First hand cut dovetails. Ugh...I'm glad that's over with.

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Blog entry by BTimmons posted 04-12-2012 02:59 AM 9975 reads 0 times favorited 12 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This may very well end up as my new yardstick for time and effort invested versus quality of results. And it’s not a terribly good yardstick, either. As the title states, it’s my first attempt at hand cut dovetails. I did it with scrap pieces of red oak, over the course of two embarrassing hours.

The gaps are pretty pronounced, despite having to hammer the hell out of both pieces to fit them together.

Things I learned during this quintessential rite of passage for woodworkers:
- How to get my chisels workably sharp in a hurry.
- I need a better saw than the Big Orange Box sells.
- I dislike red oak. It’s hard, so it’s tough to pare away, and the huge open grains ensure that it’ll splinter when you don’t want it to.
- Exacto knifes are rubbish when marking out lines for cutting joinery. I need to invest in a single bevel marking knife.
- Chiseling away waste wood from between pins and tails creates a very satisfying feeling for some reason.
- I need an actual marking gauge.

I’m glad my first dovetails are behind me now. I’ve seen better first dovetails and much, much worse. Ultimately, if these are the worst dovetails I ever do then I can live with that. It’ll be a while before I incorporate them into a project I post here, though.

UPDATE: Added more pictures.

I didn’t like how the pins and tails were jutting out in the final fit, so I smoothed it down with my block plane. I put a chamfer on the inside of the tails to help with the initial fit, but as you see here with the corner gaps, I accidentally extended it all the way to the visible ends. Oops.

This is why you use a marking gauge, boys and girls. Mind the gap.

-- Brian Timmons -

12 comments so far

View tsangell's profile


216 posts in 2743 days

#1 posted 04-12-2012 03:18 AM

For the first try in a difficult wood with big-box tools, this is a pretty good effort! With some sawing practice and crisp layout, you will progress quickly.

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 3048 days

#2 posted 04-12-2012 03:49 AM

Nothing wrong with those.

That is quite a bit of hard wood to chop out. It is a lot easier to saw out the waste with a jewlers saw. If you have a wide enough kerf, a coping saw can do well also.

Get a cutting gauge—One with a blade and not a pin. The circular blades are ok, but I prefer the straight ones.

A saw with a back will make it easier. If you don’t want to invest in a high dollar saw, the little Zona saws are real nice and even inexpensive. The Japanese style teeth on that saw can have a hard time with hardwoods. I use some of them but only on softwood. Even then, they don’t last long. The teeth get bent pretty easy.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View Dez's profile


1166 posts in 4127 days

#3 posted 04-12-2012 05:17 AM

Not bad at all for a first!
I would say that you need a good saw, not that the one pictured is bad – just not the best.
First set—do you realize the best probably never got that close the first time?
Practice…........... etc, etc, etc!
Oak has always disappointed me that way, try a closed cell, inexpensive wood to practice on, poplar, soft maple, etc and practice! I always though I was so hot because I cared more than others – HA HA!
Not bad!

-- Folly ever comes cloaked in opportunity!

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 2525 days

#4 posted 04-12-2012 06:15 AM

You did much better than my first time and with oak no less.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View ShipWreck's profile


557 posts in 3803 days

#5 posted 04-12-2012 09:52 AM

Nice job BTimmons. I think you are ready to incorporate your dovetail work into any project. I say that because you know where your little mistakes came from, and will be on the lookout for them next time.

View helluvawreck's profile


31654 posts in 2916 days

#6 posted 04-12-2012 12:51 PM

Brian, your first dovetails look very much like my first dovetails. I didn’t beat myself over the head because they were not as good as I hoped, I just went on and did my second ones and my third ones and my…............. Your dovetails are not bad at all for the first. You’ve got the right ideas on how to improve them. Good sharp equipment helps on dovetails just like all the other joinery. Keep at it and you will improve quickly. It is remarkable how much truth is in the simple statement “Practice makes perfect”.


-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View Joe Watson's profile

Joe Watson

316 posts in 3596 days

#7 posted 04-12-2012 04:35 PM

i think those are a wonderful first attempt. mine was terrible. BTW on the comment about big box store tools those Irwin chisels are actually quite good as well as the Irwin saw. I have an Irwin pull saw like that and it cuts wonderfully. one thing i think that makes dovetails easier for me is to take a coping saw to remove the bulk of the waste and then use the chisel to clean it up. the chop out method didn’t see like it worked well for me.

-- Got Wood?

View BTimmons's profile


2303 posts in 2535 days

#8 posted 04-12-2012 05:23 PM


I love the chisels. No complaints at all about those. And the saw is pretty good for the money, too. But in this case I think that a good pullsaw with a rigid back would suit me better.

-- Brian Timmons -

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3384 days

#9 posted 04-13-2012 04:27 PM

I think this was very good work for firsts. It looks like you chiseled out the waste on the last pic by chiseling right on the shoulder line. I suggest you chisel about 1/32” or maybe slightly more inside the shoulder line and finish up afterward right on the line. With so little wood left, your chisel will not be forced backward beyond the shoulder line. Alternatively it is a good idea to cut most of the waste out with a coping saw and then chisel on the line.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View BTimmons's profile


2303 posts in 2535 days

#10 posted 04-13-2012 06:17 PM

Mike, great tip. I did indeed chisel right into the shoulder line. That explains why the huge gaps popped up. I do have a coping saw, but I need to replace the blade it came with. It’s not a very skinny blade that can easily drop into the kerf, then twist to cut sideways. So I had to just chisel it all out.

Thanks to everyone for the help and encouragement.

-- Brian Timmons -

View KPW's profile


226 posts in 2418 days

#11 posted 04-20-2012 12:12 AM

Brian, Those are good first time doves. Keep on working and they will be perfect before you know it.

-- Ken --------- never try and put 5 lbs. of tenon in a 3 lb. mortise.

View TDog's profile


235 posts in 2280 days

#12 posted 04-28-2012 05:16 PM

Those tails are pretty good especially for a first set. I have been working on DT for a little while now as a “nonprofessional” and mine are some times the worst possible, sometimes I want to freeze the moment in time… But keep on keeping on. DT for me are now one of the best parts of building a project and the satisfaction at the end, especially hand cutting them.. I just can’t explain it.

-- "So many little time..." Psalm 23

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