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Woodworking with P. Michael Henderson


Hand-cut Dovetails - Through Dovetails

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This tutorial is intended for the students in my hand-cut dovetails class. The instructions here are intended to supplement the classroom instruction and, therefore, may not be sufficient for someone to learn how to make hand cut dovetails, just from these pages.

Cutting dovetails is a woodworking skill that improves with practice. Your first dovetails will likely have a number of problems, and you may feel disappointed with what you produced. Just about everyone experiences the same thing.

But your second set of dovetails will be better than your first, and your tenth will be outstanding compared to your first. Sure, there'll still be things you'd like to do better, but even the "expert" feels the same way. Keep practicing and your dovetails will be as good as anyone's.

Dovetails are an ancient method of joinery. There are wooden relics from Egyptian tombs (about 3000BCE) that include dovetail joints. Dovetails were especially valuable to our ancestors because glue was often not used in furniture - joinery techniques, such as dovetails and pinned mortise and tenon, were relied upon, rather than glue.

Today there are many machine made joinery techniques which provide very adequate strength, especially when paired with modern glues. For example, a drawer lock router bit, plus modern glue, can create a strong bond between the front and sides of a drawer. And once set up, the material for many drawers can be processed rapidly.

Even dovetails can be created via machine, using special router bits and a dovetail jig. So why do hand cut dovetails?

First, let me ask, "Why dovetails?" rather than some other joinery technique. Many people find dovetail joinery beautiful in and of itself. The contrast between the (usually dark) wood of the front of a drawer and the light wood (perhaps maple) of the drawer sides is striking. Combining this color contrast with the geometric shape of the dovetails produces a look that is just not found with other joinery techniques.

So why hand-cut dovetails? Dovetails, especially half-blind dovetails, are excellent joinery for case construction. Most case construction is wider than most dovetail jigs so it's difficult to use a dovetail jig in case construction. Drawers in furniture, such as a bureau, are often all different heights. If a dovetail jig is used, the jig must be set up for each drawer, and setup is a time consuming process. It's often easier and faster to do the dovetails by hand.

Finally, certain dovetails can be made by hand which cannot be made by machine, and craftsmen use these dovetail shapes to show that the joinery is hand done, rather than machine made. These shapes, combined with precise fitting of the dovetails, demonstrate the woodworking mastery of the maker.

But enough discussion, let's talk about how to make through dovetails using hand tools.

These dovetails are call "through" dovetails because the tails and pins go completely through the other piece of wood. Half-blind dovetails are so called because the tails do not go through the pin board. Because they do not go through the pin board, the end grain of the tails is not visible when viewing the pin board face. The pins are visible on the tail board so the dovetails are "half-blind" - visible on one board but not the other.

The tools needed for cutting through dovetails are shown and described below.

Tools Needed:

  • Marking gauges - I use the wheel marking gauges, but knife or pin gauges can alternately be used. In many cases for dovetails, it's nice to have two gauges.

  • Dovetail saw - For years, I used a small Japanese pull saw for making dovetails. When preparing for this class, I purchased dovetail saws from Lee Valley (LV) and Lie Nielsen (LN). Both work fine but the LV saw is a bit less expensive. The LV saw is 14 teeth per inch (TPI) while the LN saw is 15 TPI. LV also makes a 20 TPI dovetail saw but I find it to be a bit too slow. The teeth on a dovetail saw are filed rip instead of crosscut because you're cutting with the grain when cutting pins and tails.

  • Dovetail marking gauge - This is generally a saddle gauge. You can purchase one from LV or make your own. For hardwood, a 1:8 angle (about 7 degrees) works well. Some people just draw the lines for the tails by eye, but this often leads to irregular looking tails. You can also use a sliding bevel gauge set to about 7 degrees but these are a bit more work to set up and you risk the blade moving on you unless you get it good and tight. The saddle gauges are much easier to use.

  • Small square - For marking certain parts of the pins and tails.

  • Dividers - These are used for marking out the tails. There are other ways of marking out the tails but the divider technique is easy and quick. The divider technique leads to evenly spaced, equal sized tails so if that's not what you want, you'll have to research some of the other techniques. A 6" divider will work fine for dovetails, but a larger or smaller divider can also be used.

  • Pencil and ruler - For marking and layout.

  • Marking knives - I use a set (left and right) of Japanese carving knives. Many things can be used, including a small pocket knife. For very closely spaced tails, you'll need a very thin knife to mark the pins.

  • Chisels - These are used to chop out the waste on both the pin and tail boards. You don't need a lot of chisels - two are usually enough - but you'll appreciate having good quality chisels so that you don't have to stop and sharpen them so often. For most dovetail work, a 3/8" and a 1/4" will be all you'll need. If you start making very small pins, a 1/8" will be useful.

  • Mallet - I use a round carver's mallet but any mallet you're comfortable with will work fine.

  • Clamp - whenever you're chopping out waste, the board should be clamped down.

  • Soft faced mallet (not shown) - When tapping the pin and tail board together, it's nice to have a soft faced mallet. Alternately, you can put a piece of scrap wood on the tail (or pin) board and tap on that.

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W. & S. Butcher

Preston Planes


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