You Don’t Have To Start Simple...
But you may want to start small.
I got a message from a former student the other day. He's decided to make some toy boxes for each of his three sons. He wanted to use solid wood and wasn't sure how he should join the corners of the panels.
He wasn‘t sold on rabbeting and nailing the box together. What he really wanted to use was dovetail joinery. He's new to woodworking, but I encouraged him to give it a shot. After all, sturdy dovetails aren’t that hard to cut. But making them pretty and sturdy is a different challenge.
After thinking about it a little longer, I realized I should have assumed less and learned a little more. Here are some questions I wish I had asked before I made a recommendation.
- How big is the box?
If it’s going to be a smaller box, then go for the more challenging joinery. If you screw up, it won’t be too much of a chore to make a new part or even a whole new box. If you make three, and the third box looks MUCH better than the first (it will), you can make a fourth and use the rough draft for any number of things in the shop.
If the boxes are big, you may want to stick with a simpler form of joinery. If you get frustrated early on, the sheer size of the overall project might start to weigh on you. If it becomes too much, it might derail the whole thing.
Are you planning on painting it?
Paint hides many woodworking sins. Even if you just paint the outside of the box, you can make those gappy dovetails look pretty good. Add a few wedges here, a little putty there. Follow it up with some sanding and a good paint job and you're golden.
What species of wood will you use?
If you plan to use a hardwood, like cherry or walnut, and you're going to leave the joinery exposed, I think it would be a good idea to use a simpler method. The harder the wood, the more precise the joinery has to be. And, unless you want these boxes to be an early sign post on your path to cutting perfect dovetails, you should stick with a joint that will look good with a little less skill.
If you're going to paint the finished box, why not use something that is less expensive and more forgiving, like pine. I've built a few projects with it over the last few years and I've managed to overcome a long held prejudice against this ubiquitous white wood. I've discovered that this material, which I had once once associated with cheap, poorly made furniture, is actually quite lovely to work with. This is especially true if you're using hand tools. And if you prepare and join it properly, you can use it to create some beautiful pieces.
Some people don't like pine because of it's softness. But what might seem like a weakness is a hidden advantage when you want to make a joint that fits well and looks good. The "Mash Factor" of pine will let you cut the opposing parts of the joint a tiny bit oversized. And when the joint comes together, the softer grain will be more likely to compress into a beautifully fit joint.
Properly dried pine is also incredibly stable. Which brings me to my next question.
How will the boards be oriented in relation to each other?
Dovetails work great with some designs. If the wood grain in the walls of your box runs horizontally along all four sides, then dovetails would be a solid choice.
If you’re building a boarded chest, where the grain on the sides runs horizontally from end to end, but the grain on the ends runs vertically from the floor to the top of the box, you may want to reconsider. The combination of end grain and long grain at the corners means you need to take seasonal wood movement into account.
In this case, dovetails would end up pulling themselves apart. So you’ll need to use a fastener that will hold without the benefit of glue, and a material that is less likely to move with the seasons. Screws seem like the obvious choice. But they won’t flex and move with the grain of the wood on those side panels as they expand and contract. This is a perfect place to use some good old fashioned cut nails, or better yet, some superb Diamond Head Rivierre Nails. If you’re not sure what type of nail, what size to use or how to use them without splitting your work, you’ll find an excellent guide here on the Lost Art Press blog. Pair these flexible fasteners with a softer, more stable material like pine, and you've got a box that will likely stand up to the abuse of the seasons as well as those small hands.
How much time do you have?
The only way to get good at woodworking, or anything challenging, is to practice. So if you want to use dovetails, and you want them to look perfect, then you're going to need to give yourself time to get there.
What is the story you're already telling yourself about these boxes?
This is probably the most important question to ask. And maybe the hardest one to answer.
Do you imagine your kids treasuring these boxes when they're grown? Will they proudly hand them down to their own children as proof of your prowess with a hand saw? Or are they just boxes? Something to put Lego in at the end of the day so that you don't step on them in your bare feet in the middle of the night?
If it's just a box, that's no reason to skimp on the effort. But it is a reason to cut yourself some slack if they don't turn out quite the way you had hoped.
If you're just getting started, those first two stories are hard to live up to. You'll tell that story eventually. But probably not with these first three boxes.