First Attempt at Handcut Through Dovetails

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Project by ChrisJ posted 11-20-2011 02:33 AM 2607 views 0 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’ve been wanting to try out some of the more traditional joinery methods since I’ve been perusing this site daily and checking out more advanced skills here and elsewhere on the web. I’ve been reading a lot (and I mean a lot) about dovetails, box/finger joints, mortises & tenons, etc. online and in woodworking books for the last several weeks but I kept putting off trying any because I knew I wouldn’t do well and the joints would look like junk. Today, I stumbled across this site which inspired me to jump in. Basically, it says that yes, your first dovetails will look like junk, the second will look better and so on. After reading that, I cut me up some scrap pine, gathered my tools, took a deep breath, and plunged in.

The joints don’t look very good at all, as I expected, but I was excited to see that the tails and pins slid together on the first try (with minimal assistance from a mallet). I learned several things as I worked:

Pic 2, Joint A: Steer clear of knots.

Pic 3, Joint B: I really need a 1/4” chisel to get in between the pins/tails without chipping the wood I want to keep. 1/2” is just too wide

Pic 4, Joint C: (1) Layout lines need to be pretty perfect, (2) Tails might need to be a hair longer than the pin board is wide

Pic 5, Joint D: This is the best joint, purely by luck, but still. I need a saw with more TPI. I used a backsaw from my mitre box, which is all I had.

Pic 6 shows what end result I’m after once I practice a little (a lot?) more. Suggestions are most definitely welcome.

11 comments so far

View JoeinDE's profile


450 posts in 4614 days

#1 posted 11-20-2011 03:58 AM

Way to go! I am actually doing the same thing right now – first hand-cut dovetails. Of course I have the gall to think that mine are going to turn out well enough to be used in a Christmas present I am making. I’ve got a dozuki dovetail saw (24 tpi IIRC) so that seems to be helping. I can see where cutting pine might be a little more problematic relative to the maple and redheart that I am working on currently.


View ChrisJ's profile


65 posts in 4110 days

#2 posted 11-20-2011 05:22 AM

Yeah, I’m definitely going to use a harder wood next time…Good luck with yours!

View PurpLev's profile


8652 posts in 4939 days

#3 posted 11-20-2011 05:32 AM

good first attempt – take this one and hang it in your shop space… every year go back and compare it with your current work to see your improvements

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

View Arminius's profile


304 posts in 5094 days

#4 posted 11-20-2011 08:01 AM

1. A rip-filed fine TPI dovetail saw will definitely make a big difference. Sawing to the line is the core skill for a handcut dovetail.
2. Your chisel(s) are probably not sharp enough.
3. Use a smoothing plane to clean it up when you are done, put some glue in any gaps and rub the shavings into the gaps. Having the tails just a bit long will clean up very easily with a sharp plane.
4. Yep, avoid knots.

View Dave's profile


11435 posts in 4131 days

#5 posted 11-21-2011 01:06 AM

You are well on your way. Great job. There are hundreds of methods to cutting them. Some use pencil, marking knife, eastern pull saw, on and on. Research every method and find the one you like. Try something one way and if it doesn’t work for you try a different method. I will suggest to buy a cheap version of the tool you want to try and if it works well for you get a good one. Like I used a Marples flush cut saw to see if I liked eastern saws. IT taught me a lot and now I only use eastern saws. Sharp is your friend. Try some popular for practice its a bit more forgiving than pine. IMHO

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View JohnnyDust's profile


73 posts in 3777 days

#6 posted 11-21-2011 01:52 AM

Gutsy. Very Gutsy. I haven’t mustard the courage to do it yet but it is on my bucket list. I admire your additude and like Purplev said, keep it and compare as you grow. Might keep us humble if we did that more often… Good work.

-- I'm not crying... That's dust in my eyes!

View rance's profile


4279 posts in 4451 days

#7 posted 11-21-2011 03:12 AM

Good for you Chris. Keep up the investigations and you WILL get to where you want to be with these. My observations:

Use Poplar next time.
Sharpen your chisels to scary sharp (a whole nuther thing to learn)
Get a good cutting gauge(not the pin type)
Any saw(cross or rip) at 15tpi. If you pay a lot for one, get a rip configuration.
Tails first (its easier to mark pins from tail vs the other way around)

Then post your next one here on LJ.

-- Backer boards, stop blocks, build oversized, and never buy a hand plane--

View Dave's profile


11435 posts in 4131 days

#8 posted 11-21-2011 04:02 AM

Tails first
!stun m’I em ot netsil t’noD

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View Randolph Torres's profile

Randolph Torres

295 posts in 4819 days

#9 posted 11-22-2011 02:40 PM

50 more times and you’ll be a pro when I took a furniture construction class if the teacher asked for three joints of a certain type I’d make 25. That way it was permanantly welded in my head. You can see your progress in each suceeding joint. Doing it by hand is more gratifying than using off the shelf crutches. Rance has it right about sharpening thats the key to clean chisel cuts. A trick I learned is don’t wait until the blade is dull stop every hour or so and put an edge back on it this will keep you from having to take a bunch of steel of on the grinder. Like the saying goes its the time that you put into a project that makes it shine, that goes even more so with learning, the extra time you put into it will make a huge difference in the skill you are learning. ps try it using a pull saw the rough cuts come out much more sanitary.

-- another tip from cooperedpatterns

View ChuckV's profile


3446 posts in 4818 days

#10 posted 11-22-2011 02:54 PM

Congratulations, that is a great first attempt. You have a good list of items to work on as you progress.

You might also try some popular. The wood is still inexpensive, but, with the tighter grain, you could find it easier to work with.

Keep at it!

-- "Join the chorus if you can. It'll make of you an honest man." - I. Anderson

View ChrisJ's profile


65 posts in 4110 days

#11 posted 11-23-2011 05:26 AM

Thanks for all the suggestions, folks. I’m planning on getting some more practice in soon…

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