Pondering the Concept Of Handmade, Part 2

cradle joinery

In my last post I explored the question of just what people meant when they used the term “Handmade.” I tentatively reached the conclusion that there is a somewhat fuzzy line to be drawn from the perspective of the sophistication of the tools used.

I still cannot draw a firm line in any general way, but I want to be honest about my own habits, so that those of you who are interested in my work can have a basis for making your own judgment. I recently built a box, (two of them actually, but that’s another subject) that was constructed using dovetail joints. Dovetails are an old method of joining two pieces of wood, time-tested and reliable, and can be made by many different methods, making them a perfect place to search for that fuzzy line.

Doubtless, it’s a tough case to make that dovetails cut in seconds by computer controlled machine tools count as handmade. Conversely, there is little argument that when you lay out the joint with a pencil and straight edge, cut it with a handsaw and fit it with a chisel, it qualifies as handmade. So, I think we can agree that the line lies between these two.

What about using a handheld router, with a dovetail bit, and one of the many commercially available dovetail jigs? These are not exactly sophisticated tools. They do require careful set up, and in the less expensive ones, like mine, a lot of time-consuming trial and error adjustments as well. As a result, my dovetail jig collects a lot of dust. It just takes so long to set up and fine tune properly, that unless I have to crank out a ton of them, it’s less hassle to just make them “by hand.” As you can see by that last statement, I do not consider router-and-jig made dovetails to be handmade. (Not that they are inferior joints, mind you. Router-made dovetails are still a strong effective joint, but that’s not the subject.)

Now we’ve gotten a little closer to that line and it’s looking less like a laser beam now and more like a flashlight in the fog. So, let’s walk right up to it.

For the box(es) that started this post (as well as for many other small projects) I made the dovetails this way:

I began by using an angle gauge, ruler, pencil, and scribe to lay out the joint and then cut the tails themselves with a bandsaw. I use the bandsaw because it is faster, and I can cut as accurately with it as I can with a handsaw. The pins, that is the mating section of the joint, require cuts at an angle on the edge of the board, and, therefore, the quickest way to cut these are to clamp the board in a vice and use a handsaw. I have two saws to do this sort of work. One is a western-style dovetail saw made to cut on the push stroke, which is the one I used for years, and a newer, Japanese-style saw, that I have been using recently, that cuts on the pull stroke and makes a much thinner kerf.

I remove waste between tails and pins mostly by bandsaw, cleaning up with a chisel which is also used to trim and fit the joint. I think of these joints as handmade and present them as such, even though a bandsaw is hardly considered a hand tool. In my thinking, the bandsaw leaves just as much room for error as a handsaw and requires practice and a steady hand to make a clean cut. However, it is without doubt a power tool and definitely is faster than a handsaw.

I still have trouble with trying to define exactly where I draw that line between handmade and not handmade, at least in any general sense, so perhaps, at least for now, this piecemeal approach is best.

Thanks for reading, I’d love to read what you have to think on this or any of my posts.

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