Who doesn’t love jigs? They give us a sense of security, assurance, and peace of mind. From a single guide stop to templates and complex fixtures, they increase our accuracy, production, and profits. They are found in large and small shops, stacked on shelving and hanging from the walls as a badge of honor.
The adage ‘measure twice, cut once’ works for one or two cuts, but when you’re cutting multiples of the same piece, all that measuring is a waste of time. Add in human error and your job can go off the rails pretty easily. Jigs will increase accuracy, save time, and reduce material waste.
There are a wide variety of jigs that can be extremely useful and efficient, like story boards, templates, alignment, blocks, and more, and they are often overlooked. But it’s important to understand the value of a jig, the cost of making and storing one, the time saved by using one, and how well it needs to be made.
Making jigs can be an art unto itself and many craftspeople pride themselves on their creations. I have my own collection of finely crafted jigs. Most were made by a former employee out of 3/4” Baltic birch plywood. They’ve been sanded and lacquered. They are color-coded and numbered and have step-by-step written instructions with photos. Some were created for production pieces, which made setup and manufacturing a breeze. But some of the pieces required 10 or so jigs that took days to create and had to be stored.
So, you have to ask yourself, how much time will I save over the long haul by making a high-quality jig? I recently spent several days noodling out a jig to cut a compound, beveled dado into a curved leg. I enjoyed the challenge of calculating and laying out the joint. It intersected into another curved panel at an angle. After two attempts using my grandfather’s trusted marking dividers and an angle finder, I moved to AutoCAD. I tried to make the jig with a router and sliding table saw. Then I had success with a dovetail saw. But I have to admit, it wasn’t perfect. Jigs have to be accurate, but how we get there is not. So, I overcut the joint extra wide, covered the joint with packing tape and Bondo, duct taped the two components, and had a perfect joint to align and set up my jigs.
This particular job was a limited production run, so I knew that a fancy life-long jig was not required. I grabbed my hot glue gun and scrap MDF and quickly made a very accurate, cost effective jig in an hour. Then I had all my parts cut in one afternoon. This certainly took less time, and was more accurate, than cutting them all by hand.
My new approach is to print full-scale, 36” paper jig plans. I use them to re-make jigs and they store rolled up, using a fraction of my shop space, or they’re saved in my computer. Be careful, though. Computer work is great, but keep in mind that falling down the digital rabbit hole can be a time suck.
Of course, very accurate and cost-effective jigs can be made with digital fabrication, but not everyone has access to a CNC.
To sum up:
- Don’t overbuild. Jigs are not fine pieces of furniture. Make them as cost effective as possible to keep your profits up.
- Layout is critical, but it doesn’t need to be an exercise in fine joinery. Hot glue, Bondo, and double-sided tape can save a lot of time. I like using hot glue instead of double-sided tape for stop blocks because I get a few seconds to slide them into position.
- Storing jigs can take up a lot of space. Storing digital prints for simple setups is better.
- Using a simple stop block is more accurate than measuring every cut.|
- The allure of making a finely crafted set of jigs is appealing to the craftsman on the floor, but not necessarily to the shop owner. Finding the balance of creating a jig that’s good enough to keep the job done can be tricky. It is important to keep the bottom profit line in focus and factor in jig making into your estimate.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.