Skill building #1: Making dovetails

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Blog entry by dbray45 posted 06-09-2020 02:59 AM 789 reads 1 time favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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I learned how to do dovetails a number of years ago. I bought a jig and actually got it to work – once. It only did blind dovetails and for the price was a royal pain in the backside. I watched Norm do dovetails on the bandsaw by tilting the table one way, then the other – not going to happen. Saw somebody else do them on the tablesaw, nice but not my cup of tea either. Saw the video – dovetails with Frank Klausz. I have to say, I may get that good – in about 30 years – but I will be in my 90s. What are the options? Learn to make them.

I started learning the process when I lived in Maryland and made my kitchen there. The difference there, I made them using a saw, chisels, and a dovetail square that I picked up at a flea market for $1. It was a learning experience and took time. I am not against this because it does teach you how to handle and use a chisel (and how to sharpen it – another topic). I am showing this process because there are a number of folks that have asked me how I could do them for the drawer that I have done for this kitchen (20 to date and about 15 more to go). Yes, it still takes time but the process is more refined.

Before I get started, lets talk about the quality. The cleaner the joint, the better it looks and the better it holds. If you don’t saw the pins
straight, you will have problems. If the cut goes in (make the pins smaller in the middle) the joint is sloppy and looks it. If the cut gets bigger toward the base, you will split the side that has the tails. They don’t have to be perfect but should be consistent.

A Silversmith in Williamsburg that I spoke with made an excellent point. Back in the day, to be a master, you had to produce something that looked as though it was made by machine. Now, with everything being made by machine, it is acceptable to have imperfections to show that it was made by hand.

With all this in mind, lets get to it -

Most of the tools are tools that are in the shop, other hand tools may be substituted

Power tools that will make this easier -
Tablesaw or handsaws
Bandsaw with small blade or chisels
Planer or hand planes
Jointer or hand saw and jointer plane
Router table or DADO blades for the tablesaw

Hand tools that you will need
Scribe or carving tool to scribe wood
Marking gauge
Dovetail square or adjustable square
Assorted chisels – sharp
Mallet for the chisels
Dovetail or fine RIP saw
Good ruler for measuring your pins

Sounds like a lot? You could buy wood from a box store at the size you want and all you would need is a pen knife, a dovetail saw, a mallet and some chisels. If you are like me and have rough cut lumber and starting from scratch, it gets a little more complicated and more involved.

In this, we start out with our wood that is already at the thickness we want. We have one edge jointed and straight.

Here we have cleaned up the the wood to be the right width and length. The nice thing about doing through dovetails is that all of the sides are to the full length of the sides.

In this picture, we have cut the groove for the drawer bottom. I use 1/2” for the bottoms. The long pieces are the front and back so you want the nicest faces with the groove. If you have a knot on an edge, put it on the bottom facing the outside. The front side will have a drawer front and the back isn’t seen.

This picture shows the cabinet makers mark from the marking gauge. This is the thickness of the attached board. All of my boards are the same width but this is not always the case, they could be different (why this is so cool)

Now we are marking the pins. The fat side is always on the inside of the drawer and on the front and back sides (otherwise they pull out) – been there done that. Since we have the grove at the bottom on the inside, it is easier to keep from getting this mixed up. In these, I am putting 4 pins and spacing them between the groove and the top. It is the cabinetmaker’s choice and as you experiment, you will change things up.

I mark all sides of the pins with a pencil so when I saw them, if I am not straight, I can adjust the pins before I make the tails.

Here, I saw the pins. I cut them on the thin side or outside of the drawer. The reason – this is the visable side and if you overcut these, you will see it and so will everyone else. It is still easy to under and over cut but at least you see it.

With this, we show the pins from the dovetail saw and a cut from the bandsaw. I cut these with the fat side of the pins up and cut close to the the cuts. When we remove the waste with the bandsaw, we have to know where to stop the cut.

Now it is time to remove the waste. Using the bandsaw, I make 2 passes. If you don’t have the bandsaw, use chisels to remove the waste. Use hearing protection when using a mallet and chisel – the impact is sharp and does a lot of damage to your hearin long term.

This is all the bandsaw work done.

In this picture, we clean everything up before we make the tails. That cabinetmaker’s mark is THE line you use for the chisel edge. All of the pins are cleaned up and the waste between the bandsaw cuts and the pins are removed. Make sure you pay attention to the corners, they become spacers and wedges – not your friend.

Now we bring in the side drawer panels for the tails. On the grooved side of the boards, mark the corners. No 2 sets of handmade dovetails are the same – at least mine aren’t. Mark the corners as you make mark them

Now the drawer bottom groove is your friend. Take a piece of squared wood and put it in the groove and align to the edge

On the other side, we mark the edges of the pins for the tails. This requires a sharp marking tool. THe closest and cleanest this mark is, the better the fit.

This shows the marks for the tails. I cut these out on the bandsaw – sorry, I don’t have and pictures for that – and clean them up with either a small chisel about 1/4” or a dovetail chisel

Now I dry fit the drawer without the bottom. If you did everything right, the drawer will be automatically square

In this, we add the drawer bottom. You really want to do this before you glue things up, trust me, you get annoyed if the bottom is the wrong size and half of it is glued up. You will be making a new drawer

Glue it up

I recommend that you try this and adjust to what suits you and have fun with it.

-- David in Palm Bay, FL

6 comments so far

View Andre's profile


5007 posts in 3142 days

#1 posted 06-09-2020 04:48 AM

Interesting, not the way I do D.T.s but then again most of mine are on a smaller scale and my introduction to them was of the Krenov style. Watched Petrovich’s method and sort of like the use of blue tape for the pins, Tails cut first, same as my method!

-- Lifting one end of the plank.

View HokieKen's profile


20681 posts in 2475 days

#2 posted 06-09-2020 12:27 PM

Interesting process David. Never seen the idea to use the drawer groove as an alignment aid for marking the tails. I like that A LOT and will have to try to remember it for next time I cut dts :-)

-- I collect hobbies. There is no sense in limiting yourself (Don W) - - - - - - - - Kenny in SW VA

View dbray45's profile


3414 posts in 4113 days

#3 posted 06-09-2020 12:34 PM

Hope it helps. I am constantly adjusting things myself as the requirements change.

-- David in Palm Bay, FL

View Brit's profile


8463 posts in 4179 days

#4 posted 06-11-2020 01:58 PM

Thanks for sharing your process David. I do mine a bit differently, but there are many roads to get a decent DT.

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

View Andre's profile


5007 posts in 3142 days

#5 posted 06-12-2020 05:50 AM

Well you and bandit got me curious and well guess I was a little bored, started doing Dovetails with 1/2” BB Ply.
Tails first then Pins first, jury says,,,,,, Tails first:) Even attempted to saw out the waste but alas, chopping out the waste while taking a little more time leaves so much nicer finish! Got the trailer packed and off Glamping for the weekend hope to finish a little step stool for the Boss when I return? Also get to try out the new Inflatable Kayak!!!!

-- Lifting one end of the plank.

View dbray45's profile


3414 posts in 4113 days

#6 posted 06-13-2020 12:26 PM

Big difference between maple and plywood.

I like to chisel out the waste but I don’t have time.

Got side tracked on an overgrown dog house for the generator. With 3 named storms already, had to get this done.

If I get time, I will post it

-- David in Palm Bay, FL

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