How are you going to feel when someone has to repair your “not very good work?”

May 20, 201440 Comments
gappy dovetail tail

Sure there’s a sliver missing on the tail, but it’s hidden away…

The title of this post comes from a recent comment left on a video I posted during the construction of the bedside tables. I’m positive the YouTuber stumbled across it while doing a search for a dovetail related topic, and if it were the only video you saw you might think I cut all my joinery with a rusty spoon (actually another YouTuber claimed he COULD make dovetails better than me with a rusty spoon…something I told him I’d love to see and record for a separate video.)

It’s easy to take things out of context and to make assumptions when you haven’t followed along in a series, so I’m no longer trying to explain to them what they’re seeing.

It is what it is and there’s nothing I can do to make them see otherwise. But the comment that inspired this post has been rattling around in my head and it was time to let it out.

It would be easy for me to answer critics of my projects (both online and in reality) by using my amateur status as an excuse. Sure I cut corners every now and then when building a piece of furniture.

But only in the sense that I use what some might consider unconventional joinery such as pocket-holes, biscuits or even dowels.

And when I’m faced with either spending extra time and energy making a hidden joint look perfect or making it simply usable, I’ll always choose “usable” every time. Not because I’m lazy, but instead because I know where and why to choose my battles when it comes to the limited time I have in my shop.

As you can see in the picture above, there’s a little piece of wood missing from the tail, but it has zero effect on the stability of the finished joint, and once the table top is attached you don’t see it all. To me, this is one of those areas that I’m willing to call it good and focus my time and attention on the show pieces, where it matters more.

sketchup drawing of bedside table by matt vanderlist

Do you see the joinery?

So this brings me to the question that was asked “how are you going to feel when someone has to repair your work, and they see ‘not very good’ work?” I’m sure I’ll have some explaining to do if and when it happens, but if things go well, I’ll be long in the grave when it does.

And if I am still around, hopefully the person doing the repairs will be a family member who I can stand next to in the shop and explain what went wrong and how I learned to stop making that mistake, and maybe teach them something at the same time.

Does this still mean I’m being lazy and should be ashamed of my projects? Not even close! Like I said before, I know which battles to choose in my projects, and this one (the one that’s hidden well out of sight) isn’t one of them.

So the moral of the lesson as far as I’m concerned, “stop sweating the details that matter the least.” As long as it doesn’t effect the structural integrity or strength of the project, sometimes an ugly joinery job is just that and nothing more.

To see the entire video in question, you can find it on my post from December 7, 2012 “Tried and True Half-Blind Dovetail Technique”.

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Comments (40)

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  1. David Harms says:

    I agree with not sweating it. I remember someone, can’t remember who was showing the half blind dovetails on an antique dresser that held the carcass together, they were all kinds of gappy but still held the case together fine and were hidden by the top. Wood workers before us didn’t sweat it, neither should we.

    • Matt says:

      Exactly! There are so many pieces of furniture from craftspeople who we wish to emulate that have less than perfect joinery. It’s the nature of the beast and there’s nothing wrong with it.

      The only joinery of utmost importance are those that are seen on the surface and those that keep it from falling apart.

  2. jim says:

    Whats wrong with biscuits,dowels or pocket holes? I agree time is the killer and when you put yourself out there like you do your open to the critics. Don’t sweat it keep up the great content and most of all keep sharing. The thing i like most about your videos is they or you are not perfect much like the 95% of your audience is.

    • Matt says:

      Hey Jim,

      There is nothing wrong with biscuits, dowels or pocket holes, I use them frequently. I just used them as an example in this post, simply because they’re always being put down by self-proclaimed joinery “experts”.

      I hope I didn’t come across as whining about the comment, this one was one of the more tame comments LOL. It’s just something that piqued my interest as a common theme I see across the woodworking community.

      While there are some merits to it, I think they’re being blown far out of proportion by some individuals who are laser focused on a single detail versus the big picture.


  3. Larry Thayer says:

    Everyone doesn’t like everyone and everyone doesn’t talk nicely … especially if they don’t have to let anyone know who they are.

    My Dad used to say, “Some people walk around with a look on their faces like they are smelling used food.”

    When you read comments from Internet Citizens, you can’t see what their faces are doing.

    Embrace the smilers not the smellers. Salt heavily the comments with unknown origin. Use a rusty spoon for the salting process if you like.

    If you want to see some smilers, look to the lower left corner of our webpage for the short video of our Chance Four group (and lots of others) installing the park bench and large and small signs for the Hudsonville Library new Butterfly Garden. Our Chance Four members made the signs and bench. I’m very proud and am, believe me, smiling.

    • Matt says:

      That’s a great saying Larry, and it’s very true in so many different ways LOL!

      As I mentioned in reply to Jim’s comment I don’t mean for this post to be another example of me whining about the commentors, they’ll do what they have to do because they can.

      I just want others to know that because their joinery isn’t perfect doesn’t mean their projects aren’t either LOL.

  4. Eric R says:

    Good article Matt.
    You are the “every man” woodworker, and that is why you have a lot of followers.
    I bet there are a lot of trollers who wish they could do half the stuff you can in the shop.
    Keep posting and I’ll keep watching.

  5. Eddy Flynn says:

    keep up the good work Matt ,hating gives useless people something to do .

  6. Keith Peters says:

    Everything has context. Making a piece for a museum or charging a premium price to a customer? It should be as close to perfect as possible. Building something for yourself or family? It should look good and be solid. Of course, some people get a lot of satisfaction out of working over every detail to perfection even on a personal project. That’s valid too.

    • Matt says:

      Yes, context is crucial, that’s a point we sometimes forget. I think we all want to strive to have our exposed joinery look the best it can regardless of where the piece will be placed, but there are some joinery locations that it’s perfectly acceptable to let an ugly one slip through once in a while.

      Without a doubt some of us get lost in the pursuit of perfection and there’s nothing wrong with that, but neither is just enjoying the ride and accepting all the bumps along the way.

  7. eric says:

    Matt, I have no issues with the tail chip off. Stuff happens. What I do see that’s a lacking is your outside fit. It simply wasn’t a precisely cut joint that shows itself in the end product. You can’t see the hidden tail but you can certainly see the jagged fit. It’s just ugly to my eye. I’m not bashing you, just pointing out what I feel is you missing the point on this project. If that joint is ok with you then that’s fine with me. I would be very disappointed in it for my project. Everyone is different. A chip in the tail is not the end of the world to me but the part that shows does matter. Your joint is lacking where it matters. That’s what I’d be concerned with, not someone criticizing me for a split tail. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.

    btw, I’ve had to redo many joints that looked like that. I’m far from perfect. I’m not claiming to be either.

    • Matt says:

      Eric I completely agree with you that everyone is different when it comes to what they’re willing to tolerate in the details of their joinery. And you’re absolutely correct this has a “jagged fit”. But I’ll emphasize again, if this were an exposed joint…one where it would be seen regularly, than I would have spent a lot more time making it look and fit better. But it’s not and it fits well within my acceptable tolerances.

      Even on the inside of the leg, where there are possibly some saw marks exposed, I think only the most finicky client would throw their hands up in disgust. But that’s assuming no effort is being made to hide them during the finishing process!

      And that’s a topic for another post LOL! Thanks for the feedback, even if we agree to disagree on the small details.

      • eric says:

        Going by your diagram (Hidden Dovetail, do you see it?) and the photo orientation I took the jagged edge to be on the outside. If that’s on the inside not such a big deal. However from the pic it looks as if the other side sits proud of the leg. I have to wonder if it looks any better than the side you’re showing. I hope so!

        • Matt says:

          In this case, I think it’s literally about the perspective that we’re viewing it.

          I’ll have to post some close ups of it.

  8. Ron Robbins says:

    Matt – I really like the design of that table. Well done. I have been looking for something similar and it just gave me a great idea.

    As to the article… I agree. Don’t sweat the small stuff. There are critics everywhere.


  9. Brian Benham says:

    Only trolls have rusty spoons from living under the bridge, clearly he is cranky from eating off a rusty spoon.

    AS my dad use to tell me, “practice on the back, make it count on the front.”

    Their is nothing wrong with your method.

  10. Tom C says:

    I learned from a very skilled luthier, “It’s not how well you build your project, it’s how well you hide your mistakes”

    • Matt says:

      Hiding mistakes could be the subject of an entire podcast show on it’s own lol!

      • Matt Hartley says:

        I took the opportunity to work on my hiding mistakes on my white fence i was asking you about, turns out stepping the fence up the hill was easier said then done. But in the end, it is all repaired and new mortises cut.

  11. Bill L says:

    If you enjoy what you are doing, and you aren’t selling it, why should it matter which joints you are using. I thought this was supposed to be fun.

    • eric says:

      Matt sells woodworking products, not furniture. It’s a great gig, I’m a wee bit jealous. I’m sure he has lots of fun doing it.

  12. Shannon says:

    Whenever I start kicking myself for a botched joint or have to talk someone off a ledge after a joint gone wrong, I tell them to go visit a museum and look closely at the visible joinery of a “masterpiece”. If that doesn’t make you feel better nothing will.
    Coming from the hand tool zealot side of things I “cut corners” all the time because it is just more efficient. Things like leaving Fore plane marks on the underside of a table or angling my saw to cut into the keep side of the baseline on half blind dovetails mean I can move on without trying for the exact cuts that come from machines with fixed axes and controlled linear movement. Most important is I shoot for a show ready joint every time but if I fall short on the non visible stuff so be it just as long as I’m not losing strength in the process.

    Good stuff Matt!

  13. I read the post today and was cracking up. When your job is putting what you did out there the way you do there will always be internet tough guys throwing stones they never would in person. And you and I both know you could have glued that sliver on and know one would have been the wiser, but you didn’t. You showed how it REALLY goes.

    The guys that called that bad work or either rich or woodworking is their hobby. Anyone who does this stuff day in and day out knows there is a problem with every job, everything we build has a flaw or a few.

    When I look at someone else’s work now days I will pay attention to the artistry, but I also look for the mistakes. Not to slam them and say “That guy sucks – look at that”. I do it to see how he overcame the mistakes. Some people do that very well. I would like to do that very well, because as it turns out whether I am building a house or a table, there are always things I wish I could have done better. I often have to walk away from the things that just don’t matter.

    BTW Matt you are a big reason I went pro. Started reading you’re stuff and listening to Woodtalk and thought to myself “It is now or never”. Keep Ritzendollar Woodworking in your thoughts and if you pray – offer one up for us 😉 BTW I won’t blame you if we go tits up. hahahaha

  14. Dancigarman says:

    Part of the journey in joinery is learning. If you are considering these types of concerns, you don’t have real problems to worry about.

  15. Jarrid says:

    I seriously doubt that missing bit is going to weaken that joint to the point of malignancy. What a bunch of @$$wipes!

    Btw, if that guy can hand cut dovetails with a rusty spoon, I’ll eat a 6″ piece of MDF!

  16. wilbur says:

    If I were you and had to field the “how are you going to feel when someone has to repair your work, and they see ‘not very good’ work?” question, this is what I would say:

    “I would feel pretty bad if someone saw my “not very good work”. But this joint is not an example of that.”

    It’s not an example of “not very good work” for all the reasons you describe in your blog post.

  17. Dave S says:

    Matt, I could do better with a ‘A Rusty Spoon’. I’ve decided it is what I will call my router from now on. Actually, I want to see him cut it with a rusty spoon also. It’ll probably have to be time lapse over a couple of weeks, but it will be worth it so I can tell him I can do better with a plastic spoon.
    On a more serious note, I enjoy seeing someone struggle a little bit compared to always seeing someone make it look easier than it really is for some of the rest of us (me). It is even better to see someone putting it into proper perspective. My God, if I had to make everything perfect I’d have quit long ago. Trust me, I add lots of ‘character’ to my projects, but I enjoy the challenge of improving rather than the intimidation of having to be perfect.

    keep it up.

  18. “Perfect is the enemy of good.” is exactly what applies here.

  19. As a furniture repairman, I would venture to say that poor workmanship is a real problem. From poor jointery, to improper understanding of moisture content, and an overall lack of understanding of finishing lead to most of the things I repair. Our trade has been seriously lacking in professionalism since we decided we were better off in offices and having Chinese workers make our stuff for us. Now we are reaping the cost of that decision. On the flip side we have hobbiest woodworkers telling others that hand cut dovetails are the best way to go and food safe finishes are really a thing! We need to stop romanticizeing woodworking, stop to learn the basics of the craft, and then work our asses off to bring back skilled labor to our own shores. Then we can talk about fixing American furniture, because right now I fix mostly cabinetry and foreign furniture. If the router had been invented earlier I am sure the old timers would have used it, they had to make money like the rest of us.

  20. Bob says:

    Don’t Bogart That Joint Matt get over it dude.

  21. Riccardo says:

    This case is similar to what we regularly do with logs, we decide which face will be in sight and which not. Mistakes happens and to decide to leave the mistake if it will be out of sight is logical, natural, obvious. If it is something that is visible it’s different and a new piece is required. It’s a balance between good results and production time (and costs). The search for perfection can be a sign of some kind of obsession. It’s like our lives, more we learn to handle “wrong” things with ease better we live.

  22. Barry says:

    Hey Matt… I found your video to be very well explained and very well executed. I have seen dovetail joints on the inside of many old antique drawers to have small chips missing that do not compromise the strength of the joint. Your video shows how with a little patience anyone can do a dovetail joint with minimal(sharp)tools. If you want “pretty” use a jig with a router. I love making paddles out of 5/4 solid Birdseye,and curly maple using only my veritas spokeshave tools from Lee Valley.I even had to rough out the pattern using a chainsaw as I didn’t have a band-saw…Thanks for the videos and keep on making sawdust..


  23. Bill W says:

    I have been woodworking for over 40 years and still hand cut dovetails from time to time FOR FUN. Remember that the reason the dovetail really was ever widely used was because NAILS were expensive and sometimes impossible to get. I have repaired many pieces of furniture over the years where utilitarian dovetails pins that didn’t fit were simply busted off by the craftsmen to make the fit. Although It’s a beautiful joint, not easily master but really if you are talking about value (as your free time I’m sure is treasured) there is plenty of joinery to give you pleasure. So forget the critics, enjoy the art and remember “Make it last as long as the tree that grew it”

  24. Bob Barna says:

    I’ve been a woodworker and taught woodworking and joinery for 50 years and agree with you that every job will not be perfect. However when teaching others I always try to do the best job possible and then explain at times something may go wrong. I don’t show the “wrong way”. The confusion here seems to be that this is not someone hanging out in your basement just watching you work and having a beer with you but people coming to your site for instruction.
    All that being said, I enjoy the site and take care.

  25. Chuck says:

    Excuses, excuses,excuses. I just cut my first ever dovetails – they were double blind – used in a situation similar to yours. It was not acceptable to me. I replaced the piece. No one else but me would ever know that the mistake was there, but I would always know. If I left it, that would probably have been my dying thought.

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