Introduction: Hand Cut Dovetails for Dummies

Picture of Hand Cut Dovetails for Dummies

Precision cuts and joinery is the mark of a skilled carpenter. Dovetail joints often have an aura of mystery about them. Dovetails can be tricky, but with a little practice you can have others envious of the decorative hand cut character that only a dovetail joint can bring to your next project.

When using dovetails for a joint that requires strength, end grain must be used. Side grain was used in this instructable because it was for demonstration purposes only. The same steps and techniques will work with end grain dovetail joints.

Step 1: Tools

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Step 2: Layout One

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  • Measure the thickness of the second board using the marking gauge
  • Transfer that thickness to the first board with the marking gauge
  • Mark the middle of the board
  • Decide on a layout for the dovetails (my layout is shown in picture 3)
  • Make sure to mark the sections that you are wanting to remove

Step 3: Cut

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Using a hand saw, cut close to the line while not removing it till you reach the line left by the marking gauge

Step 4: Removing Wood

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Use a chisel and mallet to remove the excess wood. Holding the chisel perpendicular to the wood piece, cut along the line made by the marking gauge. Flip the chisel over to cut toward the line made by the marking gauge. Do this over and over till the wood is removed.

Step 5: Repeat

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Using the same steps shown before, remove the remaining excess wood from the first board.

Step 6: Layout Two

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  • Using the first board as a pattern, transfer the outline of the dovetails
  • Using the marking gauge, transfer the thickness of the first board to the second board
  • Mark the sections to remove
  • Using a square, connect the lines to the line left by the marking gauge

Step 7: Cut and Remove Wood

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Repeat steps 3 through 5.

Step 8: Final Fitting

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If the previous steps have been followed, the two boards should not fit together. In order to get the tight great looking dovetails that every carpenter wants, carefully shave wood off the second board in the interface between the two. I used both the chisel and small sanding block to get them to fit.

Step 9: Sand and Finish

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Depending on what you are making, you will want to glue the joint. If gluing, sand before and after to make sure that everything is flush.

Since this is a demonstration piece for a dovetail joint, I didn't glue it. I just sanded it and finished it with some danish oil.

Step 10: Share Your Dovetail Projects!

Picture of Share Your Dovetail Projects!

I want to see what amazing dovetail projects you can come up with. Please take a picture, make an instructable, share, repeat and enjoy!


jeanniel1 (author)2015-10-06

This reminds me of the Japanese wood working - all done by hand. Applause for working this complicated joint out by hand! I work in a wood shop now and then, and dovetails are a bit of a challenge though, when finished, they're really cool looking! Bravo!

Tommunbeig (author)jeanniel12015-10-06

Remembering that Japanese Craftsmen use pull saws which are much thinner and extremely sharp. This avoids that risky first push cut.

Aadieu (author)Tommunbeig2016-06-21

They don't even have to be thin... Just pull-action & SHARP

tomatoskins (author)Tommunbeig2015-10-09

Small pull saws are really helpful for things like this. This is the one I used. Very sharp and thin.

jeanniel1 (author)tomatoskins2015-10-09

Oooh, I like that and it's so affordable. Looks like a comfy grip

jeanniel1 (author)Tommunbeig2015-10-06

We do what we can with what is available. Good test for workmanship! Good tools is a blessing, eh?

rustytoy made it! (author)2015-12-06

You can also use this to do all kinds of joints

Aadieu (author)rustytoy2016-06-21

That is one pretty... Uh, what IS that??

tomatoskins (author)rustytoy2015-12-08

You sure enough can. That looks amazing! Great job!

Kinderhook (author)2015-10-21

Well done, and easy to understand. Here's a pic of some I did for practice several years ago.

pfred2 made it! (author)2015-10-08

Here's a box I made with dovetail joints. What is more impressive I think though is the seam between the top, and bottom. It is almost invisible.

tomatoskins (author)pfred22015-10-08

Those are some beautiful joints! I need to upload some pictures of a foot stool I made a little bit ago.

pfred2 (author)tomatoskins2015-10-08

Thanks. For a while I was on a dovetail cutting kick. Then once I got fairly proficient at it I lost all interest. Needless to say dovetails don't impress me at all anymore either. Well, the inlayed ones still do I suppose. But there's a trick to doing them I'm sure.

Someday I should try to make a steel dovetailed box. I don't think I've ever seen one of those.

tomatoskins (author)pfred22015-10-09

This is the only thing I've ever seen with steel dovetails. I'd love to see a box if you ever make one!

Pilgrimm (author)2015-10-07

Very nice 'Ible! Very well done. Nice looking joint. Good photos, good use of clamps (I used my woodworking vise). I've practiced and practiced, read, studied the magazines, watched videos, sharpened chisels until I could shave a hair in two strands, and have never managed to produce a joint that did not look as though it had been created by a ham-fisted clod! And I've been making furniture, built-ins and wooden accessory pieces for 40 years. I have my own work throughout my house, and take pride in showing it off. All without a single dovetail joint, which certain uncouth visitors occasionally mention! Nice job!

pfred2 (author)Pilgrimm2015-10-08

There are some tricks to making a tight looking dovetail. The first thing you need to realize is you can only see the surface of the wood. That gives you a lot of leeway inside the joint to mess around. Because once the joint is glued up no one is ever going to be able to see in there. So you can hollow out the inside of the joint faces somewhat. Then you rely on wood being compressible. So to sum up you leave wood where you need it, and pare away where no one can see it. Then your joint should go together and look tight when it is together.

You run into trouble if you try to make the ideal geometry joint. Because if that doesn't work out it is usually visible. Sticking to the ideal geometry sets you up for more failure potential. You need to be able to see past the ideal to achieve the illusion of the ideal.

jimrittenour (author)2015-10-06

Didn't anybody read the details. He explained why he chose the grain direction.

"Buy tools, buy jigs, buy machines, buy kits".....................jeeze.

The whole point of projects like this is to have some fun doing stuff by yourself using the simplest tools and techniques. And with this one, in addition, no electricity.

It's a simple dove tail. No geometry required - for the most part.

No angles and whatever to make the joint "lock."


It's a great and simple method to dress-up a wood project.

brexford (author)jimrittenour2015-10-07

Kits may be a good way to start - practice on a known design gets rookies further along.

At some point you want to break out and try your own ideas... a kit or two might give you the confidence you need.

jimrittenour (author)brexford2015-10-08

I agree kits are great - no problem there. But doing something from scratch counts too.

I just get bored with criticisms seemingly based on the notion that an instructable be revolutionary, use space age technology, laser-guided everything and backed up with the latest in doctoral level academia.

brexford (author)jimrittenour2015-10-08

No argument - I tend to be a lot more retro than The Jetsons anymore....

jimrittenour (author)2015-10-08

My life changed forever when I got my first pull-saw!;)

WoodieWannabe (author)2015-10-08

Wow, that is indeed a great example of good craftsmanship. I fully agree with other comments about "handcrafting": Using routers and dovetail jigs is a perfectly good method for production work where time is of the essence, but if you really want to prove to yourself or anybody else that you are a worthy "craftsman", this is the way to go. I've made dovetail joints before using the router/dovetail jig method, but I recently acquired a fine Japanese craft tenon saw, and I think that might be just the thing to try out your method with. Great instructable, thank you!

yss123 (author)2015-10-07

Great 'ible. Thanks. must try it out right away!!

johndavidf (author)2015-10-06

Buy a router and a dovetail kit for it. Hand sawing is nice but it is slow. The kit make it accurate and they always fit perfectly. Sorry for the put-down.

Jobar007 (author)johndavidf2015-10-06

But that would involve owning a router. The router and kit would need to be stored (both are bulky). Some people live in apartments and can't feasibly use power tools indoors. Some people want to work in silence, or listen to the breeze in the trees (or through a city, if that's your cup of tea). Some people want to slow down and develop a skill. You can vary your dovetails' angles and widths by hand (impossible to do with bit and template without a lot of complex jigging).

For the cost of the router alone, you could buy a decent marking gauge and hand saw. For less than half of the cost of the template (not mentioning the bit) you can get a decent chisel and means to sharpen it.

Yes, you won't be as accurate as a router and template. That's OK. Sometimes it is the journey and not the destination for why people journey through life. Driving a car and walking will get you to the same place. You can't stop and smell the roses if you are too busy trying to get there. Neither is correct. Neither is wrong. Both fit different people and their personal style.

tomatoskins (author)Jobar0072015-10-06

I couldn't have said it better myself!

pandrews8 (author)tomatoskins2015-10-06

Nice, but it still doesn't answer a problem I have with any joint and that is the initial cutting. Do you cut on the line with one part of the joint? And the other question is; if as you state cut as close to the line, WHICH side of the line? If you cut close to the line on BOTH parts of the wood (and this is what happens to me ALL the time) the join is either too BIG or too SMALL.

I have given up on joints as I can not get my head around where to cut. Is it a simple rule like; always make the cut next to the line in the waste area, or

always cut next to the line in the waste for the hole and inside the line for the tail???? scream of frustration!!!!!

tomatoskins (author)pandrews82015-10-06

In general, always cut on the waste side of the line. You will then be able to slowly move closer and closer to the line until your joint fits. If you cut on the opposite side of the waste, you will always have a sloppy joint.

For dovetails laid out like this, you are using the first board as a template for the second board. So as long as your cuts are straight on the first board, you will always be able to set up a matching second board. It's really only the second board that you need to worry about cutting on the waste side of the line.

I hope that helps somewhat.

pandrews8 (author)tomatoskins2015-10-07

Yes! Once I have a rule I can work with (and understand) I am a happy Vegemite (Aussie term). So my rule is cut to the waste. Thank you.

tomatoskins (author)pandrews82015-10-07

Just to be clear with your rule of thumb, when you say, "cut to the waste" that means cut on the waste side of the line. I just want you to have as much success with your woodworking as possible! That is all.

RichardJ8 (author)johndavidf2015-10-07

Unless you spring for a high buck variable pitch jig, you are at the mercy of a fixed router jig for spacing, which can look far too mechanical and screams lsck of ability/patience on the part of the maker. Learn to handcut and dovetails will always be spaced appropriately.

bradhouser (author)johndavidf2015-10-07

When I was 14, in 1972, my parents took me to the Solomon Islands for 6 months, There I went to school with local teens, and we had wood shop with only hand tools. (Counting on power availability on the outlying islands would have been a bad idea.) Needless to say, coming from the US, where I had used quite a few power tools in the school shop, and my dad's, I had the worst looking dove tail joint in the class. I also failed at lawn mowing, which was done with a machete!

arvevans (author)johndavidf2015-10-06

Doing dovetail layout, cutting, and fitting is an old art form, that is practiced today by those with exceptional carpentry skills. Some may have noticed that high cost and high quality wood projects use many of the old joinery practices that demonstrate the skill of the maker. This Instructable is interesting because it shows the less experienced how to do this level of work. Almost anyone can purchase all the expensive wood milling tools and approach carpentry as a purely mechanical process, but that is just mill-work does not reflect carpentry as an art form.

SpoonMax (author)2015-10-07

First rate! Congratulations from one who knows the frustrations of joints not quite fitting.

drzcyy (author)2015-10-07

Good instructable! Just a comment on dovetails: It's easy to do, but very difficult to do well. It just won't fit in nicely (it's usually loose)!!! And if it doesn't fit, a piece of good wood goes to waste.. :(

Bigredhawg (author)2015-10-06

thank you for sharing this! i have always been amazed by dovetails, and never had a clue how to cut them. (too busy with life to seek it out lol)

this is awesome. now i want to go and buy new tools and try this

Bitterwinds Ranch (author)2015-10-06

more people need to learn to do this sort of thing by hand as power isn't always and option and there is a lot more pride for me when something is done truly by hand without power tools

maxman (author)2015-10-06

Tissue boxes are excellent projects to make with dovetails. Plans are easy to find and you can make them by hand or machine.

montana mindsmith (author)2015-10-06

i agree with Jobar007 for a couple of valid reasons:

1. Yes, it's true the router and dovetail kit makes for accurate dovetail joinery BUT ONLY IF YOU HAVE THE STOCK MILLED TO THE EXACT CAPABILITIES OF THE ROUTER JIG. The more universal skill of being able to do it by hand opens up a lot more possibilities to the stock dimensions you can work with

2. Developing patience and hand tool skills will only lend itself to better workmanship and make the power tools even easier to understand and use.

3. Through dovetails on a router jig look all stupid because of the curvature the router bit cuts into the stock. Those jigs are more useful, in my opinion, for doing half and full-blind dovetails in a production setting with standard widths of stock. i have yet to see the dovetail jig to handle really big or really small width stock.

4. I've seen professional woodworkers cut through dovetails without even the marking gauge and that minimal set-up time. once you've got the actual skill down so you're not dependent on perfect settings and standard cabinetry sized stock, doing it by hand is much faster!

very good instructable!

I totally agree. Using a kit doesn't really need a great deal of skill, mainly the ability to follow instructions (there will still be a learning curve to get dovetails 'tight')

Hand cutting dovetails shows a much higher degree of skill although it isn't feasible for production work as it does take a lot longer to cut by hand,even for an expert (although sometimes in reproduction/ high value situations the hand crafted look could be the main consideration)

fred3655 (author)2015-10-06

The direction of grain you used made it easy to chisel off wood. Wouldn't going perpendicular to the grain result in a messy joint?

tomatoskins (author)fred36552015-10-06

Not at all, a sharp chisel will have no problems cutting cross grain. If you are having issues with yours cutting dovetails, take a look at this instructable for help with sharping your chisel. It even shows a picture of the chisel cutting cross grain.

paganwonder (author)2015-10-05

Aren't dovetails for cross-grain end joints? Won't dovetails parallel to the grain just snap off?

fzumrk (author)paganwonder2015-10-06

I will second that notion. If you just want a decorative joint, this would be alright. However, using the side grain will result in a relatively weak joint. You are also likely to break off the 'teeth' while making dovetails in the side grain.

Overall, good instructions and good technique. Just use the end grain if you want a strong joint.

tomatoskins (author)fzumrk2015-10-06

Excellent! You guys noticed, I wondered if anyone would. I have updated my instructable to include this information. I used side grain because it was the scrap that I had laying around. Since this was just for demonstration purposes I went with it.

chrisjlionel (author)2015-10-05

Nice..Perfect skills..Voted

Moschtertaart (author)2015-10-05

Hi, Can you give us some details about the two chisels you used? Regards.

I used the 3/4" chisel from this set. Really any sharp chisel will work as long as it fits inside the dovetails.

About This Instructable




Bio: My name is Troy. I'm a Mechatronics graduate studying Mechanical Engineering. I love making things and doing anything outdoors (especially SCUBA diving). I am ... More »
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