Hand-cut dovetails are overrated, but they can also be satisfying

Author: Rob Brown
Published: October 8, 2021
Accurate Cuts, Half of the Time
post-thumbnail

I’ve been working away on a pine desk that has some unique details. One of the most prominent details are a pair of drawers with angled sides. Like most people, I associate dovetails with a traditional look. Most people also think having a dove-tailed joint indicates quality. The designer of this desk included hand-cut dovetails in this piece, along with angled drawer sides.

I don’t hate hand-cut dovetails, but I just don’t link them inherently to high quality. Dovetails were once used, at least in part, because adhesives at the time weren’t overly strong and long lasting. Once the glue failed, as would likely happen, the mechanical aspect of the pins and tails would go a long way in keeping the joint together. Dovetails were, and still are, orientated so that when the drawer is pulled open the force causes the joints to tighten. A century ago dovetails spoke to the ability of a drawer to work for decades to come, but this is less so today.

Accurate Cuts, Half of the Time
Cutting to a line is a skill that improves with practice. When cutting dovetails, the first cut isn’t critical, but cutting to the line on the mating portion of the joint should be done with care.

Accurate Cuts, Half of the Time

Power Tools on Hand-Cut Joints?
When cutting the pins, I set up the table saw blade to the correct height and ran the boards over the blade while they were standing on their ends. This gave me consistent and accurate shoulders for the tails to seat against. Notice the lines at a right angle to the face of this board; those are the table saw blade marks. The small, triangular sections near each pin needed to be cleaned up with a chisel, but that was easy.

Power Tools on Hand-Cut Joints?

Other options

I find many other drawer joints are at least as strong as a hand-cut dovetail, are easier and quicker to machine, and look at least as good. Aesthetics are highly subjective, and everyone has their own thoughts on that, obviously. Even machine-cut dovetails are going to be stronger than their hand-cut cousins. The reason for this is because unless the surfaces of the hand-cut pins and tails fit together nearly perfectly, gaps will lead to a weaker joint. Now don’t get me wrong; machine-made dovetails can be cut poorly and result in a weak joint, but they’re usually easily dialed in to fit properly. The potential for gaps to show up in hand-cut dovetails depends on the skill of the maker, but I’m guessing most woodworkers who hand-cut dovetails aren’t cutting them perfectly. I know I’m certainly not. With both adhesives and joinery techniques being quite advanced today, there are many other solid, beautiful joints that could be used to make a drawer.

A challenge

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying woodworkers shouldn’t hand-cut dovetails. I think being able to control a hand saw is an important skill. And I think many woodworkers get a kick out of hand-cutting a set of dovetails, regardless if they’re stronger or weaker than another option. I’m fine with that. I just feel there are other options that actually might be more efficient and appropriate in many situations. These options create a joint that’s just as legitimate, beautiful and lasting as a dovetail joint.

My current project

Back to my pine desk and the angled dovetails I had to cut recently. The designer wanted hand-cut dovetails, as opposed to either machine-cut dovetails or any other joint. This was strictly for the classic visual of the joint. She didn’t even want them perfect, which was easy for me to do. Having not hand-cut dovetails for a decade or more, imperfect dovetails is actually my specialty.

They were enjoyable to lay out and cut, though the extra time I spent fine-tuning their fit was the part I always disliked. The key for me is to not rush or get frustrated. A bit of patience goes a long way at this stage.

Lay out, saw, remove the waste with a coping saw or bandsaw, fine-tune the fit with a chisel, be patient, more refining with a chisel, and the first joint came together nicely. As I worked, I tried not to think about the fact that my Leigh dovetail jig could have made that joint quicker and better. I kept saying to myself, “Leigh wasn’t in business when these drawers were supposed to have been built,” as I shaved bits of wood away.

Looking good

These dovetails grew on me as I worked. I had only eight to cut, which was perfect. Any more and I think my attention would have waned. The finished result has just enough imperfections in it to satisfy the client, and make anyone think these dovetails were cut by a craftsperson working in a dimly lit shop just before the end of the 19th century. Someone who could cut tight-fitting dovetail joints, even on angled sides, without having to think about what they were doing, because it was a daily chore that had become second nature. I have a feeling hand-cutting dovetails will never become second nature to me, as I was glad to see these drawers assembled and fitted so I could move on.

Keep Your Vice From Racking

I use an offcut from the boards I’m working with to keep my vice from racking. A little notch in my bench keeps the offcut in position.

Don’t Drill Too Deep!

Blasting through the far side of a stopped hole is very frustrating. Use this simple trick to make that frustration a thing of the past.


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from Rob’s Bench
Canadian Woodworking subscribe