Hand-cut dovetails #1: Graduation day: Hand-cut dovetails 101

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Blog entry by Al Navas posted 12-11-2008 02:24 PM 1587 reads 1 time favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Hand-cut dovetails series Part 2: “Cutting to the line” »

From my blog:

I started my hand-cut dovetail journey this past September. In this post I share my graduation from Hand-Cut Dovetails-101. What a terrific day!

As I have mentioned in those previous posts , I have been hand-cutting dovetails every chance I get. I prepared sycamore stock so that it would be at the ready when I have a little (or a lot…) of time to practice. Today I cut dovetails in three little practice boxes, with minimal paring on the pins. Oh – I almost forgot. I made these pins first, a first for me. And it worked great! In addition, I did not mark angles; I learned from Frank Klausz that I can simply start cutting, and lay out the pin pattern by eye.

You can view the entire session given by Klausz on my blog. Simply click on this link ; I split the session into three episodes, for easier viewing, and for ease of downloading.

In the following photo you can see some of the boards, ready to go, on the left of the stack of little boxes I made:

My purpose in learning to hand-cut dovetails: I must make some tiny drawers for a Krenov cabinet waiting in the wings. The drawers in that cabinet will be quite small. These little boxes are close in size to the drawers that will go in the Krenov-inspired cabinet: 2-1/2 inches tall, 6 inches wide, and 4 inches deep.

Today I got a little adventuresome, and added walnut to the mix – and skinny pins on the sycamore boards. I was able to get this one done with a bare minimum of paring the pins. I have not planed nor glued these yet:

I have also been making even smaller boxes, such as the one below, with one large tail on the side boards:

As you may have noticed in the second photo above, I overshot the depth when cutting the tails. The walnut is dark, and I found it difficult stopping at the proper depth – a problem that continues to plague me. So I tried a little chalk on the line, and now the line pops out beautifully:

Here is how I went about making the line stand out we well. First, I mark the thickness of the pins boards on the tails boards with something suitable, preferably a marker with a nice, sharp cutting edge:

Next, I apply chalk to the line marked earlier:

I then wipe off the excess chalk with a shop towel:

NOW I can see the line much better – AND I was able to cut to depth much more reliably:

Maybe it is time to buy a powdered wig, and wear it in the shop during my sessions cutting dovetails by hand.

As a big bonus, today I also received my dovetail chisels from Blue Spruce Toolworks – they are terrific! I ordered them from David Jeske at the Woodworking in America conference in Berea a few weeks ago. These helped me pare the pins perfectly, in no time:

Thanks, David Jeske!

I have enjoyed this journey. I hope you get a sense that, no matter your age, you, too, can learn to hand-cut dovetails. I am sure you will be able to do it quicker, and better than I have learned. But I am glad I have learned how to do it. However, I know I must continue practicing, so I am ready for that little cabinet waiting in the wings. It is all about muscle memory.

How do you think I did?

A group of related posts: Hand-cut dovetails, from my blog.

-- Al Navas, Country Club, MO,

8 comments so far

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27250 posts in 3850 days

#1 posted 12-11-2008 03:32 PM

Al, you have come a long way on your dovetail journey. Congratulations on your “graduation”. I have struggled off and on for the past 6 months with this and am still on the steep side of the dovetail learning curve but your work is an inspiration and a demonstration of what “practice, practice, practice….” will yield.

Thanks for both the post and the inspiration.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View Betsy's profile


3391 posts in 3924 days

#2 posted 12-11-2008 03:46 PM

Al, great post here. I’ve been working on dovetails for quite a while and have been missing the mark. I will be viewing your blog again to pick up some more pointers.

Thanks for th details!

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

View Al Navas's profile

Al Navas

305 posts in 3903 days

#3 posted 12-11-2008 04:04 PM

Scott and Betsy,
Thanks! I sure have enjoyed it! And the secret is, indeed, ”...practice…”

I had trouble missing the line, too. But I think that using either the index finger, or the thumb, to help align the saw, has helped me tremendously. Plus using the cheek of the saw blade I sight down the line, and it works for me. At least, paring is almost nil since I started doing this. I will try to document this with either photos or video, to clarify somewhat.

-- Al Navas, Country Club, MO,

View Woodwrecker's profile


4154 posts in 3604 days

#4 posted 12-11-2008 04:50 PM

Nice going Al.
That chalk trick is neat and I’m going to use it.
Those paring chisels are sweeeeeeeet.

Your work looks great!

-- Eric, central Florida / Utor praemia operibus duris

View Al Navas's profile

Al Navas

305 posts in 3903 days

#5 posted 12-11-2008 09:46 PM


Thanks! And, you are right – these new chisels are great! I have a feeling they will really shine when I start Dovetails-102: Half-blind dovetails.

-- Al Navas, Country Club, MO,

View Woodhacker's profile


1139 posts in 3751 days

#6 posted 12-12-2008 06:13 AM

Al, I just looked at your links posted above. It looks like you’re making good progress. I like the fact that you’ve been putting in a lot of practice. That’s so important…and seeing your photos reminds me that I should do more of it.

Thanks for the post.

-- Martin, Kansas

View Eric's profile


875 posts in 3812 days

#7 posted 12-12-2008 11:00 AM

Great tip with the chalk there! Most of my wood over here is dark, so this will definitely come in handy. Thanks!

-- Eric at

View Al Navas's profile

Al Navas

305 posts in 3903 days

#8 posted 12-12-2008 02:25 PM

Thanks! I became determined to learn to do it after watching your beautiful boxes!!!

I actually thought of you and your wonderful exotic, dark woods as I was shooting the photos of the chalk tip. Enjoy!

-- Al Navas, Country Club, MO,

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