Learning to cut dovetail joints

I made a couple of New Year Resolutions this year, which is unusual for me. Although, I think the last two I probably went for were ‘parent better’ and ‘drink less’.

But this year I have two SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic timely) goals; raise a pig for the table and learn how to hand cut dovetail joints.

The pigs will probably live through this year, as we’re planning on housing some on Cansdell farm later in September or so, but I am putting a cross through “learn to cut dovetails”. This post will talk about my learning process.

The dovetail joint has seemed like witch-craft to me for years. My Dad was a great woodworker, but even more so he instilled a wonder in other people’s work. We would look at furniture and he would point out bits that were hard or clever. Dovetails always seemed like some sort of threshold to me, the point you cross between handy-person and woodworker. And they are the first thing to disappear when furniture gets cut by machine. I like IKEA, but it will be a long time before they release hand-cut, dovetailed kitchen drawers.

2014-01-08 10.20.39

I had dabbled with the idea for a while, even going as far as buying a back-saw (tenon saw) and a sharpening stone for my chisels. But the thing that pushed me over from thinker to doer was a bundle of woodworking magazines that arrived in the post, the end of Dad’s subscription after he died 18 months or so ago. In a flurry of nostalgia and casting about for a project I decided to learn these things once and for all.

I think this was part of the eventual success; I wasn’t trying to make something, I wanted to learn a new skill. Learn it so I could do it in my sleep, and then dovetail every piece of wood in the house. This meant there was no time pressure, no need for them to be good from the outset, I could focus on the process, the continuous marginal improvement which comes from learning a new skill.

The tools I used throughout were pretty simple; a cheap tenon saw, a cheap chisel, a good wooden mallet, a razor blade and my bench and vice.

I started by watching some videos. This was the best one to get me moving:

Seeing someone do them so quickly made it much more accessible. About 3 minutes and he has a corner done! Very neatly too I might add. Armed with this basic technique I went and cut some joints.

The first 4 were pretty bad, but there were little improvements each time. Better chisel technique, straighter sawing, more accurate marking. Here are the first 5; number two exploded during assembly.

2014-02-02 19.36.00During this period I read a bit of dovetail theory and history, which helped with my confidence and ability to just give it a go. Dovetails were developed as a fast and dirty way to join two boards. You cut the tails by hand. It virtually doesn’t matter what they look like, as long as they are perpendicular to the plane of the face. Then mark the pins off those tails, and cut them exactly. So the crux is that marking, then cutting operation, and most of the improvements in the second half of the test series were found here.

This video helped a lot as well …particularly because of the jig he uses. I lusted after one for a while, before realising I could make one myself pretty easily. I’ll write a post on that separately, but here is the jig and the first joint I cut using it. A marked improvement.

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The jig sorted out my sawing technique, making much straighter, sharper lines. Another marginal improvement came from clamping the jig rather than holding it.

The last piece in the puzzle was my chisel technique. For me, the most difficult part is neatly removing the waste from between the tails/pins. I was using 19mm board for most of my practice, which meant I needed to do more chiseling than in the videos, which were typically using 10mm and quite soft boards. So I watched some videos on sharpening chisels first, then some different techniques. I settled on ‘pairing’ in the end, where a vertical cut is made with the chisel on the line, then the fibres are dug out sideways until you get to the bottom of the initial cut. Then repeat.

2014-02-02 19.36.10By number 9 I was ready to make something. I bought a piece of FSC Tassie Oak from Bunnings and set to work. A week later and I have my first box.

2014-02-02 17.27.32

It looks much nicer than I expected, and sturdy enough to hold anything that will fit in it. Perhaps not a dynamic toddler. I am happy with the product, but more than anything I am happy that I know dovetails now. Even during the box I ironed out a few little technical problems and picked up a few pointers for next time.

2014-01-30 08.26.40I am not using a pencil for marking ever again. Before gluing up there was an obvious difference between the first and second pair of joins, traced back to pencil marking. The pins and tails need to match really closely, each side very close to, but not crossing an imaginary line. So you mark the line as sharply as possible, then cut up to, but not over the line. Under cutting is better as you can shave off a little during assembly.

2014-01-28 20.12.20Now that I know I just want to spend all of my time cutting them. What else could I dovetail? Where can I get more wood? I’m really interested in ways of upcycling wooden pallets at the moment, particularly the soft-wood ones which are commonly discarded. At least there are plenty around to practice on. I’ll let you know how I go.



About evcricket

Extreme gardener, engineer and bird nerd.
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9 Responses to Learning to cut dovetail joints

  1. Ev I can’t work out how else to contact you, so trying here. I see I’ve missed the pozible campaign (school holidays, sickness yada yada) – are you still accepting contributions in some fashion?

  2. Buddha says:

    Up cycling wooden pallets? Good idea, wonder where that came from, Ev? Try a dedicated marking knife – look it up. I prefer the ambidextrous diamond point style. It has a single bevel much like a chisel blade which makes sense to get the scribed point right up to your reference edge. Simple to make from the right material.

    • evcricket says:

      Haha! I have since tried and found them to mostly be rubbish. Sitting around in the weather makes the wood screwy

      • Buddha says:

        Very true if you settle for any old manky pallet but you can find nice, fresh stuff where there’s high turnover of volume goods. Or maybe I just got lucky

  3. evcricket says:

    I didn’t think of it until I watched some of the videos! It’s a mistake I’ve probably only made 3000 times. And silly things like marking something and trying to remember which bit of the line is exactly right, which side of the line, or right through the middle etc etc. A very fine line makes that easier.

  4. gregoryo says:

    So if you’re not using a pencil for marking, what are you using? Or did I misread something…

    • evcricket says:

      Ah! Sorry, the razor blade is for marking. I am using a stanley knife held delicately between my fingers at the moment, but will acquire a scalpel or similar in the near future. The key is to mark exactly where the tails sit on the other piece, so you need something very fine to get right down into the corner. Even the thickness of a pencil lead ruins the accuracy.

      • Ah of course, why have I never thought of that? I’ve often been frustrated by the thickness of a pencil, plus how far it sticks out from the side of the rule or tape measure. Thanks.

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