By Anne Briggs
Anne of All Trades
I love to teach people to cut dovetail joints by hand without the use of complicated power tools. Tombs of ancient Chinese emperors and Egyptian mummies containing dovetailed furniture have been found showing us that people have been cutting dovetails by hand for thousands of years.
In antiquity, dovetails were popular 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 at the drawer construction (noting the drawer fronts and drawer sides) of old furniture, chances are the dovetails you see are not going to be all that pretty.
Hiding the dovetails inside the drawer allowed the priority to be function. Essentially they weren’t meant to be the Everest of woodworking, they were meant to hold two pieces of wood together. Of the four types of dovetail joints (through dovetail, half blind dovetail, secret mitered dovetail, and the sliding dovetail), the through dovetail is the most basic method, and a perfect one for hand cutting.
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.
How To Cut Dovetail Joints
- Bench Hooks (Optional)
- Two Square Pieces of Wood
- Marking Gauge
- Dovetail Marker
- Saw Lubricant
- Coping Saw
1. Begin marking out the dovetail joinery of the pins and tails with the tailboard.
2. Set the marking gauge just past the thickness of the wood, and lock it down nice and tight.
3. Use the marking gauge to mark along the entire edge where the dovetails will be cut beginning with a light pass, and then deepening with a few more passes. This line marks where you will want to stop cutting out the dovetails with your saw and chisel in later steps.
Pro Tip: Bench hooks are not necessary, but nice to have for this step because you can push away from yourself as you draw the marking gauge towards yourself, keeping the wood steady as you make your marks.
4. With the backside facing you, place the tailboard into a vise, and before clamping completely, use a square to make sure the board is nice and straight. The goal here is to have a perfectly vertical pinboard so that the dovetails will sit seamlessly together.
Pro Tip: The less visible board is the bottom board making it a good one to begin with. Any mistakes made as you are learning can be easily hidden.
5. With dividers, mark out the dovetails.
6. Using a knife and a dovetail marker, cut grooves along the marked dividers on the horizontal end.
7. Following the pattern of the dovetail marker, cut grooves in the vertical end.
8. With a lubricated backsaw, follow your markings to cut the depth of the tails. Work from the side of the board facing you, so that any pieces or chips will fall out on the other side which is the side that will be on the interior of the joint.
Pro tip: With a pencil, mark the tails that you are cutting out. This helps keep track of the tails you are removing so that you don’t inadvertently remove the wrong piece.
9. With a coping saw, finish cutting out the bottom of the dovetails.
10. Now you can use the board you were just working on to make a dovetail jig that will transfer the “C Tails” to the “C Pins” on the pin board. Set the pin board up square in the vise just as you did with the tail board. Line up the tail board perpendicular over the top of the pin board, and stabilize the backend of the tail board so that it can lay flat. Using a square, confirm that the boards are level.
11. Using the marking knife, cut grooves to mark out the tails on the horizontal edge of the pinboard.
12. Using the dovetail marker, cut grooves to mark the tails on the vertical edge of the second board.
Pro Tip: Instead of the primary focus being level horizontal cuts as in the tail board, the primary focus of cutting dovetails for the pin board will be the vertical cuts.
13. As in step 8, lubricate the backsaw, and cut out the tails.
14. After the desired amount of tail boards and pin boards have been cut with the saws, use the chisel to clean out any remaining pieces in the cuts. Start with the back side of the board, and with the mallet and chisel go about ¾ depth. Turn over the board to the “show side” to clean out the horizontal cuts. To clean up the vertical cuts, pare down in thin layers to make sure you do not go past the depth of the marking lines.
Pro Tip: To save time, purchase a chisel that is the same width as the narrowest end of the dovetail marker. This will allow you to make one clean pass at the bottom of the dovetail and will promote a tighter fit.
15. With the square, double-check every mating piece to make sure everything is level. Additionally, 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 need to be removed with the chisel and rechecked with the square.
Pro Tip: 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.
16. Once all the pieces seat perfectly together, cover all surfaces that will mate with glue, and fit the tail and pin ends together.
Pro Tip: Before glue-up, I like to pre-finish the interior of my cases to avoid glue marks and finish absorption errors later on.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 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.