Tool Chest #4: Dovetailing the Shell

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Blog entry by CartersWhittling posted 05-06-2012 02:37 AM 13279 reads 2 times favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 3: Sizing the Shell Parts Part 4 of Tool Chest series Part 5: Frame and Panel Lid »


So at this point the shell parts are all dimensioned and ready for joinery. So I began by marking each board to orient them: front, back, left, right.

Then I set my marking gauge to the thickness of the shell parts, then scribed with that setting across each board’s end (make sure to scribe the edges of the tail board, but not on the pin board).

Next I set my dividers to lay out the tail spacing. After a few tries I got them set to produce 12 tails with just a hair over an 1/8” left for the pins.

If you are not familiar with using a divider to layout dovetails then now is the time to learn. Using dividers are quicker and more accurate then measuring out with a ruler. By trial and error, set the dividers until you can pace off the number of tails you want on the board, minus your pin spacing. As you can see in the picture above, I have just over an 1/8” left on the end. This will be the spacing between each tail. So once you get the dividers set, pace of from both the left and the right side of the board to mark each side of the tails.

After marking with the dividers I placed the two tail boards together and drew the divider marks square across the end of the boards. Then I drew the about 12 degree dovetail splay down the board (I do not know the angle, I copied it from the large dovetail on the shoulder vise of my bench. Might be a 1:6). By joining the two tail boards together I can cut both boards at the same time, effectively splitting the time it takes to cut the joint in half. Just make sure that the reference faces are against each other and the reference edges are on the same side.

(You can see here how handy having a workbench with the legs flush to the bench top is.)

Then I just cut the tails along the layout lines. Then flip the board end for end and layout, mark, and cut the tails on the other side. Simple.

Then just chisel out the waste.

With the tails cut I began laying out for the pins. So I clamped the pin board to the bench side so the end of the board was flush to the bench top, then placed the tail board over top and used a sharp pencil to transfer the tails. Make sure the pin board is not bowed and the reference edges are perfectly aligned.

Then transfer the lines square down the board’s side and cut out the waste. I used a coping saw to remove most of the waste and then followed up with the chisel.

After all the pin boards were done I test fit each joint. They all went together straight off the saw nice and tight. Probably too tight if it was hardwood, but because the pine is so soft the joints went together fine. After testing the joints I prepared for glueing up the shell. Because there are so many tails per corner, I got my sister to help with the glue up. She would spread glue on one half of the joint and I would do the other (make sure not to put too much glued on the face of the tails, otherwise the glue can keep the joint from fully seating). Having some help wasn’t too crucial for the first two joints (attaching the short sides to the front) but when it came time to putting the back on you will probably need help as you are glueing up two joints at once.

So once the shell was glued up I made sure each tail was fully seated in place and used some clamps where some extra pressure was needed. Now, before the glue sets, is the time to check for square by measuring diagonally.

The next day with the shell all glued up, I unclamped it and planed the joints flush. Because the outside of the chest is getting painted, and I didn’t want to see any tool marks through the finish, I also sanded the outside of the shell with 80 and 120 grit sandpaper.

To work on the long faces of the chest I just laid the shell down on the floor, but to do the short sides I was able to clamp the shell in my shoulder vise.

Pretty, if I do say so myself.

Next on the agenda will be making the bottom, then the skirts and lid. It may be a little while though as I am waiting for some tools and nails to come in the mail. Now is a good time to also think about hardware if you have not (which I have not).

-- And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord... Colossians 3:23

14 comments so far

View Joe Lyddon's profile

Joe Lyddon

10439 posts in 4320 days

#1 posted 05-06-2012 03:30 AM


Thank you for your very clear and unique procedure of cutting the DT’s for this project!

Exactly the way I would’ve done it, except I always did each end separately… DUH…
I should have stepped Back, looked at it, and seen how it could have been greatly simplified!

Thank you again… for that refinement…

You’re doing a great job! Keep it up!

-- Have Fun! Joe Lyddon - Alta Loma, CA USA - Home: ... My Small Gallery:"

View lysdexic's profile


5283 posts in 2890 days

#2 posted 05-06-2012 04:04 AM

Do you really think that is acceptable?

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View lysdexic's profile


5283 posts in 2890 days

#3 posted 05-06-2012 04:05 AM

Just kidding.

Beautiful job.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View Roger's profile


20970 posts in 3071 days

#4 posted 05-06-2012 12:07 PM

Comin along nicely. Some nicely cut dovetails

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed.

View nobuckle's profile


1120 posts in 3028 days

#5 posted 05-06-2012 01:46 PM

Wow, those dovetails are alot of work. There is no way I would have time to do all of them in one sitting. I applaud your patience.

-- Doug - Make an effort to live by the slogan "We try harder"

View jjw5858's profile


1135 posts in 2870 days

#6 posted 05-06-2012 04:50 PM

Looking really nice! Thanks for the post!

-- "Always continue to learn, laugh and share!" JJW

View Uffe's profile


17 posts in 2537 days

#7 posted 05-06-2012 05:33 PM

Beautiful! Good job! =)

View Mauricio's profile


7156 posts in 3419 days

#8 posted 05-07-2012 02:50 PM


-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View Bertha's profile


13551 posts in 2961 days

#9 posted 05-07-2012 02:56 PM

Outstanding! I really need to use the coping/fret saw technique. I’ve been chiseling the whole thing out.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View CartersWhittling's profile


453 posts in 2941 days

#10 posted 05-07-2012 04:26 PM

This was the first time I coped out my pins. I haven’t had coping saw blades for a while and finally got some. I figured with this many large dovetails, it would take much longer to chisel them all out.

-- And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord... Colossians 3:23

View PurpLev's profile


8550 posts in 3916 days

#11 posted 05-07-2012 04:33 PM

nicely done

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View Brit's profile


7634 posts in 3110 days

#12 posted 05-07-2012 04:57 PM

Looking good Carter! Nice DTs

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View lysdexic's profile


5283 posts in 2890 days

#13 posted 05-07-2012 05:04 PM

I think I see a hairline gap at the top part of the tail. Seventh one down from the top. There! See it?!

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View Brit's profile


7634 posts in 3110 days

#14 posted 05-07-2012 05:33 PM

That’s just a hair on the camera lens Scot.

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

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