How to Hand Cut Dovetails





Introduction: How to Hand Cut Dovetails

About: I have been working with wood since I could stumble into the shop with my dad. About a year ago I moved into a house with no space for a full shop so I decided to take up all hand tool wood working. That sta...

Dovetails can be complex, but they do not need to be. This is the simplest and easiest way I know to Hand cut a Dovetail joint. As Hand tool Woodworking skills go this one is very easy once you master a few basic skills. Also, there are thousands of ways to do it. this is just one method that does not require much thought or a pile of jigs.

Tools needed:


Marking knife:

Chisel Set:

Dovetail Saw:

Moxon Vise: How I made mine:

Mallet: How I made mine:

Step 1: Mark the Depth

For the depth of the pins and tails, I like to use the actual thickness of the board rather than a marking gauge. This si far more exact, and it requires fewer tools. on top of that, there may be small differences from board to board. this will give you exact measurements to go off of. to make these marks I set them on the back side of the Moxon vise and make the mark on both sides of the board. It is fairly quick to mark both sides of both boards, and you are making a line that you can trust.

Step 2: Mark Out the Tails

I like to use a storyboard to transfer the marks tot he end of the board. This way I can make the same tales on all the boards. Then with a square, I transfer those marks across the top square tot he face of the board. Make sure to x out the segments that need to be removed. It is no fun to cut out the wrong pieces.

Step 3: Cut Tails

I do not mark out the angle to cut the tales at. In all honesty, it really does not matter. I just put the saw on the cut line and lean it a bit till it looks good to me. A lot of people get all bent out of shape about the angle on the tails and it makes no difference in the world at this point as long as it looks good to you.

Step 4: Remove Tail Waste

I start with a chisel set back about 1/16" or so from the depth line and make a quick down stroke along the line. then come in at about a 30-degree angle and pair back to the stop cut that was just made. Then, repeat the presses tell you are down about half way. Next, flip the board over and do the same thing from the other side till you break through. Last. I put the chisel right into the stop line and clean out the wood right back to the line under-cutting the joint slightly for a better fit.

Step 5: Mark the Pins

Set the pin board in the Moxon vise just slightly above the top of the vise and with a block the same height as the Moxon vise you can set the tail board on top and line them up. While keeping pressure on the board, use a marking knife and transfer the marks tot he end of the pin board. Again, make sure to X out the segments that need to be removed.

Step 6: Cut the Pins

Sometimes I will use the square to put vertical lines down the face of the board to follow with he saw, but most of the time I just use the reflection in the saw to make sure it is square to the face. Next, it is time to just cut. Keeping the reflection flat to the work piece, I cut down to the depth cut line.

Step 7: Remove Pin Waste

First, I will rotate the board int he vise 90-degrees and cut down the depth line to remove the chunks on the outside edge. Then, I chisel out the waste the same way I did with the tails.

Step 8: Final Fitting

For most people you are not going to get it to fit right off the saw the first time. Once you put the two boards together you will see places where they are tight or overlapping. I use a chisel to slowly remove material tell the fit is tight. Be sure to not remove material from any edge that will be a final show edge. you can remove material from either the pins or tails. give it a try and see what it does. I will often remove material from both. This way you can maintain a tight show face. Remember less is more. This is the make or break step where te skill is developed. If you take off too much too fast you will have large gaps.

Step 9: Fit the Joint

After going back and forth with the fitting presses and testing the fit you will eventually have a fit that works. it should require a bit of force to put together and be a bit of a struggle to take apart. Remember this is not a skill that can be developed overnight. The more you do it the better it will get.



    • Oil Contest

      Oil Contest
    • Make it Move Contest

      Make it Move Contest
    • Casting Contest

      Casting Contest

    We have a be nice policy.
    Please be positive and constructive.




    Very simple explanation on how too hope to try it soon thanks

    1 reply

    Thanks! it is much simpler them people think!

    I wish I had this info in 1964 when I had to make dovetails into Imbuia wood a gard type of wood in my final year at Hihgh school

    1 reply

    I'm actually in the process of making some little dovetail boxes but I needed a bit of a push or a smidge of oomph in the right direction and this helped a lot thank you.

    1 reply

    Nice instructable, would love to try this, it looks so satisfying! Thanks for the information

    1 reply

    It is so much fun. I spent most of the day working on a set of drawers for a dresser. almost 40 dovetail joints today, and I just kept smiling!

    I suppose most woodworkers know this, it's meant for people who are just learning: cut on the inside of the material to be removed, both when you chisel away at the bottom of the pins and when you saw the sides of the pins.

    What do I mean by this: each cut has a finite width - one that's large enough to create unsightly gaps, if the cut is done on the wrong side of a marking, and also affect the joint's strength.

    A cut should be done by placing the saw slightly towards the material to be removed, not centered on the marking, so that ideally you cut down along the edge of the marking, not right through the marking. You can always chisel away material after the cut is done, if the fit is too tight, but there's no way you can add material back, once you removed it.

    A chisel pushes in both directions, when being driven into solid material, therefore, upon the initial cut, don't place it right on the marking, place it a hairline's thickness away from the marking - once the thick material is removed, you can come back and nibble away at the remaining thin layer without much push forward, towards the marking, as you'd have if you drive it in while there'd still be solid material at the back of the chisel.

    3 replies

    Verry true, but most people get into trouble with too much chisel work rather than saw work. but always good to improve at both skills.

    If someone has a problem with chisels, he can use a rasp. My point was more about not taking off too much material initially, since you can't put it back, not so much about the tools used, and, as an addition, specifically for beginners, about how to use the tools so they don't take off too much material.

    I know exactly what you are saying and I agree with you compleetly. I just find with my students that the danger is more with the fitting step then with the initial cutting.

    A most excellent, 'ego-free,' non arrogant lesson from a good, Human teacher ! Thank you ! David Logan

    1 reply

    Nice description! Two things that I've found helpful. First, like you, I prefer to cut the tails first, since the angles don't matter much. The crucial detail, though, is that the saw must be perpendicular to the face of the board, otherwise the tails have a slightly different size/shape on the two sides, which can mess up the scribing of the pins. Second, I saw a nice trick (in Fine Woodworking, I think) for helping with the pins. One of the issues is that it can be hard to get a clean line on end grain. What they do is put a strip of blue painter's tape across the end of the board, then trace the tails onto the pins with a sharp knife. Peel away the parts where the tails will be, and you're left with nice clean pieces of tape where the pins should be.

    1 reply

    Thanks. I do like that tape method too. it makes for a really nice clean line.