Dovetails

Early into my woodworking experience of using hand tools, I was intrigued by the thought of cutting dovetail joints by hand. I had always loved the look of the dovetail joint but had never made any. There are jigs and templates to cut them with a router, but that seemed cumbersome and didn’t interest me. The first time I watched someone cut dovetails by hand, I was hooked. I wanted to learn.

So, to YouTube I went, looking for instructions on how to cut and fit perfect dovetails. I discovered that everyone had a different approach to cutting them, some with slight variations, some with significant variations (i.e. cutting the tails first versus the pins first). Interestingly, some see the tail/pin preference worthy of controversy, while the practical woodworker admits it’s a personal preference.

The Dovetail Joint

One of my go-to woodworking teachers for laying out and cutting dovetails is Chris Schwarz. He suggested learning by doing – cutting a dovetail a day for about 30 days. So that’s what I embarked on doing. I had the basic tools – a dovetail saw, a coping saw, and a set of chisels. Using pine 1x6s, I started in. Day 1 was indeed practice – cutting the dovetails felt awkward. I cut on the wrong side of the lines so it didn’t fit. On day 2 I concentrated on cutting on the correct side of the line, but overcompensated, so the fit was sloppy. The iterative process continued day after day with minimal improvement, so I discontinued the practice after a couple of weeks.

I then got the idea of making 19th-century replica school boxes for each of my four kids for Christmas. The design of the boxes required dovetail joints – lots of them! What better way to learn than to jump in…

As you can see, the boxes had a lot of dovetails – 24 each, so 96 total. I was wise enough to cut the dovetails on the backside first, knowing they would be far from perfect, hoping that by the time I got to the front they would look better (which turned out to be a good plan). Marking the dovetails was pretty straightforward. Sawing them, not so much.

As I took my dovetail saw in hand, sawing still felt awkward, and continued to feel awkward for a time. Then about halfway through the cutting of the 96 dovetails, something happened. I realized that I had become comfortable with the saw in my hand. It didn’t seem to be something that extended out from my hand anymore. Rather, it seemed to feel more like an extension of my hand! It’s hard to explain what happened, but sawing became more effortless, almost second nature.

Over the years, it’s been fun watching our children and now grandchildren develop various skills as baseball players, BMX racers, swimmers, gymnasts, and musicians. In those early days of learning and development, they looked and sounded awkward. Things were much different after a few years of practice. The baseball glove appeared to be an extension of the hand, “touch-typing” the keyboard or guitar fret became the norm, awkward cartwheels became natural-looking round-offs, BMX track berms negotiated at top speed, etc. With practice, what was once awkward for them to do (and watch 🙂) became second nature.

N.T. Wright, in his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, talks about “second nature” as it applies to Christian virtue (character). With time and practice, disciplines like reading scripture (especially the Gospels 🙂), praying (Dallas Willard: Talking with God about what we are doing together), loving our neighbor, etc. become second nature. We don’t have to think about them. They become part of the rhythms of our life.

Time and practice and rhythms

N.T. Wright: “Character is transformed by three things. First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to take to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature.”1 Time and practice for which there is NO shortcut.

Here’s the very good news. With time and practice, some of the character-forming disciplines not only become second nature, but they also become rhythmic in nature. We can’t not practice them. I think of my grandsons walking through the house swinging “air bats.” They can’t help themselves, they can’t not do it!

N.T. Wright was once asked in an interview how important daily prayers and scripture reading were to him. He responded, “I don’t know how to answer that. It’s like asking how important breathing is to me.” Rhythm. It’s the stuff of life!

I think of Eugene Peterson’s rendition of Matthew 11: Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).

Focused on the Master and with time and practice, we learn unforced rhythms. Who doesn’t want that?

1 Wright, N. T., After You Believe (p. 29). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.