Recognizing that discussions of cutting dovetails can sometimes devolve into, well, sectarian skirmishes if not handled with some delicacy, I offer up a short testimonial in explaining how my own practice has evolved over the past six months.
I learned to cut dovetails by hand, following an article written some years ago by Frank Klausz. The process, which involves removing the waste with chisels, worked well for the white oak I used.
Fast forward several years, and I find myself cutting dovetail joints in poplar, a wood that is very different from white oak. The fibers bend and break in funny places, meaning that it really doesn’t respond well to chopping.
It hit me somewhere around my sixteenth dovetail joint for the tool chest that this problem might explain why many woodworkers use a coping saw to remove waste when cutting dovetails.
I pulled out a coping saw from my tool chest and wasted away the space for the pins. This got me close enough that the chisel work became a paring operation rather than a chopping session.
I’d tried a coping saw before, but it just sorta clicked for me this time. Maybe it’s that this early Craftsman model coping saw once belonged to my grandfather. Maybe I was more inclined to give it a chance, or maybe I was instinctively more gentle and relaxed with it.
Maybe I just needed to become dissatisfied with my old method before I could find the motivation to stick with the new method.
Now that I have some experience with this cope-and-pare method, I’m starting to see the appeal of the fishtail chisel for paring between pins. But that’s a project for another day.