Dovetail Notch for Camp Gadgets: Pioneering Without Rope

Patch from Schiff
Patch from Schiff

Back in the spring of 1976, while walking through the Mortimer L. Schiff Scout Reservation, then the BSA National Training Center, there was a memorable encounter with a tall man. Seeing the young Scouter, the tall man figuratively embraced him with a smile, warmly acknowledging the younger man like they were lifelong brothers in a worldwide family. A light-hearted conversation ensued. The tall man was Ken Cole, Jr., editor of the 1967 edition of the Boy Scouts of America Fieldbook which had just recently been reprinted.

One Legged Fire Crane
One Legged Fire Crane

Here’s an amusing side note: With a twinkle in his eye, he related a little “story” about how on his flight over to Schiff, a passenger sitting next to him in the smoking section asked him for a light. He described how he casually retrieved some belly button lint from a plastic bag, and nonchalantly lit the man’s cigarette with flint and steel. Boy, was that guy ever surprised. The account was related with such sincerity, the thought whether or not this actually happened never occurred to the young man. Ken was so engaging and easy to be around, it really didn’t matter.

Ken happened to be carrying a bow saw, and extolled its virtues as a most useful woods tool. He then bragged about how wonderful was the dovetail notch, and proceeded to effortlessly create one in a stick he picked up from the side of the path. It was a happy demonstration. Ken was a very happy guy.

1981 Pioneering Merit Badge Pamphlet
1981 Pioneering Merit Badge Pamphlet

There’s a whole section on “dovetailing” in the 1981 printing of the BSA Pioneering Merit Badge Pamphlet: “With the handy bow saw and a pocket knife, you can make excellent joints for log structures without lashings. This is done by making a triangular notch in the “receiving” log and a tapered end in the other log or pole. This is called “dovetailing” and if done correctly, it provides a tight, rigid joint that is neat and strong.”

BSA Fieldbook, 1976
BSA Fieldbook, 1976

The following is extracted from the 1976 Boy Scout Fieldbook:

When you must hold two pieces of wood together, and you don’t have rope for lashing and there are no nails or wire, you can do it with a dovetail notch. The dovetail joint, as you know, is a familiar cabinet makers trick. However, you don’t have to be a skilled carpenter to make this dovetail notch. Four cuts by a saw and a few strokes with your knife to pry out the wood in the notch is all there is to it. The notch will hold slender unshaped round sticks for quick work and thicker tight-fitting dovetails for heavy loads.

With your saw, make a cut that slants to your right, not quite halfway through your pole. Avoid knots (a branch is a knot). Begin the notch in from the pole to prevent splitting when the dovetail is driven in tight.   Now make an equal cut to the left. Notice that the cuts are almost at a right angle to each other. On thicker pieces, the notch angle can be sharper.   Cut straight down to the depth of the side cuts and make another vertical cut to one side of the first.  The side cuts outline the dovetail and the center cuts break up the fibers so your knife can pry them out.  Pry out the wood in the notch, first on one side and then on the other. If you haven’t cut into a knot, the wood should chip out easily.  The cleaned out notch is ready for a fitting—round stick or dovetail.  With the pieces to be fitted held over the notch, shape the base and sides. Make the end a little smaller than the notch.  Drive the dovetail into the notch until it jams. If you wish a very rigid joint—one that will support a heavy load—shape the dovetail some more so that it fits through the notch.
Dovetail Notch

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