Back to School: A Tail with a Twist

The start of my one-year designer-maker course reminded me very much of my first day at college. After saying goodbye to family and friends on a late summer Sunday afternoon, I headed north feeling a mixture of excitement, trepidation and overwhelming relief to be finally starting my journey towards becoming a fine furniture maker. There are seven of us enrolled on the course, with varying levels of experience at the bench. Like college, one of the fringe benefits of studying with others is that you meet people of different nationalities with a wide variety of life experiences from selling houses, oil exploration and practicing permaculture! Alongside me are students from as far afield as Dubai, Uruguay and Dublin. With such a diverse group, conversations at tea breaks are never dull and the banter is always lively!

The first term focusses on mastering core skills and techniques using hand tools. Being able to flatten and dimension stock with a plane, mark out, accurately saw to a line and control a chisel and spokeshave to cut exactly where you want them to cut, are critical to your success as a fine furniture maker. Equally important is practising and improving your skills with a pencil, charcoal, brush and computer mouse (more on this topic in a future article).

A series of set projects of increasing complexity challenged us to improve our hand tool techniques. Firstly, we made a chamfered octagonal breadboard, learning to control the hand plane saw and spokeshave. Then we moved onto a surprisingly difficult Chinese puzzle where accurate dimensioning to 0.01mm, marking and pairing with a chisel were all critical to achieving success. We were encouraged to make as many of these puzzles as was necessary to achieve a perfect result, before moving on to what many consider the holy grail of cabinet making – the dovetail joint.

Whether you love or hate the use of dovetails in contemporary furniture making (and I know they divide opinion), there can be no denying that they demand a very high degree of skill and accuracy to cut well by hand, which is why they are still a rite of passage for any aspiring fine furniture maker. I have cut many dovetail joints over the years, learning much from two excellent teachers, Marc Fish at Robinson House Studios and from Graham Loverage at Waters and Acland. With that prior experience, I was able to execute the school’s next set project – a pair of dovetail bookends in oak – with relative ease and was keen to prepare a series of more complicated examples of the joint to push my making abilities and create samples to show prospective clients. Thus, I moved on to cutting a series of skinny pin half lap dovetails and a hound’s-tooth version. It was at this point that Tim Smith, the professional maker at Waters and Acland, suggested with a twinkle in his eye that I should consider cutting a twisted Japanese dovetail. Intrigued, I readily accepted the challenge without really knowing what Tim had in mind. He then showed me a sample of the joint he had previously made and which – on first inspection – seemed impossible to assemble. After letting me study the sample over the tea break, Tim helpfully explained that the joint is cut in a similar fashion to traditional ‘through’ dovetails but can only be assembled by offering the inner corners up and driving them together at 45degrees. Unlike traditional dovetails, it is impossible to see the fit of the joint until it is fully driven together. This requires the maker to accurately mark out, then saw and chisel, at identical angles on both components. Somewhat daunted by my newly acquired understanding of the joint, I decided that the only thing to do was to trust my abilities and go for it! After an afternoon of intense concentration at the bench and pushing my hand skills to their limits, Tim helped me assemble my first attempt at the joint. I was relieved to find the pieces fitted together sweetly.

Shortly after my attempt, I was delighted to come across a picture of the twisted dovetail in the ‘House and Home’ section of a Sunday broad sheet accompanying a very interesting article about Kintaro Yazawa, one of Japan’s finest furniture makers and the person responsible for teaching the twisted dovetail to Alan Peters whilst spending time at his workshop in the UK. For those interested in attempting the joint, Alan published an excellent article on its construction in Fine Furniture magazine in 1986. David Charlesworth also covers the topic in detail in the first volume of his furniture making techniques book. Finally, for those on line check out Theo Cooks Instagram feed @theo_cook to see a truly amazing video of his version of the joint!

Twisted Japans Dovetail in Walnut and Sycamore

Article published in Furniture and Cabinet Making magazine issue 258

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