Tag Archives: woodcraft

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

Hand Wash Station

This Wash Station is a Great First Class Camp Gadget!
Washing up before lunch.

This wash station is the ideal First Class Camp Gadget! It’s sturdy, portable, and very useful when camping away from washroom facilities. Inherent in its design is a sound approach to a variety of pioneering concepts and skills. When this project’s built with all the lashings tight and all the legs, cross bar, and support pieces properly positioned, it’s a fine example of a well-engineered, highly functional camp gadget. Each of the three legs making up the tripod gets a lashed on support piece, and the wash station’s stability stems from the fact the design contains three triangles.

Scouts sharing the work to lash together a wash station.
Getting it done!

To start, you’ll need six good, straight sticks as follows:

  • two 2-foot x 3/4 to 1-inch for the leg braces
  • two 4-foot x 3/4 to 1-inch for the back leg and crossbar
  • two 5-foot x 3/4 to 1-inch for the front legs

For the lashings, you’ll need:

  • one 10-foot x 1/4-inch manila rope for the tripod lashing
  • six 6-foot x 1/4-inch manila ropes for the square lashings

NOTE: This and several types of camp gadgets can be happily lashed together simply using binder twine!

You’ll also need

  • bar of soap in a sock with a 3-foot cord
  • small to medium-sized towel with a 3-foot cord
  • No. 10 can with a bail or 4-quart cooking pot with a bail.

Here’s the assembly procedure:

The design for making a wash station.
Position of the sticks.

Make the tripod. Using the 10-foot rope, lash the two 5-foot sticks and one 4-foot stick together with a tight tripod lashing. The 4-foot stick should be in the middle. Make sure the “butt” ends of all three these sticks are even. Separate the legs and set the tripod up. The success of this project relies on a well-tied, tight tripod lashing.

Lash on the braces. Using four tight square lashings, with the 6-foot ropes lash one end of the 2-foot sticks to the 5-foot legs and the other end of the 2-foot sticks to the four-foot leg.

Lash on the crossbar. Using two more square lashings, tightly lash the other 4-foot stick to the top extended sections of the two 5-foot sticks to make a cross bar for the towel and soap-in-a-sock.

Add the soap, water, and towel. Tie the end of one 3-foot cord to the soap-in-a-sock and the end of the other 3-foot cord to the towel, and hang them on either side of the 4-foot crossbar.

Washing his hands before breakfast on a cold, winter camping trip.

Hang the can filled with water to the end of the 4-foot stick extending from the front of the tripod.

During the camping trip, change the water as necessary. See that the soap-in-a-sock is not left in the can after use as it will melt.

One of the beauties of using metal containers is that in cold weather, the can of water can be heated in the fire.