Hand-cut dovetails #2: “Cutting to the line”

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Blog entry by Al Navas posted 12-12-2008 04:35 AM 2291 reads 1 time favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Graduation day: Hand-cut dovetails 101 Part 2 of Hand-cut dovetails series no next part

From my blog:

This one is for Betsy, at

Betsy has had trouble cutting to the line when hand-cutting dovetails. Therefore, she would like to improve the fit, by making sure to better cut to the line. I promised I would try to document how I do it.

I found that using either the index finger fingernail, or the thumb fingernail, to create a “fence” for the saw, works best for me. Threrefore, I first place the fingernail exactly on the line, and then I place the saw on the board:

Once the saw is on the board, I sight down the cheek of the saw to the extent I can – the back gets in the way, as it is considerably thicker than the saw blade. By sighting down the cheek I get the best feel for the angle at which to hold the saw, thus giving me a good chance at being able to get the angle correctly. Note that the saw appears to be quite a distance to the right of the mark in this photo – THIS is exactly what it should look like:

Keeping my finger/nail “fence” in place, and using a very light touch, I start the cut on the push motion (if using a Japanese saw, you must start the cut using a pull motion). Some people refer to this light touch as de-weighting the saw (I think this is the most-used term). This “light touch” also means that you are exerting on the saw only the force required to push and pull the saw on the board – no more, and no less.

Once the kerf is established, I remove my finger “fence” and complete the cut while sighting down the cheek of the saw. If the saw is not following the line, I do not try to correct it by steering the saw. It is impossible to do so with a dovetail saw, and it is also not recommended. The best thing to do: Start over.

I am certain that when I first started my hand-cut dovetails practice sessions I was tense, and therefore it was difficult to start the cut on the push motion. And I was amazed at how easy it was once I used as light a touch as possible.

It took me a while to realize this is the proper way to be to best cut to the line. With very minor adjustments it is possible to even “split the line” – provided, of course, that the line is wide enough to be “split”.

During the Dovetails session at Woodworking in America, Frank Klausz recommended to “…split the line when cutting the pins; and cut on the waste side of the line – the pins side – when cutting the tails…” Of course, Klausz cuts pins first.

So, Betsy, keep up your practice. And please let us know when you can cut to the line precisely. That will be your AHA! moment.

-- Al Navas, Country Club, MO,

4 comments so far

View Woodhacker's profile


1139 posts in 3750 days

#1 posted 12-12-2008 06:27 AM

Al, this is nice documentation. I’m partial to tails first, but I can certainly appreciate what you’re doing here….very similar in many respects to steps I use.

Have you ever considered using a marking or xacto knife vs pencil to mark your lines? For me this seems to help with closer tolerances between pins/tails.

Thanks for the post.

-- Martin, Kansas

View Al Navas's profile

Al Navas

305 posts in 3901 days

#2 posted 12-12-2008 02:40 PM



I can now cut either tails first, or pins first. I started with tails first, and used the new Kerf Kadet, from The Czeck Edge:

I first presented the Kerf Kadet and the bird cage awl a few weeks ago on my blog.

These boxes are so small, and the material only 3/16” thick, that it is just about impossible to use even the Kerf Kadet to mark these. So I had to use a mechanical pencil with the sharpened lead sticking way out.

-- Al Navas, Country Club, MO,

View Betsy's profile


3391 posts in 3922 days

#3 posted 12-12-2008 08:37 PM

Thanks Al. I’ll have to let you know how I get along with the dovetails. Thanks for taking the time to do this!

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

View Al Navas's profile

Al Navas

305 posts in 3901 days

#4 posted 12-12-2008 09:10 PM


You are welcome! PLEASE, let us know how you are doing with these, and how you feel about your progress.

-- Al Navas, Country Club, MO,

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