You can create perfect dovetail joints time and time again if you don’t mind spending a few dollars on a router and jig. It is a really tempting proposition, because as I have been discovering, to execute a dovetail well by hand requires a lot of practice. Saws drift and chisels can get away from us. Making the dovetail by hand is intriguing though because for all its strength and beauty it can be effectively executed with just a few basic tools. In other words, if you are willing to practice, and willing to accept something a bit less than perfection, you can build beautiful and strong joints without purchasing a lot of expensive equipment. The other thing I’ve learned is that the dovetail joint rewards patience and punishes the impatient so if, like me, you need to be reminded on occasion to slow down and act deliberately and patiently then it is worth spending some time learning how to handmade the dovetail joint (and skip the router). Like many woodworkers, I can attribute my learning to Chris Becksvoort whose many articles and videos were my guide.
Tools of the trade
There are a few tools that are critical to a properly executed dovetail, and a few that are nice to have because they make the job a bit easier. I’ll start with the necessities:
- Dovetail saw: A dovetail saw is simply a back saw with a thin kerf that is designed for rip cuts. There is a wide range of prices on these from a few dollars used to a few hundred for one from Bad Axe Toolworks. I purchased mine from Lie-Nielsen tools and can attest to its quality. Beautifully made and razor sharp this saw effortlessly cuts through hardwoods and leaves a clean, straight cut.
- Chisels: A couple of sizes for removing material between the pins and tails. I use Stanley 750 socket chisels. They do O.K., though an upgrade to Lie-Nielsen chisels may be in my future as the hard maple I favor does a number on the edges.
- Marking gauge (or two): I use the Veritas marking gauge. It does exactly what it supposed to do and does it well. I have used, but don’t like, traditional marking gauges that rely on a pin or nail to do the marking. I have found that they often tear or chatter when marking and are harder to keep on a straight line. The marking wheel on the Veritas cuts nicely and leaves a thin, straight line.
- Square: You need to be able to transfer markings and so you need a square. It is helpful to have a couple sizes
- Sliding bevel or dovetail layout tool: This simply helps you lay out tails that have consistent angles.
- Marking tools: To layout the tails I use a mechanical pencil with .007 lead. When marking out the pins I like to use a knife.
These are mostly basic tools that any woodworker–even a beginning woodworker–should have laying about. The only new tools I acquired were the dovetail saw and the Veritas dovetail saddle marker.
Nice to have but not necessary
- Veritas dovetail saddle marker: This thing makes transferring line a breeze
- Fret saw or coping saw: Some instructional videos have you use a fret or coping saw to remove the waste between pins and tails. I tried this approach but was not terribly successful in defining a straight and clean shoulder. I prefer to use a chisel
Making the dovetail
Before attempting my first dovetail I spent about an hour practicing with my saw. I laid out several angled pencil lined on the ends of scrap wood and cut over and over until I had a real feel for my saw and could consistently cut a straight line along the pencil marks.
In terms of layout and execution, I will refer you to the sources I used rather than recount the steps here. Chris Becksvoort‘s articles and videos are really good. Becksvoort instructs one to cut the tails on two boards at a time. I found that I cannot cut as accurately when I do that so I cut one set of tails at a time. Other than that, I followed his instructions closely and after cutting away at lots of scrap poplar I was ready to give it a go on some nice hardwood.
My first project was a gift for a good friend of mine who is a fellow Scotch aficionado and camping enthusiast. I built him a toasting box. Tradition holds that a successful day in the field, on the stream, or a quiet evening gathered around the campfire should be celebrated with a toast among friends. The toasting box and is designed to safely hold and transport a favorite libation and glasses from home to the field. This one is made of maple and finished with Danish Oil.
The dovetails aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good and overall I’m happy with the outcome, as was my friend for whom I made it. I am certain my next effort will be a little better as will the dovetails I cut after that and after that and so on and so forth. Practice and patience.