Like most woodworkers I have a bunch of jigs kicking around the shop and like most guys my age I have firmly held opinions. As a reader I’ve seen more than enough articles about jigs for this and fixtures for that. As an author I’ve tried to steer clear of writing too much about jigs, although from time to time my name has appeared. To me, jigs exist to make certain tasks (usually repetitious ones that require a consistent degree of precision) safer, faster or easier. A really good jig will do all three of those things. Some authors are specialists in devising intricate solutions and some woodworkers get sidetracked into making jigs as their hobby instead of using jigs to make things. I am neither of those.
At right is my set-up for drilling the cup holes for Euro hinges. It’s a straight fence glued and stapled down to a piece of 3/4″ thick plywood. There is a rabbet on the fence that keeps chips of wood from keeping the edge of a door off the straight edge. The three pencil lines are my intricate system for placing the holes in the same location on every door. The center line is in line with the center of the bit, and the other two lines are an equal distance away. When I have the jig positioned where I want it, I lower the bit 1/4″ or so into the plywood base. The next time I need to use it, I lower the bit into the hole and clamp the base down to the drill press table. That puts the jig back in the right position without any fuss or measuring. All I need to do then is set the depth of the bit and I’m ready to go. In use, I line up the corner of the door to one of the outer pencil lines and drill. This is a pretty good example of my philosophy toward making and using jigs.
- Don’t expect a jig to give you skills or precision you don’t have. Simply put, if you can’t measure accurately, make parts to an exact size or put a square line in the right place you won’t be able to make a working, reliable jig; you’ll end up spending a lot of time without getting the desired results.
- If it takes longer to make the jig than it does to perform the task without the jig, you’re wasting time unless it’s a task you’ll be doing on a regular basis. Knowing how long things will take is an essential element of successful jig use. If you don’t know, you’re better off working without jigs for a while. When you find yourself in the midst of a repetitious task, you’ll start thinking of ways to make life easier and you’ll probably come up with a good idea.
- Good jigs are one-trick ponies. Universal and micro-adjustable take way too long to make, take up too much room to store and usually don’t work as well as simple, quick and easy. These are the kinds of things you’ll see in print and if you’re tempted, ask yourself how often you’ll be tapering legs and what range of lengths and angles you’ll be needing. Chances are pretty good that it’s a narrow range and for me it’s a lot quicker to make a new dedicated jig each time I’m faced with this task. It isn’t likely that you really need the T-track extrusion and all the gizmos that go with it.
- Make jigs from material you have on hand. A trip to the lumber yard or hardware store can easily wipe out the time-saving advantages of making the jig. The exception to this rule is to keep some 1/2″ and 3/4″ plywood, a couple of hold-down clamps and an assortment of fasteners on hand so that you’re ready when inspiration strikes. It still isn’t likely that you really need that T-track and all the gizmos that go with it.
- Put the jig together quickly, glue with staples or nails, a couple of screws or hot-melt glue work just fine. One of my uncle’s favorite phrases was “you ain’t making a grand piano here” and it applies to jig construction. Get the job done, but don’t get fancy with it.
- Don’t make a jig for an anticipated need, wait until the task is in front of you. That micro-adjustable finger joint jig that will handle any size material and any size of fingers might look tempting but will you ever really use it? Most woodworkers make finger joints once or twice an move on. If I had a nickel for every finger joint jig gathering dust in American wood shops I could probably retire.
- Use a minimal number of pieces put together in the simplest possible way and don’t bother to apply a finish other than some paste wax where things need to slide. As the parts list grows, the chances of making something that actually serves a useful purpose diminishes exponentially.
Jigs are essential in most shops, and I’m not against them. I am generally opposed to wasting time and my thinking is influenced by experience making things for sale. In that world, I only get paid for the time I spend making pieces of wood smaller, so jigs are only worthwhile if they enable me to make more pieces of wood smaller in less time.
The problem with the simple jigs I tend to use is that they look a lot like scraps. So I tend to keep them piled in one place and I also like to label them. When I’m feeling really clever I give my jigs a name, generally what the thing is good for followed by . . . Master and a number with a lot of zeros at the end.