Dovetail Joint - The Everest of Woodworking?

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Blog entry by Don posted 02-14-2007 08:45 AM 58808 reads 3 times favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch

When I started in woodworking, I frequently read that the Dovetail Joint was the mark of a skilled woodworker; that it was a difficult joint to make and doing so announced to ‘those in the know” that the maker was a real craftsman (or is that craftsperson?).

Then I discovered that you could make Dovetail Joints on jigs; not just make them, but make them perfectly. So I purchased my first Dovetail Jig shown here. Now whilst this helped me make perfect dovetail joint every time, I somehow felt that I had cheated. When people complemented me on these beautiful joints, I guiltily replied that I didn’t really make them that they were done on a jig.

So at some point I stared reading all of the material that I could get my hands on about making Dovetail Joints by hand. As I did, I began to realize that, in fact, the ‘cookie-cutter’ dovetail joint was not the target. Somehow, the joints needed to look hand made without looking poorly made. They had to compete with the perfection that a jig produces, but at the same time, with the tell-tale look of hand craftsmanship. The latter seems to be accomplished by the maker producing more of a random look and perhaps by leaving some of the layout lines showing. So thus began my journey. The pictures below show my progress. But to me, the interesting discovery was that once I knew I could make them by hand fairly easily, I then reverted to making them on a jig. I wonder what this says about me?

Early attempts.

The one below is the first one with which I was happy and is the one in my office as a reminder of my personal woodworking Everest.

Here is the first box that I made with completely hand made dovetail joints.

But now, most of my dovetail joints for boxes are made with a jig.

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!"

8 comments so far

View Philip Edwards's profile

Philip Edwards

245 posts in 4374 days

#1 posted 02-14-2007 10:06 AM

Thanks for sharing – it is good to see others having a similar journey!
I have found the only way to make great dovetails is practise. Cut one set of dovetails a night for a week and you will be gob-smacked at how good you have got in only 7 days. It may be old-fashioned but the only way to get good is to practise. Drats….... :)
I also found Rob Cosman’s DVD’s on dovetails to be very, very helpful. The man is a dovetailing legend! See Lie-Nielsen’s website for details.
Isn’t it funny how we will use a jointer to straighten stock, a table saw to crosscut and rip it to size and a thickness planer to dimension wood. Yet if we use a router jig we feel like we are cheating!!! :) We woodworkers are a funny bunch!
Take care,

View Obi's profile


2213 posts in 4171 days

#2 posted 02-14-2007 12:00 PM

I bought this jig last year when I designed my first set of cabinets because they needed to be dont nicely, and crafted sturdy but I didnt have the time to learn how to build them the old fashioned way. I’d already been into the job for two months and people were getting antsie.

What was it that “drove” you to hand cut your joints? It was the artitst in you. That desire to “Create”. Cutting or routering out dovetail joints are not really creative, they are production. The Leigh Dovetail Jigs are very nice because they take the [roduction dovetail jig one step further by making the tails and pins adjustable and so they look more “home made” but are still production.

And the thing that drives us to do joints like that by hand is an attempt to hold on to our heritage, our past, our history. You do wonderful work whether you do it by hand or by jig.

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4249 days

#3 posted 02-14-2007 05:22 PM

I’m amazed at how much people latch on to that one detail. I install these POC cabinets that if you pick up wrong they fall apart in your hands. But the drawers have dovetails! People just go crazy. Handcut dovetails are a skill I admire.

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 4261 days

#4 posted 02-14-2007 05:48 PM

Good observation Philly… we’re a funny lot indeed. If we totally give up the hand tools for power we’re just taking the romance out of it. Like with the Cake mixes, manufacturers learned that if we still had to add an egg, we felt like we were baking, and the’d sell more product – than if they did almost all the work for us.

Very nice Jewelry Box Don. I’ll bet your pleased with your hand cut work… at least you are at the point where you can decide if you’d rather do them by hand, or feel like your cheating, (which your not) and still have a project come out nice. I think both methods have their place.

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View Bill's profile


2579 posts in 4096 days

#5 posted 02-14-2007 08:21 PM

I can understand Don’s desire to create the dovetails by hand. It is a challenge, something to overcome. I may yet get to that point, but right now I am striving for quality. For me, I think a dovetail jig would be my best bet. I have been looking at the Leigh jig, since it provides the ability to space the joints any way you like. Thus, they can look hand made without being hand made.

For now, Everest will have to wait. I have other mountains to climb first.

-- Bill, Turlock California,

View Griffindork's profile


44 posts in 3244 days

#6 posted 05-27-2009 04:35 AM

Great stuff, anybody have a link or some tips for those of us trying to master handcut dovetails?

View a1Jim's profile


117032 posts in 3512 days

#7 posted 05-27-2009 05:46 AM

Nice work good job fine looking dovetails

-- wood crafting & classes

View Andy Brownell's profile

Andy Brownell

144 posts in 3186 days

#8 posted 01-04-2010 07:28 PM

Try a wedged-through tenon on a large piece. I’d consider that just as difficult.

-- Andy Brownell

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