Handcut Dovetails

by Peter Tremblay

This article first appeared in a thread on theWoodNet woodworking forum. It was compiled and reproduced here for easier public consumption. All Text and Images are the property of Peter Tremblay.

Hello all, earlier this month I threatened... er... offered to post a thread explaining my process for cutting DTs. I am in the process of cutting about 200 of them for my tool chest project. So I thought I would post my process for all to see, especially the new folks to hand tools.

First: my dovetail preface.
I don't cut perfect DTs. Few people do. There are a few savants in the handtool world who cut so many DTs that they can make their work look as good as machine made tolerances. I will never get there and I strongly encourage you to want to achieve that. It will only frustrate and irritate when you get really good but are still not perfect. I was able to come to terms with my imperfection when I saw some old furniture where the DTs looked like a rabid dog chewed them into existence. But THEY WORKED and for this piece of exquisite furniture it was a functional joint that did not need to look like art. So if mine look better than the gnawing of a rabid dog and if they hold strong then I'm happy. My goal is to have the DT go together off of the saw. If this happens then I'm where I really want to be. If my DTs need to look like art then I will learn how to fix any gaps, but I have not needed to make art yet so I don't fill in gaps.

For easy practice I love poplar. The drawers of my tool chest are also poplar so I've got lots of scrap.

But I have small pieces of walnut to use for a warmup.

First practice making a cut that is perpendicular in the endgrain and in the long grain.

Once you are consistently cutting a square cut in two directions then try a small practice DT

If this is going well then proceed. If not then go back and figure out what the issue is and then practice till you are not making it. This takes some creativity to be able to figure out your mistakes and then practice what is needed to fix them.

Then it is time for the real thing. This is 3/4" poplar to simulate carcass work. If you can cut DTs in a carcass then you can cut drawer DTs. The thinner the wood the easier and quicker the work gets.

Here is the entire kit of tools that I use for DTs.

I forgot my marking guage

List: block of wax, DT saw (veritas 14tpi), 20oz mallet, strop with green rouge, cheap coping saw with good blades, blue ballpoint pen, marking knife (Czeck edge), adjustable square, DT marker (veritas), 3/4" chisel (Barr), 1/4" chisel (Czeck edge), small and large dividers, and of course my marking gauge (Tite Mark).

Mark your wood: black marker to label the joint (A, B, C, D etc) sides. This helpful when you are doing more than one set of DTs so that you can easily mark the tails onto the pins and then easily reassemble. I also mark the "T" for tails, and "P" for pins, and then the arrow if for the front edge of the board (I did not mark the arrows properly) .

Adjust the gauge to a bit over the width of the wood and then mark the boards

Next I use the small dividers to mark the end pins at each side of the tail board.

I colored the holes from the dividers with the black marker to make them easier to see and demonstrate.

Then take the dividers to mark the spacing of the tails. This is difficult to describe so I tool lots of pics to show how it is done to easily get even tails.

The idea is to adjust the dividers so that the spacing is such that you get as many tails as you want and then the dividers will go over the last mark but a small amount. That space will be the width of the face of the pins. Then start from the opposite pin mark and go in the other direction, making sure to leave an indent where the divider lands.

When this is done it should look like the last pic above.
Then make with a square and a pen on the endgrain and then with the DT marker on the long grain.

Then, and here is when some precision is needed, cut to the line with the DT saw. The most important aspect of this cut is making sure that the cut is square on the endgrain. If you do not follow the angled line perfectly that is just fine.

Now, here is when I do things a bit differently. When I cut to define the tails (and pins for that matter) I will tilt the saw forward and cut deeper than the baseline on the inside of the board. Be sure to not go past the baseline on the outer face of the board but going deeper on the inside makes things just a bit easier when it come to chopping out the waste.

Now cut out the pins. Use the 3/4" chisel to chop at the marking line of the edge of the board and then pare back so that you will end up with a small wedge missing on the waste side of the line. Then cut the pins out.

As a side note, every now and again take the block of wax and rub a bit on either side of the saw plate to make it cut easier. I also use it on the blade of my coping saw, it helps a lot.

Now cope out most of the waste.

If you muscle your tools like I do then you will break your fair share of coping saw blades. I rarely do this but here I managed to break one. I use some very good 18 tpi blades from Tools For Working Wood.

Here is what it looks like when all done coping out the waste

Now it is time for chopping the rest. Some pare the waste but I chop the little bit that is left.

First touch up the edge of the blade on the strop (also from TFWW). Sorry for the picture quality, I'm using my cellphone camera. I used to have a nice camera that someone gave me but it met its maker last year.

Now, put the edge of the chisel in the line from the marking gauge and then take a very light chop with the chisel perpendicular to the board. The cut out a small piece so that you are now working below the surface of the wood.

Then once you have this small piece of wood cut out put the chisel in the corner and tilt the chisel forward and chop with great vigor. Now you are working just for speed, be sure to chop into the board.

Then flip the board over and simply put the chisel into the base line and don't bother about being delicate. This side of the DT won't be seen (most times). Chop with heavy blows and you will get this quickly.

Take the board and put it into the vise and clear the waste.

The tails.

Now put the pin board into the vise and mark the tails onto the pinboard with a marking knife.

This is what you will get.

Now mark the long grain side of the pins with the square and the pen and mark the waste.

Cut to the line making sure to cut a perpendicular line (perfectly up and down) then cope out the waste.

Repeat the chopping process where you are a bit delicate with the first chop, and then chop with reckless abandon for speed

The last step is to relive the edge of the inside of the tails and the pins. I find that this will help the boards go together easier and then it will make sure that any little chip will not prevent the tails seating fully. I don't know how easy it is to see but I relieved.

Then put them together (without glue here)

The end grain of the pins and the tails will be proud because you set the marking gauge a bit tall.

Take a plane to the end grain and you will end up with this.

I hope this helps.

My DTs are not perfect but they go together off the saw.



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