Learn to Cut Dovetails by Hand

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I love teaching people to cut dovetails because, contrary to what seems to be popular belief on the internet, they are not really all that hard. With some basic instruction, nine fairly basic tools, and an afternoon in the shop, I’m pretty confident anyone can cut a perfectly functional set. It may not be the prettiest set, but, in antiquity, dovetails were actually invented because hand forged nails were the only option at the time, and were too expensive to produce. If you go to an antique store and look inside the drawers of old furniture, chances are the dovetails you see are not going to be all that pretty. They weren’t meant to be the Everest of woodworking, they were meant to hold two pieces of wood together.

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You’ll notice in this video I use a whole lot of fancy tools. I use them because I have them and I am proud to have purchased them from boutique toolmakers pursuing their dream of making beautiful things and in so doing, supporting their families with small batch tools of extremely high quality. I’ll go through the list of tools I use and love at the end of the video, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this video, you can cut dovetails with 9 basic tools that most people already have, in some rusty form or another, in their garage.

While this is meant to be a comprehensive guide to dovetails, here are a few tips covered in this video:

When I’m done chopping, I want to check every mating piece for square. I also want to make sure that there is no material sitting proud of the joint which will stop the dovetails from fully seating. Any offending bits of material get removed with the chisel and rechecked with the square.

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While I don’t like to test fit my joinery, I do want to make sure everything is going to go smoothly come final assembly. To that end, using a fat pencil, draw a line across the tips of all your pins and gently press the mating boards together. If there are any tails or pins that are still proud, the pencil carbon will transfer to the opposing board, and you’ll know where to remove a little material. It’s important to re-test often when doing this because removing material from one area might make another area seat differently. The real goal is to get confident enough in your sawing that you can assemble your dovetails sawcut to sawcut. The more fussing and fixing you do with your joints, the more hours you add to your projects and the higher the opportunity for introducing or exacerbating error.  

Before glueup, I like to pre-finish the interior of my cases to avoid glue marks and finish absorption errors later on. You want to get glue on every surface that will mate. It’s not super necessary on end grain to long grain connections, but I always say it can’t hurt.

When putting the case together, most yellow glues have an open time of about 30 mins. Well cut dovetails don’t need clamps, but it’s always nice to have clamps and cauls laid out and at the ready just in case. I also like to have a piece of wood slightly thinner than my tails to use to tap the tails together to make sure they are fully seated. Before walking away, I check the case for square, then let the glue sit. You can plane or sand your pins flush, then add the finish of your choice to really make them pop. I like to leave the baseline, so I don’t remove much material, and that is just a nice tell that the piece was handmade.

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Before I go, I want to give a HUGE thank you to my sponsor, Woodcraft, for supporting me while I produce this kind of free educational content. Woodcraft is a great resource for woodworking tools and supplies- but more importantly, every store has woodworking experts who can answer your questions and build your community. Many stores also offer classes.

Posted on May 1, 2019 .