One of the most essential skills that every accomplished woodworker must have is the ability to cut perfect dovetails. Dovetails are essential in furniture making process and they are widely used in all handmade furniture pieces. Today there are numerous dovetail jigs on the market but the truth is that cutting dovetails by hand isn’t that hard. All you need are sharp tools and good instructions and you’ll be making perfect dovetails in just one afternoon.
In this article we will show you how to cut dovetails with just basic hand tools.
Dovetail joint parts
Before we can start with cutting dovetails we must learn the basic parts of dovetail joint. In this article we will cover the through dovetail joint also known as plain dovetail joint. There are several other types of dovetail joints designed for different purposes but when you manage this basic form you’ll quickly handle all variations. The dovetail joint consist of two parts. The tails are the flared, triangular shapes, cut through the thickness of one board. The pins are the more slender projections, cut along the grain of the other board. Half pin is the end pin on the pin board and the shoulder is the place where half pin sets on the tail board. For those of you who want to learn more about joinery be sure to check out our review of the famous Joinery guide.
Preparing the boards
Before you learn how to cut dovetails you need to prepare the boards. First of all you need to hand plane the inside surfaces of your boards to get rid of machining marks. Once you assemble the boards this task becomes exponentially more difficult. Take your marking gauge for about 1/32″ wider than the thickness of the boards you are joining. If you set the gauge this way that will ensure that the tails and pins will sit proud of the boards allowing you to flush trim them easily. Then scribe a line all the way around the ends of the tailboard and on the two faces of the pin board. If your marking gauge marks are difficult to spot you can enhance them with a pencil for easier cutting afterwards.
There are two ways on how to cut dovetails. Some people cut the tails first and say that is the proper way and some people cut the pins first. It doesn’t matter which side you cut first because it becomes your template for the other side. We think that it’s easier to mark using tails rather than using pins. When marking the tails the most important thing is the angle and about that there’s also a lot of discussions among woodworkers. There are many jigs designed to aid a woodworker in marking these angles like this Dovetail Marker. If you don’t have a special jig or marker, you can use a small bevel gauge and set it to around 10º to mark the tails. The number of tails will depend on the width of the boards being joined. When the tails have been marked you are ready to transfer these marks onto the end grain of the board. Be sure to identify the waste areas with an ‘X’ to ensure that you cut on the proper side of the line.
Take your tailboard and clamp it into the vise at an angle that allows the tail lines to run straight vertically. It’s very important that you set up the tailboard at the correct angle because it’s much easier to cut vertically instead of trying to cut a straight line while holding the saw at an angle. Take your dovetail saw and saw all of the the layout lines going in the same direction and then angle the board the other way to saw the other marks. Don’t ever saw past the scribe line because it’s easier to remove little waste then to cut the tails all over again. Always try to stay within 1/32” of the line and you’re safe. Then turn the board horizontally and saw off the waste for the shoulders. Now you have to make a small relief cut in the waste between the tails to make room for the coping saw. Use your coping saw to remove the waste without damaging the sides of the tails. Slide the blade of the coping saw into the waste kerf and saw out the waste. Like with the dovetail saw, you have to stay clear of the knife line allowing room to chisel out the waste.
Remove the tailboard from the vise and clamp it onto your workbench. Remember to always use a caul to protect the wood from dents. Take the chisel and mallet and start chiselling out the remaining waste. If you don’t know which chisel to use check out our Woodworking Chisels Guide. Be careful and don’t put your chisel directly on the line because chisel have a tendency to dive and you’ll end up removing more wood than you’d like. Always start about halfway through to prevent blowing out the backside and putting unsightly chisel marks on your bench surface. After you removed the waste, place your chisel into the knife line and check if the chisel is fully seated by gently twisting the chisel. Now gently strike the chisel and remove the last shaving of the waste. Turn the board on the other side and repeat the waste removal slowly working back with the chisel towards the knife line.
Refine the tails ensuring that the sides of the tails are square with the face and that they are flat. If your sawing was a little accurate, now is the time to pare to the saw lines to refine the shape of the tail. This is very important step because the tails are going to become the pattern for cutting the pins. Take your time and ensure that everything looks perfect because once you transfer the pattern over to the pin board you can’t make any changes to the tails.
Cutting the pins
Now place your pin board into the vise with the end of the board flush with the bench surface. Double check that the pin board is in the proper orientation by consulting your marks. Now place your tailboard on top of the pin board and allign the two boards. With sharp woodworking pencil trace the shape of the tails onto the pin board. Double check if you transferred the marks correctly and then remove the tailboard and mark the waste immediately. The waste will be the space that the tails will occupy. Using a square transfer the marks down the sides of the pin board and mark the waste on the sides.
Now put your pin board back into the vise and make your saw cuts. You need to cut another kerf down the center of the waste piece. Then take your coping saw and remove the bulk of the waste. Same as you did with the tails, use a chisel to remove the remainder of the waste. At the end place the chisel into the knife line and make a clean cut to the scribe line. Now begin with paring the sides of the pins to the lines. Don’t remove too much material or remove the line because you will go too far and ruin the board. Repeat all of this for all the pins and ensure that the corners are free of debris and all surfaces are flat and square.
Final fitting and assembly
Now both boards are pared and it’s time for the final fitting. Try to place the tails into the pins and if you’ve done everything correctly then the fit should be pretty close but should require some final paring. Be sure that you only adjust the pin board because the tails were your pattern. Place the pencil lead along the bottom edge of the tails will help you in finding where the fit is snug. That pencil lead will transfer onto the pins and show you where to pare. Your paring cuts should be extremely light now to prevent too much material from being removed. Be sure that your tool is razor sharp and that you remove only fine shavings. If you want to learn how to sharpen your chisel check out our Sharpening Guide. Once the boards go together halfway, inspect the surfaces and ensure that they are flat and square. Pull them apart and get ready to glue them up.
In order to glue up dovetails you’ll need a wood glue, a pipe cleaner, a small hammer, and a block of a soft wood small enough to fit between the pins. Put your pin board in the vise and paint some glue onto the long grain surfaces of the pins using a pipe cleaner . Don’t use much glue because it will then leak from the joint. Take the tailboard and place the joint together. Don’t worry, the joint should be a little harder to get together now. Take your soft block and hammer and gently tap the joint into place. When the joint is in place, remove it from the vise and check the inside surfaces for square. If it’s out of square, gently push or pull the joint into square using only your hands. When you place it into correct position leave it overnight to dry.
Your dovetail joint is now finished and it’s time for final touches. Place your dovetail joint back in the vise and plane the end grain flush with the sides, using a sharp smoothing plane set for a light cut. You must 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 sawdust or with some fine shavings from your earlier planing.
As you can see cutting dovetails isn’t that hard and every beginner in woodworking should be able to master this skill in just one afternoon. If you can’t learn how to cut dovetails from the instructions above, you can check out the video below in which you can learn how to cut dovetails step-by-step.