Wednesday, March 12, 2008

In the Eyes of the Beholder

Perfectly Executed...Ask yourself why.

"A perfectly executed, hand cut dovetail joint..." Oh yeah? It seems lately when I open up woodworking magazines or watch woodworking video clips everybody is talking about their perfect way to cut dovetails. Half-blinds and hounds tooth, better saws and better jigs. Doesn't matter if you use a hand saw, band saw or even some cross-cutting sled on your table saw, all you're going to hear is: "the perfect joint", "the best way to cut this or make that" perhaps even a "better way" in some one's eyes. What is perfection but some un-achievable measure of proficiency, skill, or excellence. Now don't get me wrong, I'm as guilty as the next guy. When I take the time to cut half blind dovetails I want them to be as near perfect as my hands will allow. I'll use contrasting woods so when you open up a drawer they'll jump right out at you. Why? Well let's go further back.
It's kind of ironic that when we think of some of the greatest craftsmen in today's society names such as Sam Maloof or James Krenov immediately come to mind. Sam Maloof who takes 4" metal screws and drives them through his Chair legs to hold them in place. Now look at some of the most famous pieces by Krenov, dowelled together glorified butt joints; and don't get me started about Norm Abrams techniques...Now before you start sending me hate mail for bashing these great masters of the craft, let me start by saying that I admire them to the outer most limits; I find inspiration in all that they do and have studied anything and everything written on their works. But here lies the irony, today's young woodworkers are inundated with teachers pushing them towards excellence. No, their isn't anything wrong with striving towards excellence, but remember to stop every now and then and to ask yourself why. Is Sam Maloof wrong or any less a craftsman for using metal screws in his furniture? Is James Krenov cheapening his work by using a dowel to hold two pieces together instead of some elaborate joint? Go to an antique dealer or walk into a museum and look at the fine examples of hand crafted furniture. Pieces that have stood the tests of time and are the proof we need to justify the joinery in furniture construction. Take a close look at the dovetails if you can find any; in most cases they were covered by mouldings or hidden out of sight from prying consumers eyes. When you look at the joinery in these classic pieces you'll probably uncover rough cuts with loose fitting cheeks, perhaps the saw lines extend down further than the witness marks; Oh..the horror, I know. When contrasting woods were used it was probably due to a cheaper secondary wood and not for the fashion sense we're constantly reminded of. Were these craftsmen unskilled? Is it simply coincidence that these pieces are around for you to see a hundred years later? No. These skilled workers in wood simply didn't feel the dovetail was so much of a design feature as they felt it was the strongest possible joint they could execute for a particular application. In today's face-paced, fashion world where trends can come and fads can go, the joinery being 'marketed' by your favourite wood workers can sometimes feel like that's all it is. I think its great to practice cutting a joint and honing your skills; making a piece you can truly be proud of. But stop sometimes and ask yourself are you taking the time to cut those half blind dovetails so you can give that chest of drawers to your grand children's grandchildren, or is it to fetch an extra buck at the craft fair this Sunday?

Hey Tom,
I really appreciate your blog, thanks for taking the time……………It was only a couple of months ago, I thought “blog” was a typo.
Well, I’m a novice woodworker and completely relate to your entry, “in the eyes of the beholder”. I’ve read a lot of woodworking articles, books and watched DVDs on dovetails. It always comes back to the same thing, how much time do you want to take? As you know, there is no substitute for time: the more time you spend the more proficient and skilled you become. I am satisfied with learning to cut dovetails by hand because I know my perfect dovetail will take time. Time to develop my own set of techniques and skills …………………I guess some people are just satisfied with the journey and some people need to arrive. For me, the art of working wood is not a means to an end but a quest to learn a skill that satisfies my soul. Could I make a living for my family building period furniture? Probably not but maybe someday I’ll the chance to cross that bridge too. It sure would be nice.

Thanks again,