Adventures in Dovetailing

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Project by jcwalleye posted 01-22-2015 04:12 AM 1469 views 1 time favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’ve always been impressed by those that hand cut beautiful dovetails and seemingly in no time. They would make a few marks, then a few cuts, and maybe some chisel work and they would have a nice tight dovetail joint in say 5 minutes. They make it look so easy.

This winter I set out to learn to hand cut dovetails. Not fast, but precise. I’ll share what I learned. There are any number of good tutorials on UTube and elsewhere that teach the basic steps. Watch them all and you’ll pick up a little bit from each.

These were the things that finally allowed me to cut decent dovetails.

Marking: Don’t try marking with a pencil. A marking knife leaves a place for the chisel or saw to register in.

Sawing: My saw lines were not straight or accurate enough until I got a jig. I purchased one from Veritas along with the recommended saw. It works great and is almost as fast as those that cut freehand.

Chisel Work: You must have sharp chisels to clean up the base of the cut. When cutting the base of the joint, it is essential to have the chisel perpendicular (90 degrees) to the work-piece. I have to slightly undercut the base to get all the pins or tails to line up right.

Practice: Start simple and big. One tail and two pins. I probably cut a dozen of those with a critical eye towards gaps and alignment. Then graduated to 3 pins and 2 tails, etc. At first I was working with Alder, a relatively soft wood. The end grain tore out too easy and often ruined the joint before I’d get to assemble it. Somewhere, someone mentioned using a harder wood and when I switched to maple, the waste cleanup became much easier.

Undercutting the joint: I don’t know the correct terminology, but my joints improved when I shaved the inside of the joint a little bit with a chisel. That way the outside of the joint, the visible part is tight while the inside has a little more room for inaccuracies

After a month or so of on and off practice, I finally got the nerve to try hand cut dovetails on a project. The medicine chest was built from Alder. Here is a pic of the worst joint on the medicine chest. You may be able to see where one of the tails blew out during assembly. Had I undercut the inside of the mating pin and tail, I doubt it would have broken.

The cribbage board was particularly interesting in that the inner box fits inside the playing box with only a suction fit. You can lift it up, wiggle it a bit and the bottom box will start to slide. You have to hold it just perfect for the box to drop out

My dovetails aren’t perfect and I certainly don’t do them fast, but I feel the more I cut the quicker and better they will get. Hope this helps some of you with yours.

-- Trees, a wonderful gift --Joe--

5 comments so far

View MontanaBob's profile


874 posts in 3926 days

#1 posted 01-22-2015 03:22 PM

Looks like you are really getting the hang of those dovetails…. I’ve played around with them…sometimes there is nothing to it, and sometimes it just isn’t in the cards….

View handsawgeek's profile


663 posts in 2638 days

#2 posted 01-22-2015 03:28 PM

Hi, Joe,
Nice methodical approach. Your dovetails came out very good.

-- Ed

View Mark's profile


1075 posts in 3217 days

#3 posted 01-22-2015 03:52 PM

Well done Joe. One of these days I’m gonna grow a pair and try my hand.

-- Mark

View Bernspen's profile


36 posts in 2521 days

#4 posted 01-22-2015 09:58 PM

My experience mirrors yours: knife instead of pencil; Veritas Dovetail jig (pricey but excellent); and sharp chisels. It teaches you to sharpen! And hey, perfect means a machine made it, the occasional little flaw means a craftsman

-- We have met the enemy, and he is us.

View Roger's profile


21055 posts in 4047 days

#5 posted 01-23-2015 01:43 PM

I like everything you’ve said here Joe. We can plainly see how crisp and clean your dovetails are. Very beautifully done. What you said makes perfect sense. I’m with Mark…lol

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed. [email protected]

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