Hand Cut Dovetails for Dummies

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Introduction: Hand Cut Dovetails for Dummies

About: 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 a Community Manager for Instructables.

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

Step 2: Layout One

  • 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

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

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

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

Step 6: Layout Two

  • 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

Repeat steps 3 through 5.

Step 8: Final Fitting

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

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!

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

2 People Made This Project!

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42 Comments

Thank you for the very clear instructions, from the get go, getting into woodworking seemed very therapeutic, but overwhelming as well. Googling things advice just doesnt work

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!

5 replies

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

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

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

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

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

dovetails.jpg

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!

1 reply

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.

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."

Hey, GOOD JOB.

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

3 replies

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.

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.

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

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

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!

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

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.

2 replies

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.

I couldn't have said it better myself!