Techniques & Methods #2: Fixing Messed-up Blind Dovetails

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Blog entry by PurpLev posted 08-04-2009 05:50 AM 8528 reads 2 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Scary Sharp Method Part 2 of Techniques & Methods series Part 3: Gradually dividing drawers in a cabinet »

As I mentioned in my recent workbench blog, I had used inverted dovetail joinery to connect the skirt of the benchtop to the endcap. just like Arabian Nights, there are 1001 stories why joinery can get screwed up- mine were rushing + miscalculating + lack of experience + other. All of these matter not, and the end result is a misaligned, crooked, awfully looking, and unacceptable dovetail fit:

you can plainly see the tearout and large gaps between the mating parts, and the misalignment on the bottom tail and it’s socket.

Obviously the ‘proper’ way to do things is to keep on practicing to finesse and perfect your joinery. BUT, learning to fix and clean mistakes is also a skill worth having for those times when things just ‘seem’ to happen.

This is a workbench, and the dovetail does it job – just doesn’t look too nice. I could have left it as is, and it wouldn’t make any functional difference, BUT. I preferred to clean this up, and accomplish 2 things:

1. have a nicer looking bench and dovetail
2. learn a new skill, and see if my theory would prove itself to be useful.

my idea seemed to have been fruitful!

Since the gaps are in endgrain, I figured it would be easy to blend cutoff pieces since endgrain does not have grain patterns that would be broken by a patch. what I did was slice cut off pieces of same material into small wedges, coat them with glue, and pound them into the visible gaps:

(in this photo it’s actually the 2nd filling of the remaining gaps after the initial filling of larger gaps)

once dried, I pared the excess material off, and planed/trimmed the endgrain flush with the tails:

Some of the fillers can still be seen and could be fixed a bit more/better, while other fillers are completely invisible. after a little more planing and scraping this looks even better, and after a coat of finish this one is good enough for the workbench – maybe in other situations I’d push for a tighter look, but for this purpose I am very satisfied with the result – hell of a lot better then the starting point.

Hope this can be of help,

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

16 comments so far

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4718 days

#1 posted 08-04-2009 07:04 AM

Why not just smoosh some walnut-colored wood filler in there? You could even squeeze some Titebond III in there. It dries a pretty dark brown, and would blend the two surfaces together with no gaps. You could even coarse-grit sand some walnut into the glue first, mix it into a slurry, and moosh that in there. That would help keep it from being a gummy glue filling, and it would probably really disappear, especially after planing or sanding (gasp! do you allow sanding anymore with your plane-lust? ;)

It does look a lot better, but I’d love to see your pretty dovetail work get all perfect suddenly, and I think something like the above would do it.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View himcules's profile


17 posts in 5077 days

#2 posted 08-04-2009 07:18 AM

you could also make the saw dust/glue wood filler mix so its the same exact color?

either way, very nice fix. for a work bench, no one will notice except for you…

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27249 posts in 5159 days

#3 posted 08-04-2009 01:02 PM

Nice recovery, Sharon. This is a nice technique to dress up the gaps on the dovetails. For those of us who are struggling to become proficient at hand cutting dovetails this is a nice technique to learn.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View Cato's profile


701 posts in 4649 days

#4 posted 08-04-2009 01:22 PM

Hey Purp, though I have never cut a dovetail of any kind, we all know why you had to fix and dress it up even though it is a workbench and will be used as such. Because we become a bit obsessive about the finish look of a project no matter our skill level.

I think its looking real good and what you are teaching yourself in the project is obviously enhancing your skills!!

View PurpLev's profile


8653 posts in 4985 days

#5 posted 08-04-2009 03:23 PM

Thanks guys,

Gary, himcules – long grain and end grain have very distinctly different appearances and features. I believe that wood filler, or glue+sawdust (aka homemade wood filler) works well to hide gaps/craps between laminations of long grain, or in long grain where there are no eye catching grain patterns that can be visually broken. for long grain where there are grain patterns – I’d patch the mistake with another thin piece of long grain and try to match the grain-patterns – still won’t use wood filler. in my case I think wood filler would be very visible and will take away from the elegance of the joint, and since the fix I used was easily accomplished and completely invisible, I think it was a more fitting solution for this particular case. also there is no goo to mess with, and nothing spills.

Scott – you hit it with a nail. I think we need to get better at things so that we won’t have to fix them – but fixing is also a good skill to have on those occasions where you just have to fix something and fix it good.

Cato – that is correct. we just want everything to be the best they can be. the more we push ourselves, the better we become.

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

View sIKE's profile


1271 posts in 5091 days

#6 posted 08-04-2009 03:51 PM


Very vice recovery! I have used the same technique before, it worked very well for me also.

Also glue will fill a gap in but it has no structure to it and would eventually fail. As for the glue and saw dust mixture, not a big fan. I had to use this technique on my last project and the color of the mix always ended up lighter than my wood. Glue’s short open time makes it real hard to get a matching color quickly (especially in 105 degree temp like I see down here in Austin)

-- //FC - Round Rock, TX - "Experience is what you get just after you need it"

View ratchet's profile


1391 posts in 5124 days

#7 posted 08-04-2009 07:19 PM

Sharon; Very nice solution! Thanks for sharing.

View lew's profile


13488 posts in 5092 days

#8 posted 08-04-2009 08:14 PM


When I was learning to hand cut dovetails, I mentioned that I was having the same trouble, to an antique collector friend. He laughed and took me to see his collection of expensive blanket chests. Practically everyone of the chests had a similar fix to what you did. Seems the “old masters” didn’t worry too much if the fit wasn’t perfect. I saw little shims at the bottom and sides of the tails and pins. You had to look close, but they were there.

I’d say you did just the right thing.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View Karson's profile


35295 posts in 5737 days

#9 posted 08-04-2009 08:15 PM

Great solution and it’s starting to come together. (Pun intended)

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia [email protected]

View blackcherry's profile


3349 posts in 5160 days

#10 posted 08-04-2009 09:25 PM

I like what I’m see here, right before my eye’s. The making of self-taught craftsman….Blkcherry

View abie's profile


928 posts in 5108 days

#11 posted 08-05-2009 03:47 AM

Ah.. You have learned the difference between a woodworker and a craftsman.
This is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way but it is indeed valuable..
No need to be apologetic.

-- Bruce. a mind is like a book it is only useful when open.

View a1Jim's profile


118309 posts in 4914 days

#12 posted 08-05-2009 03:56 AM

Sharon I agree with your dovetail repair the best repair for wood is wood. Not fillers or epoxy when the repair is to have a finish.


View PurpLev's profile


8653 posts in 4985 days

#13 posted 08-05-2009 05:08 AM

Thanks everyone for the feedback. I am not apologetic though, I am very pleased with the results of the repair, and with the results of my idea which apparently (and not surprisingly) is not original. like I mentioned – I think knowing how to fix stuff is an important skill, but I also strongly believe that we should aspire to do work that will not require fixing.

and I agree. the best repair for wood is wood, and it’s not hard to do.

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

View Dave's profile


6 posts in 4384 days

#14 posted 03-10-2010 06:07 AM

Hey! I like the table! Yes it is not perfect, but why do we need to be perfect! This table I know is a work bench, but as I have said earlier, I would oil and color the table for use in my home. You have completed a nice piece that your average non DIY would not notice the imperfections unless you pointed this out to them.

Your methodology and self criticism is probably why you will continue to learn and one day produce something that you are very proud of.

-- Dave | Tool Shed |

View BrianLuntz's profile


11 posts in 4005 days

#15 posted 03-21-2011 08:15 AM

I agree though a similar color sawdust and wood glue filler would have done the job.

-- Brian -

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