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Cutting the Worlds Fastest Dovetail

So yea, I only went and bloody did it! I cut a cabinet grade dovetail joint in less than 3 minutes! Filming this video was easily the most mentally and physically challenging thing I've ever done on the channel. And I've built and done some really stupid s*** over the years.

This blog is a summary of all the key points and learnings that did not fit into the video. So if you'd like to know more about how I made this goal come to fruition, or simply watch me rage at some failed attempts, you're in the right place.

Finally, before I get started, if you'd like to have a go at beating my record, please take a look at the competition page where you can find out more about the rules and prizes to be won.

History of the Challenge

Before I get into the origins of this challenge, please note that I'm aware human beings existed before the internet (Despite the fact they must have been bored 99% of the time) and I'm also aware that craftspeople would have probably tried this challenge centuries ago…

But for the sake of argument, the original challenge in the modern digital age was by Frank Klauz. I don't know where the original video was posted, but it was reposted to the Popular Woodworking YouTube channel in 2014.

Don't get me wrong, Frank is an incredible craftsmen, but he shamelessly butchers the attempt in one of the funniest woodworking videos I've watched. The cherry ontop is when the cameraman says ‘You suck, Frank' at the end.

Later down the line, Rob Cosman came across the video and decided to do his own attempt, but with the goal of ‘cabinet grade' dovetails. In simple terms, that means it has to be passable as if it were in a piece of actual furniture. Both came with their own struggles, Franks attempt was pure speed, Robs attempt was precision at the expense of speed.

Over the years, I've seen various attempts at cutting the worlds fasted dovetail. In fact, The Fan Club community happened to start a speed dovetail competition at the same times as I was planning this video, which certainly got my arse in gear.

However, I'd never seen anyone have a go at beating Robs ‘cabinet grade' dovetail attempt before. So when he and his team innocently offered me one of his saws to test (not promote) towards the end of 2020, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to beat his record using his own saw against him. I feel slightly bad about it. But at the same time, I'm sure I won't be at the top for long…

Anyway, long story short, I figured out pretty quickly that I was going to beat his record. So in the end I decided to blend the ‘cabinet grade' aspect from Robs challenge, with the speed from Franks, to essentially try to do a cabinet grade dovetail in less than 3 minutes.

As you'll see from the video below, this was way harder than I expected it to be.

The Setup

The key to completing this challenge successfully was all in the setup. Tools had to be in the exact same place before each attempt, the stop in the vice had to be prepared, the fret saw blade had to be re-tensioned, chisels sharpened.

Even the mouse had to be positioned on the start button in a specific place each time. Because there were at least 5 attempts where I accidentally right clicked on the button, thus opening the Mac dictionary which made it incredibly difficult to stop the timer at the end of the challenge. 

As discussed in the video, I used a panel light to cast a shadow on the marking gauge line which proved to be indispensable. In fact, I'm going to keep it handy for future use.

Layout

For the layout, I chose to use a story stick. This is a method I often use when marking out many joints at the same spacing. For example, it was an absolute godsend with the recent batch of toolboxes I made.

As discussed in the video, I was tempted to make modifications to the story stick in order to speed up the process. However the parameters I set myself was that every stage I would usually carry out in a normal dovetailing session HAD to be carried out. And while a story stick is often used in my workflow, a pimped up story stick is not. I always use a square across the endgrain.

You may have noticed that I did not draw the dovetail pitch down the front of the workpiece. I'll be honest here, I don't do this at the best of times, despite preaching that accurate layout is essential to accurate work. But in reality, I can usually trust my muscle memory. It's only valuable or wide pieces (where I risk cutting the wrong way) where I bother laying out the pitch. For example once again, the toolboxes. In Robs original video, he did not mark out the pitch either.

Sawing

I used Rob Cosmans dovetails saw for this step after using it almost exclusively throughout the toolboxes series. All I can say is that it's incredible, particularly with the variable tooth pattern. I didn't even have to think about how to best use the saw, it just worked.

Without the risk of waffling on too much, I'll do a full written review of the saw here should you want to find out more.

One of my main problems with the saw, and most of the tools in general, was that I was struggling to pick them up consistently each time. So I made a saw cradle to hold the saw at the perfect angle ready to be used. It was so good in fact, that I didn't even have to look when grabbing for it.

Annoyingly, the attempt you saw in the video was not only the worst filming sequence my cameraman Rob managed to capture (in his own words) but was also the clumsiest looking attempt on my part too. Every time I tried to put the saw back it would fall over, despite working perfectly in previous attempts. But then again, that's to be expected after 24 attempts of the same joint. We were both going insane by that point.

Fret Sawing

I went through SO MANY fret saw blades while attempting this. Mainly because I kept forgetting to check the tension periodically. I will say that de-tensioning of the blade is not a normal problem with Knew Concepts fret saws. My technique was the problem. Take a look at my camera mans meltdown at one of the blade breakages in the outtakes below.

Other than creating a cradle similar to the dovetail saw, there was nothing I could do with this stage other than simply saw as fast and close to the line as possible. Which was incredibly difficult to do considering most attempts would wind up with me cutting into the side of a tail or pin, thus voiding the attempt.

Chiselling

You may notice in the video that I did not complete the chiseling of the tails until the very end. This was a brilliant suggestion by one of our regular live stream viewers who happened to be tuning into our ‘behind the scenes' live stream while I was doing these attempts. He suggested leaving all the chiseling until the very end to avoid having to go back and forth halfway through.

It worked spectacularly.

Yet again, as this was my clumsiest attempt, I utterly failed at putting the chisel back in the holder after use, which of course would have looked way cooler and intentional than the act I performed. But hey, at least I made up the time elsewhere (still haven't figured out where though)

Transferring

I'm writing this blog post prior to making the video go live and I'm predicting now that my transferring jig (and perhaps the story stick) are going to get peoples jimmies in a twist. All I can say is that I have used dovetail alignment boards in the past, and this was nothing more than a convenient variation on one of those. In fact, it may have actually been quicker given how much I fumbled when getting my jig into position. I got my small combination square stuck underneath it.

Did you also notice when I was carrying out the transferring that the left shoulder of the tail was not properly lined up with the pin? I didn't notice until halfway through transferring either…

Therefore while I was transferring, I realised I had to account for that adjustment by cutting the left pin slightly tighter than I normally would, therefore allowing the tail to pull in further, and to negate some of the gaps that would appear by the tails twisting into position. I can't believe I got away with it.

The Wood

I began practicing for this challenge using Sycamore that I was given by Blaise while visiting his yard in our Sawmill series. Unfortunately, some of the board had succumbed to rot and other patches were quite discolored, so I figured it would be best to sacrifice them to the dovetail gods.

Don't worry, I didn't use it all. I've still got tons of lovely tight rippled stuff left over as well as some crazy grain sections.

Anyway, despite the Sycamore being cheap and easy to practice with, it soon became apparent that the variations in density made it difficult to saw and chisel consistently. But not only that, the grain was so wild that the outer pins would often snap when the joint was assembled. Which was incredibly frustrating as I would have had some brilliant results otherwise.

I ended up having to machine up three batches of Sycamore before realising that I had none of the bad stuff left. It was only the lovely, figured stuff that I really didn't want to cut into.

I had a dig through my wood storage and came across as piece of limewood that was leftover from one of the carving classes at Rycotewood. I planed it up, and managed to get 10 boards out of it, which equated to 5 attempts. (One tail board, one pin board) however one of the pairs ended up being too short for my setup, so in reality I only had 4 attempts.

I absolutely butchered the first three attempts which didn't bode well for the only remaining pair I had left. But somehow I managed to do it with the last chance I had. Hence the huge celebration, sign of relief and shaky hands at the end.

Final Result

Below are some images taken after the joint was planed. Keep in mind that there is no glue on this whatsoever. In my experience, the slight swelling from the glue, as well as light pressure from clamps is all that's needed to close this up. What a result eh?!

See the 'Unedited' Version

If you're interested in seeing what the side camera saw throughout this process as well as our reactions after beating the record, the unedited video shows all.

You'll also see close ups of the joint before and after planing as well as views inside the joint after assembly.

This is the kind of camera shot that will be required from people who hope to enter the competition. Details of which can be found here.

Failed Attempts

If you're interested in seeing what kind of f*** ups I made, take a look at the outtake reel below. This is only a snippet of the 25 attempts plus endless amounts of practice I put into this challenge. But, I think it sums up the general theme of failure quite accurately.

At some point soon, I will post a photo of EVERY failed attempt I made while attempting to beat this record. As you'll see, some were no where near, others were frustratingly close.

Summary

I must say, I really did not expect this challenge to be as hard as it was. But I want to thank Rob Cosman for supplying me a saw to try out, despite having no idea that this video would be the result of his generosity. In fact, the least I can do is point you in the direction of his store where you can purchase one of his saws for yourself. If you're hesitant and you'd like to know more of my throughs on it, read my review here.

If you'd like to have a go at beating this challenge yourself and being in with the chance of winning a Dovetail Saw and one of my Premium Marking Knives, be sure to visit the link below to find out more.

Dovetail 'Speed Run' Competition.

Reckon you can do better? Click the link below to learn what rules you need to follow, and what prizes you can win.

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