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Woodworking with P. Michael Henderson


Hand-cut Dovetails - Half-Blind Dovetails

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This tutorial builds on the techniques demonstrated in the Through Dovetails tutorial. Some techniques demonstrated in the Through Dovetails tutorial are not repeated here so the reader is advised to review the Through Dovetails techniques before starting on Half-Blind Dovetails.

It's not that half-blind dovetails are harder to make than through dovetails - I actually find them easier. It's just that I did the through dovetails page first and I didn't want to repeat some of that information here.

The tools and equipment for making half-blind dovetails are essentially the same as for the through dovetails. Refer to my page on through dovetails for the list of tools, and a discussion of each.

The only tool(s) I might add are one or more "special" chisels to clean the corners of the tail sockets on the pin board. Because of the angle of the sockets, it's difficult to get a regular chisel into that corner to clean out the waste.

A small skew chisel works well, but you need two of them, a left and a right. The other option is a fishtail chisel. See pics below.

You can make your own skew chisels very easily from some inexpensive 1/4" chisels. Just grind the cutting edge into a skew. I show two Irwin chisels in the picture, which cost me less than $10 each. You don't need expensive chisels because you won't use the skews very much.

The fishtail has the advantage of only requiring one chisel. The one shown here is a Blue Spruce, which is way overkill for this application. It's a good chisel, very well made, but very expensive - this one is about $85. An alternative is a flat fishtail carving tool. Pfeil makes a #1 fishtail - choose either the 6mm and 8mm (I'd get the 8mm) - for about $30.

The limit on the fishtail is the amount the head sticks out from the shaft (on the side). If there's not enough protrusion, you won't be able to get the fishtail flat against the back of the tail socket, and that means you won't be able to clean the corner out well. The skew essentially always works. And that's what I'd recommend you get - two skew chisels (left and right), not wider than 1/4".

You begin half-blind dovetails in exactly the same fashion as through dovetails - by preparing the stock. It must be flat, of consistent thickness, and cut square on the ends.

Mark the outside of the boards and indicate which is "pins" and which is "tails". Like with through dovetails, this will help keep you out of trouble.

Our first step is to mark both the pin and tail boards with the marking gauges. But this time, the tails will not go completely through the pin board. But how far should they go, if not all the way? We're dealing with 3/4" stock here so we know the tails have to be less than 3/4".

One common depth is 1/2" because you're usually trying to achieve some inside dimension, such as the the inside dimensions of a bureau. Your tail board has to be the inside dimension PLUS twice the length of the tails (one tail on each side), so people use 1/2" because it's easy to calculate and provides a strong enough joint.

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Swan Chisels



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