 03:59 AM


Very similar situation as you. My machines are on casters. And i work in 1 or 2 hour chunks a few days a week. So for me, i’ll tend to roll out the machines one day and rip boards to width, joint, thickness, and cut to length one day. I don’t enjoy this part, it reminds me of meal prepping on Sunday evening for the week ahead. Something I have to do.. Then the next time I will spend the whole time just marking. Thats actually one of my favorite times. I just have a marking knife, marking gauge, steel rule, combo square and dividers out on the workbench. And just take my time marking all knife walls and visualizing everything in 3 dimensions(assuming I had spent a good chunk of time before all this designing and drawing out cut lists etc.). Once everything is marked I stop. The next day I’ll start cutting tails and see how many I can cut in the time I have. So say 2 hours. This depends on board width and how many tails etc. I may get 4-8 tails knocked out in that 2 hours. Next block of time I will transfer the tails to the other boards. And mark the rest up and start cutting those. Those take me a good chunk of time and slower than tails. So i don’t just do 1 drawer in 2 hours etc, but thats just what works for me.

- SMP

Yeah – if I was dimensioning by machine I’d definitely mill everything to final size all at once. Doing it by hand I don’t know if that is actually better. But, if you get everything dimensioned first, then you could do all your layout in one go, then all your sawing, then all your chopping. I feel like I could get through sawing a pretty big stack of drawer sides quickly, if I had them all laid out. When I’m sawing I find I get the best results if I don’t fuss over it or think too much. Just get in a groove (literally!) and saw away.

I’ve seen videos of people chopping where they’ll have a big stack of sides all clamped one on top of the other to chop out in one batch. I may try that once, just to see if I like it.

I think one of the reasons I like making one drawer at a time is it doesn’t get tedious. You get done with each step then get to move on and do something different.

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SMP

1889 posts in 585 days


#5 posted 02-22-2020 04:20 AM

I hear you on that part as well. Its nice to be done with one thing, even to see ONE complete drawer for a 12 drawer chest. My biggest problem is i start things, then start another project, and another, then my wife gives me honey do lists. So for example I started a Mike Pekovich wall tool cabinet a few months ago. And have a bunch of dovetailed planks laying around. And some half made saw benchs. A couple other half done projects with pieces laying around. I’ll amass all the “puzzle pieces” and months later on some weekend will assemble several items.

View iminmyshop's profile

iminmyshop

315 posts in 2674 days


#6 posted 02-22-2020 05:25 AM

I like to do all the drawers at the same time. Make sure they are all milled the same so your marking tools don’t need to be adjusted or mess you up. With most cuts that need to be precise on the tablesaw or router I use templates. Often even if it’s a one off since fine woodworking is often about precision. In the same vein, with dovetails I have no issue with using a hand guide. I have tried Rpb Cosman’s but prefer the one by David Barron.

The tails are where I start but you might be a pins person. Happens in the best of families : )) The base line is always with blue tape that is cut by the marking knife and the cuts for the pins are then marked deeply with a sharp blade the thickness of my saw. I also use a dovetail board and offset my transfer marks by the thickness of my saw as well.
http://davidbarronfurniture.blogspot.com/2012/02/hand-cut-dovetails-made-easy.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=df47iISSQFQ#!

Cutting a very thin shoulder to the baseline on the iinside on the tails board helps set you up for easier marking of the pins and hides a few mistakes in the process.

A coping saw is used to get most of the waste out. But I also often use a small router, especially when removing waste for half blind dovetails. It gets the base perfectly. Bob Van Dyke has an outstanding video on this. You might need to be a member though of Fine Woodworking online to see it though.
https://www.finewoodworking.com/2014/05/30/simple-trick-for-cleaner-dovetail-joints.

Take the tips you like and skip the rest. As always, as Bondo said, practice, practice, practice. It gets much easier with time as you stop having to think about every step and it becomes a well oiled habit.

-- http://www.alansfinewoodworking.com/

View Sylvain's profile

Sylvain

983 posts in 3179 days


#7 posted 02-23-2020 03:36 PM

Doing things in batch mode is not fun.
An if you make a mistake it will be multiplied by the number of drawers. Then you will loose time and material.

I use the method shown by Paul Sellers.
Until now i have only made 3 of them with various mistakes…

-- Sylvain, Brussels, Belgium, Europe - The more I learn, the more there is to learn

View Wintergreen78's profile

Wintergreen78

94 posts in 419 days


#8 posted 02-25-2020 02:41 AM



I like to do all the drawers at the same time. Make sure they are all milled the same so your marking tools don t need to be adjusted or mess you up. With most cuts that need to be precise on the tablesaw or router I use templates. Often even if it s a one off since fine woodworking is often about precision. In the same vein, with dovetails I have no issue with using a hand guide. I have tried Rpb Cosman s but prefer the one by David Barron.

The tails are where I start but you might be a pins person. Happens in the best of families : )) The base line is always with blue tape that is cut by the marking knife and the cuts for the pins are then marked deeply with a sharp blade the thickness of my saw. I also use a dovetail board and offset my transfer marks by the thickness of my saw as well.
http://davidbarronfurniture.blogspot.com/2012/02/hand-cut-dovetails-made-easy.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=df47iISSQFQ#!

Cutting a very thin shoulder to the baseline on the iinside on the tails board helps set you up for easier marking of the pins and hides a few mistakes in the process.

A coping saw is used to get most of the waste out. But I also often use a small router, especially when removing waste for half blind dovetails. It gets the base perfectly. Bob Van Dyke has an outstanding video on this. You might need to be a member though of Fine Woodworking online to see it though.
https://www.finewoodworking.com/2014/05/30/simple-trick-for-cleaner-dovetail-joints.

Take the tips you like and skip the rest. As always, as Bondo said, practice, practice, practice. It gets much easier with time as you stop having to think about every step and it becomes a well oiled habit.

- iminmyshop

I’m not so sure about that approach if you dimension stock by hand. Once I have my reference face and edge I’ll mark thickness with a gauge and work down to my line, then mark width with a gauge and work down to the line. I get good results that way. I can get pieces to exact thickness and width, but I find I need to spend more time checking with calipers and fussing to get that precise. Since I dimension by hand I’ll hold each piece up to the one it will be joined to, use my fingers to flush it, then mark the baseline with a square and a knife. That way I can account for minor variation between the pieces. I find it pretty simple and quick to lay out baselines with a square. I think any time I would save by using a gauge with one setting would just be lost in the extra time spent getting everything dimensioned exactly.

I’ve cut the small rabbet on my tail board a few times before cutting tails. I agree that it does make aligning things easier. I go back and forth on whether or not to use it though. The last seven drawers I’ve made I haven’t cut a rabbet.

View bandit571's profile

bandit571

25066 posts in 3363 days


#9 posted 02-25-2020 02:50 AM

I do one drawer at a time, and have it glued up in the clamps before the next one….

The other item I do, I do a dado to hold the back of the drawer, much quicker than doing through dovetails back there.

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View jeffswood's profile

jeffswood

27 posts in 3154 days


#10 posted 02-25-2020 03:25 AM

If you think you are fast….. think again and watch this:

https://youtu.be/vKuy3NdLhlE?t=127

View Wintergreen78's profile

Wintergreen78

94 posts in 419 days


#11 posted 02-25-2020 05:56 AM



If you think you are fast….. think again and watch this:

https://youtu.be/vKuy3NdLhlE?t=127

- jeffswood

Yeah, but that guy cuts his pins first. I don’t think he knows what he is doing. I bet he needs a honing guide to sharpen his chisels too. And don’t get me started about how wide his saw kerfs are…

View bandit571's profile

bandit571

25066 posts in 3363 days


#12 posted 02-25-2020 06:45 AM

Oh…BTW,,,,I make pins first..

Easier to mark the tails….`using the already made pins..

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View Robert's profile

Robert

3659 posts in 2160 days


#13 posted 02-25-2020 01:58 PM

Efficiency obviously comes with practice, but also its about methods of work and work flow, things like doing identical tasks all at once to every piece.

When I’m doing a whole bunch of drawers I do them in batches rather than one by one. I simply stack them up and go to work.

On a big project like a dresser or such, I like to take a hybrid approach. I do the tails on the table saw using a specially ground blade then chisel the waste, and do the pins by hand (refer to Steve Latta or Mike Pekovitch).

But the reality is, for those of us who occasionally do DT’s, the last drawer we do it usually the best.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View Rich1955's profile

Rich1955

93 posts in 70 days


#14 posted 02-25-2020 02:20 PM

I feel skill comes with time. I started making hand cut dovetails about 6 months ago. I see progress, but for me i’m not there yet. I practice on scrap if I don’t have a project to do. If I’m enjoying myself working in my shop , I don’t care how long it takes me as long as it comes out the way I expect. If this is a hobby for you, don’t rush and enjoy the time you spend in your shop!

-- Rich

View controlfreak's profile

controlfreak

568 posts in 281 days


#15 posted 02-25-2020 02:45 PM

This is something that I have not had enough time to practice as of yet but I have most of the tools waiting for me. As I was doing some research I was fascinated on some of the different methods and ways to achieve the end result. In particular I noticed one version leaves the pins proud and palane them flush with the drawer sides. Another uses the pins as a reference and plane the drawer sides to this width removing any marking blemishes. Does anyone here prefer one over the other?

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