Constructing a North Bennet street school tool box #2: Layout and dovetailing

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Blog entry by ELCfinefurniture posted 08-10-2012 05:31 AM 3714 reads 3 times favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Rough milling and case preperation. Part 2 of Constructing a North Bennet street school tool box series Part 3: Update »

If you read the last entry you know that by the time we left off we have 4 glued up panels scraped and ready to cut.
All you need to do is rip, then crosscut these to the proper width and length. If you are undertaking a project of this size you should definitely have some experience doing both these operation so I wont go into extreme detail on this topic but I will say that I do use a large cross cut sled for that operation.

Once that is done you will get the first glimpse of what the case will be like. You will have already got the big picture in your design phase however its exciting to see it in person for the first time.

Now I hear many many things about cabinet makers triangle and numbering systems and all different shapes and symbols but to be honest these confuse me. I have found this very simple solution works best for me. I have a fellow student to thank for this but I use it faithfully and I can truthfully tell you I NEVER mix my parts up any more.
Ill let this photo answer what the system is.

I have found it totally impossible to get this mixed up.
Mating corners or parts get mating colors.

I will say though, If you already have a system that works for you then don’t tinker with it. That is no subject to experiment with. If you don’t get confused that you are A-ok.

Now once you have all your parts marked out its time to start prepping for dovetails. Before I dovetail I like to do a big clean up. Especially when I have runs this big to do. I will also try and keep my tools organized throughout the whole process I find it go’s smoother. Working like a pig in slop leads to horrid results.
I start out by setting my marking gauge to the exact thickness of the material.

I will check this setting at different locations on all the different parts just as a “better safe then sorry” precaution. Once last check to make sure my milling went as I had hoped.

I will then mark all the corners at the same time with this setting. I like to mark as deep as I physically can. When you are marking the shoulders you are essentially cutting them so why not cut as deep as possible. I use a cutting gauge to be exact. I find I cant cut as deep or defined with the titemarks and the pin style gauges are just a headache for me personally. Nothing against titemark gauges however, I use them for hinges and hardware.

I will be cutting tails first. I started my life in woodworking cutting pins first and I since have switched. I do try and get my dovetails off the saw 100 percent of the time but I am human and not a router so when I do need to fit them I find it way easier to fit the tails to the pins. Now if you cut tails first as well this will all make total sense to you. If you cut tails first well you will get to see how the other half lives. If you have cut neither then I suggest trying it both ways and seeing what works best for you. And you really should be proficient at both.
In order to layout and cut my tails I clamp the 2 tails boards together. I cut both at once.

As far as layout there is only one real consideration. Make sure the rear pin will be wide enough that when you rabbet for the back boards you can run it all the way through on the tail board. That way your only stopped rabbet will be on the case sides. You don’t HAVE to do this but I strongly recommend it. Other then that layout the tails and pins however floats your boat. I have 5 tails. I think thats suited for this piece. They are 2 inches in width at there widest.

You are all ready to start saw. Make sure you have a sharp saw that you are comfortable using and remember, take your time. There is so much to sawing dovetails that that is a whole separate blog in itself so I will cover it generally.
I do start an angle and I start with just a nibble on the corner facing me. Then I nibble a little on the farthest corner from me. Then I connect those to cuts. This almost always gets me a square line from which I can start to dive down my vertical line. Like I said I always try and get my dovetails off the saw, but if you aren’t comfortable with that then thats ok. Dan Faia once told us, “saw as close as you dare to and as far away as you need to”.
I saw all once set of angles and then another. I get in a groove going a certain way and I want to stick with it.
After I am all sawn out I clamp my boards down to the bench and get ready to chop out the waste. I have used a fret saw to do this before however I find I can get it cleaner by chopping.

Before I do anything I like to pare straight in at a slight angle to the marking gauge line. This is to ensure that when I chop my chisel wont bruise the shoulder line and make an unsightly gap. Also when you get to this part do yourself a favor and make sure you have wicked sharp chisels as we say here in New England.
Now make your way down that line. Chop a little, pare a little, chop a little pare a little, until you get halfway down.

Now simply flip your boards and do the same procedure on the opposite side.
Once you get far enough you will simply pop the piece right out. And if you chopped carefully and sawed carefully you should have very very little paring to do.

Once you have done this to all the pin sockets you need to saw off the outside waste parts for the half pins. I dont know why but I do this last for some reason.

Now you should be left with a board like this.

Now go through and check all the insides of the pin sockets with a square. If anything make sure these are undercut twords the center. Dovetails NEED to be square. Depending which way they are out of square they will either not fit or have gaps.
With all this done you are ready to transfer your marks to the pin board.

I do this with an exacto knife and then marking knife the lines down the front. Then do the same thing you just did. Saw these lines, and chop out the waste the exact same way you did before. If you weren’t able to saw these lines exact then just pare to your knife lines that you made when you scribed. Make SURE your pins are perfectly square. I cant stress this enough. Take your time. When you feel you are ready to fit them together don’t force them if they don’t go. If they wont budge take them apart and check the pin board to see where they are rubbing. There will be black marks from where the tight spots are. DO NOT pare the tail board. Remember you are fitting the pins to what you have there.
Take your time and be gentle with the fitting process. Resist the temptation to hit it hard or get a bigger hammer. After I get my corner together I had this.

This is the tip of the ice berg. Dove tails are about 100 percent experience and practice. Practice, practice practice. But please….Dont give in to jigs and machines. Handcut.

Next….Dados and rabbets.

-- {Current North Bennet street school student}

4 comments so far

View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3160 days

#1 posted 08-10-2012 01:06 PM

you have a solid approach and your results look good. I have a question about the chisel you are using. What kind is it and do you like it? I am thinking about upgrading from my Marples.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View YupCut's profile


4 posts in 2623 days

#2 posted 08-10-2012 07:00 PM

you have to plane mill marks off the inside of the case before you layout and cut dovetails

View ELCfinefurniture's profile


112 posts in 2825 days

#3 posted 08-11-2012 02:51 AM

Hey yupcut,
You should go read the second half of my first post. Its all about surface prep and how the mill marks get skimmed before the panels are even glued up to avoid a reverse grain situation.

-- {Current North Bennet street school student}

View YupCut's profile


4 posts in 2623 days

#4 posted 08-16-2012 03:55 AM

Why do you put the tails on the top and not the side? Also when are you gonna do the next post

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