Dovetails, Assembly and the Start of the Finishing

When last we spoke, I had selected the material for drawer fronts, and was preparing to cut the drawer joinery.  I had a handful of visitors to my Ustream Channel live stream when I was cutting the dovetails.  I’m still working on the integrating more video content, including live content, but with a Christmas deadline approaching, and limited shop time between now and then, I opted to put that off until after the holidays and focus more on finishing this piece.

A bit on the dovetailing:  (Note: if you’re so inclined, much of this was recorded live and you can review the process, such as it is, on the Ustream channel (link above), you may wish to fast-forward!)

I had designed this piece to have very narrow pins, and in the original design, it was an inset drawer.  The client asked that more of the details of the hutch this piece complements be incorporated than the original design included, and thus the drawers became partial overlays.   I’m normally a pins-first guy, but for half-blinds in the front of drawers, I find it is often easiest, if you wish the dovetail layout to be the same on both sides, or on multiple drawers, to gang the drawer sides, and cut the tails at once.  This means one layout, one set of tail cuts.  So that’s what I did. Well, that would be wonderful, if A) the pins were not so darned small, and/or B) the drawer was inset instead of rabbeted for the partial overlay.  Once the tails were cut, I placed the 3/8″ thick drawer side on the drawer front (in the rabbet) to mark them, and realized there was almost no way of getting a pencil in the hole to mark for pins (Fig. 1).  After breaking a dozen over-extended mechanical pencil leads, I went for the marking knife – no dice, to thick to get into the narrow area.  I ended up having to grind a thin kerf bandsaw blade into a marking knife to get into the tight space, and then had to apply a raking light to see the marks in the oak endgrain.  After much too much time spent on marking pins, I had a usable layout (fig. 2)

Fig. 1 Tiny Pins, 1/8 bench chisel (left) for scale, a sharpened thin kerf bandsaw blade (right) was for marking in the tight spaces

Fig. 2 Dovetail pin layout

The second problem with half-blind dovetails in partial overlay drawers, this one fairly unavoidable, it seems, is that you are limited to how deep you can saw before the blade starts cutting into the lip (Fig.3), and therefore, it requires even more chopping than usual.  Some people will oversaw (past the scribed line) to get more depth in the saw kerf.  I find that a bit sloppy looking; i’d rather do a little extra work than have the customer see a “shortcut”, even one that may have some historical precedent.

Fig. 3 Limited depth of cut in lipped drawers

The rear of the drawer was much more straight forward: through dovetails in 3/8″ thick poplar go quite quickly. (pins first).  All’s well that ends well, with minimal paring, both drawer boxes came together nicely.  A lesson from this is if you’re planning small pins, cut them first – it will leave much more space for transferring marks to the tail boards, ultimately yielding better, faster results.

Fig 4. Final drawer assembly

The drawer bottoms are solid oak raised panel about 3/16″ thick, glued up from the wide board resawn to rough thickness the top (below).  They slide into grooves in the drawer front and sides, and are screwed into the drawer back (through slots which allow for seasonal movement) in the traditional manner.  The drawer fronts were beaded at the router table prior to assembly, and the box was planed to fit perfectly after glue-up.

Next up was the top and top trim:  This was a bit of a challenge, as I searched for either a single board, or a sufficiently thick half-width board to bookmatch, and simply couldn’t find anyone who had it.  Though I don’t work in oak too frequently, I will be arranging for a log from a tree service to mill and air dry for future oak full thickness/width options (red oak, especially, is a weed around here).  I decided to mill a 6/4 down to 1″ final thickness, and slip-match it, by which I mean cut it in half, and slide one half next to the other, with the best grain appearance at the mating joint.  This board had substantial tension, and needed to be milled, dried a couple days, re-milled, redried, and remilled to get it flat.  Once joined, the top was sized and the edges were bullnosed, front and ends to match the existing hutch.  The top was fastened to the case with screws, having pre-drilled the case rails (dovetailed to the case sides) before assembly.  Even having pre-drilled, the screws were incredibly difficult to install in the <4″ drawer opening, not being able to insert a driver into it without a right angle adapter.  With the adapter, the torque was limited and the bit had difficulty staying in the screw head.  The trick:  a good coat of parrafin wax on the screw threads, which reduced resistance immensely.  I should mention, before I installed the top, I planed it smooth with a #4, followed by a #80 cabinet scraper for areas of tearout, and a card scraper over the whole surface to give a reflective surface (Fig 5)

Fig 5. A hand-scraped top left a reflective surface

I won’t speak much about the top trim, except to say it was installed, mitered in the corners, side pieces glued at the front, and a single nail in the back, where cross-grain issues might be anticipated.

The last bit, for this post, is that the stain was applied and, at the time of this writing, has been drying for a couple of days.  The stain was a Sherwin-Williams Wood classic stain chosen to match the client’s existing piece as closely as possible.  I don’t often stain my work, preferring oil and wax, or natural with clear-coat (shellac or waterborne lacquer), and have never used the Sherwin Williams brand before.  I will say that the consistency is much thicker relative to Minwax stains (incidentally, also a Sherwin Williams brand) and wiped on very nicely, without splattering.

1 coat of stain

The next (last) steps will be to apply my waterborne pre-cat lacquer (Hydrocote Resisthane Plus) by HVLP sprayer, first wiping the whole piece with denatured alcohol to remove any micro-layer of oil remaining to keep the clearcoat   from having any adhesion issues.  I’ve also let the stain set for 2-3 times longer than specified hoping to minimize issues.  I read (too late) that use of this product over oil is not recommended, but speaking with the engineers there helped assure me that following these steps would allow successful results.  I should note, my test pieces were not allowed to dry more than specified and were not wiped down with denatured alcohol, and suffered no ill consequence, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.  Once I’ve done 3-5 thin coats of lacquer, I will install the case back, the drawer hardware, and deliver this piece to the client prior to the planned Christmas eve festivities.  I’ll post one last update to wrap this project up after Christmas.

To all who’ve read this far, thank you for tolerating my verbosity, Happy Holidays, and a wonderful New Year!


About Nick

Nick Roulleau is founder, craftsman, designer, joiner, finisher, floor-sweep and all of the other roles at Mansfield Fine Furniture. A woodworker for more than a decade, Nick started the company with the goal of filling the need for heirloom-quality furniture hand-made from premium woods. Every piece is designed to suit the customer's needs and desires, hand-picking each piece of wood, and built one piece at a time, using both modern and centuries-old traditional methods to yield furniture to last for generations.