Picture of How To Dovetail

The through dovetail joint is strong and attractive. It's the traditional joint of choice for joining boards at right angles. Here is how I went about setting out and cutting my dovetails using hand tools and with some practice you can too. As always make sure you take all necessary safety precautions and follow all the safety instructions provided with your tools.

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Step 1: Terminology

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Just to keep things easy I have labelled the key areas of the through dovetail joint.

Step 2: Tools

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These are the tools I used. Mallet, Bevel Edge Chisels, Marking Gauge, Cutting Gauge, Dovetail Saw, Dividers, Marking Knife, Hard Pencil, Dovetail Square (or adjustable bevel), Try Square, Ruler, Smoothing Plane, Coping Saw

Step 3: Face Side, Face Edge

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Make sure your material is cut to an accurate dead length, apply face side faced edge marks and reference the corners.

Step 4: Baseline

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Set your cutting gauge to create the base line. Set it to the exact thickness of the timber to be joined. In this case the timber is of equal thickness. If the thickness of the stock varies apply the thickness of the tail board to the pin board and pin board to the tail board. For best results use the timber to set your gauge. Don’t be too aggressive with the gauge. We just want to create a nice edge for a chisel to pare from later.

Step 5: Half Pins

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Dovetail joints start with a half pin located on the outside of the joints. Typically on fine work this would be 6mm > 9mm on larger work like a tool chest 10mm > 18mm would be acceptable. Set your marking gauge to the half pin size of your choice and mark the half pins onto the tail boards.
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mdeblasi12 years ago
When I clicked on this I was thinking to myself "Here's another instructable that is going to require a ten thousand dollar electronic tool I don't have access to."
Then I opened it, and you did it all by hand!
Thank you,
thank you very very much!
G S Haydon (author)  mdeblasi12 years ago
Wow! Thank you very very much!
GLFaria2 years ago
Very clear and informative!
One of the best synthesis I have read on making dovetails.
Thank you.
nhampto924 days ago
Forget HOW. Why?
dtepper2 months ago

what's the difference between the marking gauge and cutting gauge? I'm looking to get into trying to make dovetails by hand and wasn't sure if I'd need both.

amekdala1 year ago

too much effort but worth it for the precise edges

thank you sharing this and ur blog

G S Haydon (author)  amekdala1 year ago
Thanks amekdala, I will be adding a video to this one soon.
mage2 years ago
bookmarked. also nice saw
G S Haydon (author)  mage2 years ago
Thanks Mage

Stay tuned for my next instructable. Wont be for a Month or two but hopefully you'll enjoy it.
cobourgdave2 years ago
Excellent instructable. I have not done one of these by hand for many years. I was seduced into the router and fence approach. This approach provides so much more satisfaction, and the results are beautiful. Thank you and congratulations
G S Haydon (author)  cobourgdave2 years ago
Hi cobourgdave,

Thanks for the feedback. Routers and jigs are brilliant and if I had heaps of dovetails to do I would use them without hesitation. However on small jobs I think there is little difference on router vs hand tools. The great thing with hand tools is that you can adjust and change at the drop of the hat.to suit the job in hand.
rammstein22 years ago
Is it possible to create both a dovetail and a pin on a single board?
G S Haydon (author)  rammstein22 years ago
Hi rammstein2

Thanks for the question. Not to my knowledge, I think it would be impossible to engage the joint. Have you seen any?
If one were to make dovetail and pin on a board A, the dovetail
can engage board B with pins, and board C with tails. Then,
a long-grain glue join of boards B and C would create a strongly
locked corner, which could be useful.
Heck, with three boards (B, C, and D) you could make a
contrasting-wood stripe, both useful and decorative (or for
a drawer side, tough slider and top with a cheap poplar
G S Haydon (author)  whit3rd2 years ago
Hi Whit3rd

Thanks for leaving a comment. Sounds fun, I would love to see it. Get your tools out then send me a photo of the finished joinery.
Nope. I was just wondering that most of the wood is removed from the pin board. Putting both a pin and a tail on a board would have ensured that the amount of waste wood is equal for both boards.
G S Haydon (author)  rammstein22 years ago
Hi rammstein2

Thanks for the response, if you want equal waste you can adjust the setting out at step 6 for equal pins and tails. Equal pins and tails are mainly used on work where ultimate strength is the primary concern.
pierrakosn2 years ago
Thank you! Great instructable!
vincent75202 years ago
nice job.
Those look awesome. I've tried these joints before but they didn't look as nice as yours. I guess I'll just keep practicing
LesB2 years ago
This looks like a type of project that takes not only the knowledge that you are putting forth here, but a certain level of skill. Getting the parts cut so precisely must take some practice.
I would like to try this someday when I have the time, however I think I would need to do some practice runs before being able to produce a finished product.
G S Haydon (author)  LesB2 years ago
Hi lesizz

Thanks for the feedback. You are right, some skill is involved and I recommend practicing on scrap timber before trying it on a project. Hope you find the time to give it a try and create something cool.
macmac3692 years ago
Nice work. Do u have time to make a video clip for the whole process?
G S Haydon (author)  macmac3692 years ago
Thanks again for the kind words! Sadly I am nearly at the end of my tool chest build so no more dovetails for a while. However in the future I would like to make a video. Stay tuned for some more "How To" as I finish my tool chest build.
im right behaind u ?
hay_jumper2 years ago
Great job making this instructable. I've been wrestling with learning this skill, and will definitely give this technique a go at the shop. Top notch job.
ithica20122 years ago
outstanding job, it showes traditional craftsmenship survives, well done.
toad2 years ago
Beautiful, I have always wanted to try and make these.
I'm not going to lie I clicked on this because of the saw. That has got to be the nicest one I've seen, where did you get it? Also great worked I was thinking the same thing as mdeblasi1.
G S Haydon (author)  Zergling_pack2 years ago
Hi Zergling_pack

It's OK, I like my saw too! Contact http://www.flinn-garlick-saws.co.uk/index.html or visit my blog where I review the saw and provide a link to the above. They have stockists worldwide and will be able to advise you best.
orator2 years ago
I enjoyed the instructable very much. You have a very beautiful finished product that I can only dream about. Great job.
cutshopguy2 years ago
awesome. Great work and a very well put together and clear Instructable. Thanks very much.
bricmic2 years ago
Well, but why do you always dovetail with a small pin and a tail too? Strength is not good, in fact, the side pin has not enough grain of the wood to ensure strength compared to the tail side that much more. The real cabinet, as my father was dovetails much more symmetrical and more solid, see drawing. try using a press, you will see which one breaks first.
G S Haydon (author)  bricmic2 years ago
Hi brimic,

Thanks for the feedback. You are right. If strength is the primary concern pins and tails should be the same size. This equal pin and tail ratio you describe would be normally found on old cisterns or heavy duty work and is less common on furniture. It sounds like your father made a lovely cabinet. If you want equal pins and tails like your father made go to step 6 simply adjust my setting out.
Great job on this instructable! Those joints are beautifully done!
Beekeeper2 years ago
Very good! Can you now show us how to do a double secret mitred dovetail? and get all the surfaces tight.
G S Haydon (author)  Beekeeper2 years ago
Hi Beekeeper.

Who knows, follow my instructables and you never know what you might see ;-)
dougwills2 years ago
Excellent instructable. I can't wait to give it a try. I have always been concerned about working out a dovetail myself, but you make it look...do-able, if not easy.

I do have one question. You state "Undercut very slightly to allow the shoulders to pull up nicely". Could you please explain what this means? I may be dense here, but I can't figure it out.

G S Haydon (author)  dougwills2 years ago
Hi Dougwillis

Thanks for the feedback! Your are not dense. Take a look at step 16. You can see the chisel paring the waste. This operation happens from both sides. Where the paring overlaps make sure it is very slightly lower than the baseline. Let me know if you need more help.
Got it! Thanks.
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