Hand Cut Dovetails
In today’s woodworking world, there are many machines and jigs that can cut dovetails very quickly. That is if you don’t include the time learning how to use the jig, setting up the jig and making all the necessary test cuts to make sure the jig does what you want it to do. These jigs are also limited by the fact that you can’t make pins any smaller than ¼”, due to the fact that the smallest router bit shank is ¼”. I prefer the look of tails with tiny pins because it assures my clients that the joinery is hand cut with the attention that fine furniture deserves. A craftsman has no limitations when cutting dovetails by hand. You can cut them any size, with any number of tails, and in whatever pattern you desire. However, this technique like anything else, takes practice.
Before you start, your hand tools must be sharp in order to effectively hand cut any type of joinery. Dull tools will provide less than desirable results, which can be frustrating and could possibly lead to an injury. Forcing dull hand tools through wood is laborious and dangerous, so hone your tools before you begin. As with all projects, begin with stock that is milled precisely to the same width and thickness, and crosscut square at the ends.
Shoulder paring block
Check to ensure block is square
Scribe layout lines
Set marking gauge
Mark the tails
Transfer lines to end of board and mark
Align board so cut lines are vertical
Use a coping saw to remove waste
Chisel out remaining waste
Set up shoulder paring block
Use block to pare waste
Pare bottom of pin socket
Trace tails onto pin board
Transfer marks onto sides of pin board
Pare the sides of the pins
Apply glue to pins
Tap the joint home
Plane end grain flush with sides
Shoulder Paring Block
A shoulder paring block will allow you to trim the shoulders on the tailboard squarely. To make this jig, mill up an extra board to the same thickness as the pieces that you are going to dovetail together.
It’s best to do this at the same time that you are milling the tail and pin boards to ensure they are all the same thickness. Cut and glue the pieces together with PVA glue ensuring that everything remains square. Once the jig is clamped up, remove any glue squeeze-out on the inside of the jig and put it aside to dry.
After the glue has set, remove the clamps and slip a square into the slot and check to see that the inside surface and the top are square. If not, correct the problem with a few judicious plane passes to square it up.
Prepare the Boards
It’s important to hand plane the inside surfaces of your boards to get rid of machining marks because once the pieces are together, this task becomes exponentially more difficult. Once this is done you need to identify how the boards will be laid out. In the case of a box you need to identify a back, front, and sides. As well, the insides and outsides of the boards need to be clearly marked. The easiest way to do this is to mark the inside, outside, top and bottom of the boards. (see the Cabinetmakers Triangle below.)
Set a marking gauge about 1/32″ wider than the thickness of the boards you are joining. The easiest way to do this is to ‘clamp’ the board between the fence and knife of the marking gauge. Setting the gauge this way will ensure that the tails and pins will sit proud of the boards allowing you to flush trim them easily. Scribe a line all the way around the ends of the tailboard and on the two faces of the pin board. For those of us with less than perfect eyesight, darken the knife lines with a 0.5mm pencil to make them easier to spot.
I’m a ‘tails first’ kind of guy and this is mainly for efficiency. When dovetailing drawers, I can gang the sides together and cut all of the tails at once. As well, whichever side you cut first becomes your template for the other side. I find it easier to mark using tails rather than pins. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what you cut first because once the joint is assembled you can’t tell the difference. When marking the tails, there is much discussion as to what angle the tails should be cut at. As well, there are many jigs designed to aid a woodworker in marking these angles. I normally use a small bevel gauge set to around 10º to mark the tails. The number of tails you use is a personal choice that will depend on the width of the boards being joined and the aesthetic you are going after. Keep in mind, the more tails you have the more glue surfaces you have available to keep the joint together. Once the tails have been marked you can transfer these marks onto the end grain of the board. At this point, make sure that you identify the waste areas with an ‘X’ to ensure that you cut on the proper side of the line.
Clamp the tailboard into a vice at an angle that allows the tail lines to run straight vertically. This allows you to orient the saw vertically instead of trying to cut a straight line while holding the saw at an angle. Saw all of the marks (i.e. the layout lines) going in the same direction and then angle the board the other way to saw the other marks. Ensure that you don’t saw past the scribe line. I usually stay within 1/32” of the line to ensure that I don’t overshoot the line. Now you can turn the board horizontally and saw off the waste for the shoulders. Again, stay clear of the scribe line by 1/32″ so as not to overcut the line.
Make a relief cut in the waste between the tails. This allows room for the coping saw to remove the waste without damaging the sides of the tails. With a coping saw, slide the blade into the waste kerf and saw out the waste. Again stay clear of the knife line allowing room to chisel out the waste.
Remove the Waste
Remove the tailboard from the vice and clamp it onto your bench, using a caul to protect the wood from dents. With a chisel and mallet start chiselling out the remaining waste. Don’t go directly to your knife line at this point because your chisel will have a tendency to dive and you’ll remove more wood than you’d like. As well, only go about halfway through to prevent blowing out the backside and putting unsightly chisel marks on your bench surface. Once you’ve nibbled out the waste, place your chisel into the knife line and ensure that the chisel is fully seated. The easiest way to judge this is to gently twist the chisel. If it is all the way home it should stay put. At this point gently strike the chisel removing the last shaving of waste. Now, flip the board over and repeat the waste removal on the other side, slowly working back with the chisel towards the knife line.
Now we get to use the shoulder paring block jig. Slide the jig onto the side of the tailboard and line it up so it is just a hair above the knife line. This ensures that there is a tiny amount of extra material on the shoulder to eliminate the chance of a gap being visible from the top of the joint. If the jig fits sloppily, place a piece of masking tape on the tailboard side to take up the space. Place the tailboard with the jig into a vise and clamp it firmly so the jig is not allowed to slip on the tailboard. Using the widest chisel you have, rest the chisel on the paring jig and carefully pare away the waste. To make the cut smoother and easier use a sweeping cut instead of trying to plunge straight in. Repeat the process with the other shoulder.
Refine the Tails
It is important to refine the tails at this point. Ensure that the sides of the tails are square with the face and that they are flat. If your sawing wasn’t as accurate as you’d like, now is the time to pare to the saw lines to refine the shape of the tail. Also, make sure that the bottom of the pin socket is flat and square to ensure a square and gap-free fit. All of these refinements are important because the tails are going to become the pattern for cutting the pins. Take the time now to ensure everything looks good because once you transfer the pattern over to the pin board you can’t make any changes to the tail.
Mark the Pins
When you’re happy with the tails, place the pin board in the vise with the end of the board flush with the bench surface. Ensure that the pin board is in the proper orientation by consulting your marks. Place the tailboard on top of the pin board and line up the two boards. With a 0.5mm pencil, trace the shape of the tails onto the pin board. Make sure the tailboard doesn’t move during this process. Clamp the tailboard to the bench if you’d like some extra assurance. Once you’ve transferred the marks, remove the tailboard and mark the waste immediately. The waste will be the space that the tails will occupy. Now transfer the marks down the sides of the pin board using a square and mark the waste on the sides. Marking the waste at this point is imperative because if you saw on the wrong side of the line now your dovetails will be ruined.
Cut the Pins
Place the pin board in the vise and make your saw cuts. Ensure that you don’t remove the lines or saw down past the scribe line. Cut another kerf down the center of the waste piece and using the coping saw, remove the bulk of the waste. As with the tails, use a chisel to remove the remainder of the waste, ending with placing the chisel into the knife line and making a clean cut to the scribe line. Now with a wide chisel, begin paring the sides of the pins to the lines. It’s important not to remove too much material or remove the line because you will have gone too far. Repeat this process for all the pins and ensure that the corners are free of debris and all surfaces are flat and square.
Once the pins have been pared it’s time for the final fitting. Attempt to place the tails into the pins. The fit should be pretty close but should require some final paring. When doing the final fitting of the joint, be sure you only remove material from the pin board because the tails were your pattern. I find that placing some pencil lead along the bottom edge of the tails helps me in finding where the fit is snug. The lead will transfer onto the pins and show where to pare. At this point, the paring cuts should be extremely light to prevent too much material from being removed. Again, you must have sharp tools to remove such fine shavings. When the joint comes together halfway you’re almost done. I don’t normally bring the joint together completely when dry because every time you put them together and take them apart, the joint becomes increasingly loose. Once they go together halfway, inspect the surfaces and ensure that they are flat and square. Now you can pull them apart and get ready to glue them up.
When you’re ready to glue, ensure that you have everything you need to get the task done. When I glue up dovetails I use PVA glue, a pipe cleaner, a small hammer, and a block of a soft wood, like poplar, small enough to fit between the pins. Place the pin board in the vise and using a pipe cleaner paint some glue onto the long grain surfaces of the pins. You don’t need a lot of glue here. I aim for not having much in the way of squeeze-out because it can be quite difficult to remove from the inside of the joint, and it risks leaving glue smears that only show up after a finish is applied. Take the tailboard and place the joint together. Glue is not a lubricant so the joint should be a little harder to get together now. Using your soft block and hammer, gently tap the joint home. Once the joint is fully seated, remove it from the vise and check the inside surfaces for square. If it’s out of square, use your hands to gently push or pull the joint into square. It is usually not necessary to clamp a dovetail joint because the joint itself, if fitted properly, will hold itself in place.
Now place the joint back in the vise and using a sharp smoothing plane set for a light cut, plane the end grain flush with the sides. Ensure that you plane starting from the corner so you don’t accidentally blow out the grain at the ends. If there are any small gaps between the tails and pins, rub a little glue into the gaps and rub the area vigorously with some fine shavings from your earlier planing. Small bits of wood will break off the shavings and stick into the glue, filling the gaps.
Fine, hand cut dovetails are a hallmark of good craftsmanship. Master this joint and elevate your woodworking projects from the mundane to masterful.
Marking all the parts for a project can become a truly confusing issue. Parts become cluttered with numbers, letters and words. An easier and less confusing way is to mark your project parts with triangles. It completely does away with the clutter of words and often, indiscernible symbols written on your work stock. This technique works with just about everything you’ll build, including panels, tabletops, legs, aprons, and casework. The concept behind this technique is quite simple – if you can draw a triangle you can use this system. All you have to do is mark your parts so that when you put them in the proper orientation they make a triangle. Once marked, the parts can be all mixed up on your bench and sorted out in seconds.
This is a simple and quick way to keep yourself and your project parts sorted out. You will never confuse the inside and outside of boards, or misplace a left leg for a right one again. So erase all of your words, arrows and numbers and let the clarity begin.
Vic Tesolin - [email protected]
Vic is a woodworking instructor and author.