Building Hand Tool Skills: A Dovetail a Day. Make that a week.

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Blog entry by Jon3 posted 07-20-2009 08:33 PM 4850 reads 3 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch

While I would like to believe that I could dedicate enough time each day to run to the shop and chop a set of tails, I know that I’m kidding myself. But I’m determined to give myself the practice necessary to improve my sawing and chiseling skills, in the hopes that I can develop the kind of muscle memory I see in some of the really good woodworkers.

To give you some context, I started this hobby around early 2006. I am, by no means, an excellent woodworker, but I strive to challenge myself and push my limits, and I’m not afraid of my mistakes. In that context, I’m going to present to you my first dovetails ever. I purchased Peter Korn’s book, Woodworking Basics: Mastering the Essentials of Craftsmanship which is an excellent book that introduces woodworking, by utilizing only a small number of tools and emphasizes hand skills. This is a great way to get started, in my opinion.

Now that my rambling is out of the way, here’s my first set of dovetails, ever!

Pretty, eh? Lets have a backside shot too, to get the full effect.

Try to contain your jealousy. You may notice the power sander strokes as I desperately tried, in my foolish woodworking youth, to make it appear better. Then I tried to fill the gaps with glue. Oh, those were the days!

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, the next set of tails that I show you will be from this week. In the interim, I’ve taken a one day woodcraft class (from Michael Wheeler at Woodcraft in Woburn, MA), and practiced several times in the interim. I’ve probably cut a few dozen sets between then and now, including some previous projects. But I still make the kind of mistakes that take correction quite often. I do occasionally get a set that requires no patching, but I’m not there yet.

I have a copy of the Frank Klauz video Dovetail a Drawer, which I often watch fascinated, as he tears through a set of dovetails with almost no prep work and makes almost no mistakes. Given, he’s been doing this a few decades longer than I have, so I can appreciate how he’s trained his mind and body to do exactly what needs to be done. Due to this inspiration I’m a pins-first guy, so I’m going to continue cutting them that way.

I won’t repeat this in the future update posts on my progress, but I’ll run through the process that I use, and will be using each time.

I gather my tools: A Medallion Toolworks Dovetail Saw, my Lie-Nielsen Chisels, a Starret Square, a Shinwa bevel gauge, a Veritas marking gauge, a sharp pencil, and a mallet.

I mark out the base lines on both pieces.

Then mark off the angles of the tails using a bevel gauge. I don’t go too crazy setting a perfect 1:8. Whatever looks aesthetically pleasing to me. One tip I picked up, if you use your square and make sure your stock is perfectly perpendicular to the bench, it makes it easier to cut a straight line.

Cut a nice straight line. Make sure you stay on the WASTE side, which I mark with an X.

When you examine this photo, you can see that on my far left cut, I let the saw wander. This will require some serious chisel cleanup. The other cuts are all fairly straight. Since I will be marking the tails from the pins, it doesn’t matter if I don’t hit the line exactly, but it definitely matters if my cut is not straight. This is first of the crucial points that make for a perfect dovetail joint: Straight Cuts.

Now we move on to chiseling. I keep a few sizes of chisels handy, freshly sharp. The holdfast you see in he photo can easily be replaced with a simple clamp on your workbench. For a show piece, I’d put a small sacrificial board in between the holdfast and the workpiece, but since this is practice, I just rap the holdfast in place.

First you put your widest sharp chisel into the cut made by your marking gauge and give it a very light rap with your mallet. You won’t to go very easily here. That marking gauge line is going to help give you a perfect joint shoulder. I didn’t do my best work, but you can see I came pretty close. This is the second Crucial factor of a perfect dovetail joint: straight shoulder lines.

Then you’ll come back in with your chisel, and lightly pare to the line until the thin sliver pops out. Now the next time you chisel downward, you’ll have a much stronger surface to register against. I repeat this again, taking a bigger piece, before I move on to removing waste. You can see here that I’ve let the chisel slip in my grasp, and done some damage to my joint shoulder.

I’ll show you in the final piece the kind of effect this mistake can have. Then from the end, I pop out the waste on both sides.

At this point, a solid hit with the widest chisel you have that fits in the joint will clear out the waste.

Remember my wadering saw cut from before? You can see the effect now.

You have to be careful when correcting this. You can easily do what I did first, which is end up paring the wall in the other direction..

You’ll notice the end grain looks like crap. As long as the 2 shoulders are smooth, you can actually pare down into the end grain and make a small hollow area. End grain doesn’t provide strength to this joint, long grain glue surfaces do. At some point, one must commit to being done cleaning up these pins. There’s a line you must now cross, and there’s no going back to clean up pins later, because you’ll be marking your tails from your finished pins, so you must make sure that you’ve absolutely satisfied with these pins. Then you can move on to your tails.

I use a holdfast to keep the tailboard steady, and a scrap board (seen on the right) to make sure the boards are flush. With a very sharp pencil, I then strike a line onto the tailboard.

Finish marking out the portions to remove, and sawing can commence.

The sawing and chiseling process is the same as the pinboard.

And here’s the first fit.

It was a tight fit, but not that bad. You’ll see some improvement once they’ve been glued up and levelled, but I can already see where I have gaps, and where I need improvement. You can see the pin on the right in this photo is the one that required a lot of correction before because of a wandering saw cut. Obviously, my correction, while fixing the end, was heavy handed and I took too much material from one side. Lesson learned, keep that cut straight in the first place!

From the other side, you can see where my slipped chisel impacted the shoulder fit. This is a little more fixable, especially if you’re willing to plane some off the side of the work. There are some situations, such as a decorative box, where this would be no problem, but there are others, like fitted drawers and inset work, where this could cause an unsightly blemish. One reason I continue to work slightly oversized and then plane to fit is that I still make these kinds of mistakes.

Post glue-up and clean up, you can see where the gaps are still a problem, and where they’re not. Planing hides some of your mistakes, but then also highlights others. This is a pretty extreme closeup, given the board is only 3/4, so you’re looking at almost 2x zoom on a big monitor like mine. You can see after the glue was applied that right pin was just tight enough at the top to cause a small split. Or it may just have been my mallet-happy assembly technique requires refinement. Likely, a combination of both!

On the opposite side, I’ve heading in the direction of a near perfect joint!

The shoulder on the left tailboard was over-pared a tiny bit, and on the right, the down tail cut overshot. All in all though, seems representative of my current skillset. I’ll consider, for now, this first week a success!

11 comments so far

View PurpLev's profile


8551 posts in 4162 days

#1 posted 07-20-2009 08:43 PM

understanding the joint, and muscle memory is what it’s all about…. 2nd attempt looks a ‘little’ better than the first one… ;) j/k. isn’t it amazing how things get easier and better quality when you know what it is that you’re doing? with the proper techniques and tools?

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

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4613 days

#2 posted 07-20-2009 09:17 PM

I am going to share the secret to woodworking with you.

#1. Practice #2. Practice #3. PRACTICE!

Good job on setting your mind and body to actually doing it – nice to see results!

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View a1Jim's profile


117722 posts in 4090 days

#3 posted 07-20-2009 09:29 PM

Todd said it.

View Bob A in NJ's profile

Bob A in NJ

1251 posts in 4512 days

#4 posted 07-20-2009 10:46 PM

Do this small exercise, just to warm up, everytime you go in the shop and after 20 attempts, we’ll all be experts.

-- Bob A in NJ

View John Gray's profile

John Gray

2370 posts in 4399 days

#5 posted 07-21-2009 05:51 AM

FWIW – My greatest help, besides good tools, when I started learning to make dovetails was Rob Cosman’s DVD Hand-Cut Dovetails. I’ve seen several DVDs on the subject and Rob’s is by far the best IMHO.

-- Only the Shadow knows....................

View kenn's profile


813 posts in 4233 days

#6 posted 07-21-2009 06:02 AM

Todd’s right, the only way to make a really good dovetail joint is to practice, practice and then practice. I also use the warmup trick mentioned by 3fingerpat, draw lines on a scrap of the same species you are working with, and cut them until you’ve got the feel. Good luck…and I like your posts.

-- Every cloud has a silver lining

View ShannonRogers's profile


540 posts in 4301 days

#7 posted 07-21-2009 07:22 PM

This is the same technique that Chuck Bender taught me this past weekend but I will second 3fingerpat and say to not put your chisel into the scribe line and tap it. Skip that step and go right to paring out the small sliver. The scribe line is the weak point and the wood will fold up at the shoulder. Just make your scribe lines nice and deep. Then line up the chisel on the strong shoulder. Nice work and I’m right there with you making practice joint after practice joint until it feels like second nature. I’m down to about 15 min per through dovetail joint right now.

-- The Hand Tool School is Open for Business! Check out my blog and podcast "The Renaissance Woodworker" at

View Jon3's profile


497 posts in 4619 days

#8 posted 07-21-2009 07:29 PM

I actually learned it the way you describe, and only touch the scribe line at the very end of the process, but it has been so long since I actually cut these that I totally forgot. Goes to show you how rusty I am!

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4613 days

#9 posted 07-21-2009 10:45 PM

I support the advice on the techniques.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View acanthuscarver's profile


268 posts in 4225 days

#10 posted 07-23-2009 11:53 AM


The first try and the second are both very good. It certainly looks like you’ve improved the sawing technique a bit from the first to the second. Most likely though, it’s the marking technique that made the most dramatic improvement. On the first set there were some obvious spots where either you sawed over the line or the line was in the wrong place. I find that when people get consistent gaps, they’ve usually mismarked the pins on their tail board. That is the first thing you’ve learned to correct.

Shannon gave you a little insight into a technique that I teach. Prior to chopping the waste for the first time, pare a slight shaving back to the scribe line. This will deepen the shoulder a bit. This way you can proceed with chopping and not worry about the chisel walking beyond your scribe line.

One other area where I think you can polish your technique is on the waste removal. Since you are chopping from both sides, don’t remove the waste entirely on the first side. This is rather hard to explain without visual aids but I’ll try. If you start removing the waste 1/8” or 3/16” from the end and cut down at an angle, you preserve the fibers at the end of the board. This way, when you turn the board over to chop from the other side, you have support all the way to the bench on the second side. It makes a difference.

Keep an eye out for my DVD on dovetailing. It will show all the little techniques that Shannon talked about as well as the ones I’ve described here. With a little luck, it’ll be out soon.

Great work! As Todd said, keep practicing.

-- Chuck Bender, period furniture maker, woodworking instructor

View Mike Gager's profile

Mike Gager

665 posts in 3781 days

#11 posted 12-09-2009 11:16 PM

i really like frank klausz’s method for dovetails, no marking or measuring required

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