Dovetails in Sapele — Tough, Fibrous Wood For Sure!

HDTV Stand

Sketch of HDTV Stand

I’ve been working and experimenting with the cutting of dovetails in this Sapele that I’m using for the HDTV stand.  Although I’ve cut a fair share of dovetails, this material is proving to be a tough one to work.  Refer to the sketch at the left and there are dovetails on the dividers between the drawers and also on the bottom stretcher.  It dawned on me that besides the interlocking grain and generally fibrous nature of the Sapele I’m also cutting the sockets into edge grain which adds to the difficulty.  Usually, dovetails are cut into the end grain of the board which, as a general rule, reacts better to chisel work.

Honing my chisels

Honing my chisels

For starters I decided to make the work as easy as possible by first honing the chisels with an 8,000 grit water stone.  Only the micro edge of the bevel was touched up along with polishing the back.  My method of cutting details is to do the tails first.  The drawer dividers were the first to be cut this morning.  Cutting the tails wasn’t much of a problem since these are cut in end grain, it’s the sockets that present a challenge dud to the nature of the Sapele.

To match the barefaced dovetail used on the upper shelf, these needed to be cut at a 14 degree angle.  The joint for the upper shelf is a sliding one so I felt the need to use a router bit on that.  Once these were cut they were checked and squared up as needed.  If your shoulders and sides aren’t square it’ll be almost impossible to achieve a good joint.

After carefully laying out the location of the drawer dividers work began on the sockets.  The two outer drawers are 13 1/4″ wide and the center one will be slightly wider.  Hard to divide 40″ equally into 3 parts!  Even after several practice dovetails I was very careful to saw to the line and mark out accurately.  This Sapele (have I mentioned it’s tough to work?) wants to split at the slightest provocation.  Being from Holland makes me a Dutchman and I must admit there are a few in this work!  Don’t know if you can see it or not, but one of the sockets ended up right in the middle of a swirl of contrasting grain.

I found that for this work the Stanley #271, small router plane is great to set the depth of the socket.  Although this is rather unorthodox, it really works well.  Since you’re cutting with the grain a marking knife or gauge line is hard to see.  The router plane leaves a thicker line that is easy to follow when marking with the grain.  It’s set just shy of the required depth so that I can fine tune it with a chisel.

I have a friend by the name of Bill who asked me whether my work would be completed quicker if I didn’t take the time to photograph the progress and yes Bill — it would but then I couldn’t share my trials and tribulations with the world.  Now that one is done I’m hunkering down and working on the rest!

I do want to acknowledge a tool maker.  He is Robert Zajicek and he makes beautiful woodworking tools.  Here is a LINK to his website.  Whenever possible I prefer to buy from small shops and especially avoid big box stores and all of the Chinese imported junk.   Since I’m a very small business that appreciates people seeking me out I like to do the same.  Recently I ordered one of his quality marking knives, the Kerf Cadet II and although it works great in most woods this Sapele hasn’t cut as well.  I emailed him this morning and he responded within a few hours.  He mentioned that Sapele is a tough wood to work and suggested I re-hone the knife on a fine stone which I did at the same time the chisels were honed.  The point is, try getting that kind of response from your local Big Box store or internet purchase from China!  I’ll gladly pay a little bit more for a quality product and real customer service.  Here’s a few of the lay-out work:

It’s difficult to really see the lines but at least they are visible.  I use the trick of sharpening a pencil to a sharp point with a chisel to fill in the scribed line and even with my eyesight, I can see to cut sockets.

About woodworksbyjohn

I'm a retired woodshop teacher. I build one of a kind furniture pieces and custom picture frames. You can see some of my currently available work, boxes, carvings through my Etsy store: Contact me about your project -- always up for the challenge of unique work.
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1 Response to Dovetails in Sapele — Tough, Fibrous Wood For Sure!

  1. orepass says:

    I found the dovetails a challenge in Sapele a challenge as well. The brittle nature of the wood resulted in a number of problems. Like you, I did find that after sharpening my marking knife and making deeper marks I was able to get a handle on the problem. The beauty of the wood more than made up for the problems. Interestingly I had no issues hand cutting the mortises or tenons, and the wood responded well. I like the challenge of working with the different woods and getting to understand their character.

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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