Hand cutting dovetails #2: My Technique

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Blog entry by DrewM posted 03-12-2010 02:34 AM 3444 reads 7 times favorited 18 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: Just starting out Part 2 of Hand cutting dovetails series no next part

Today I thought it would be a good idea to show you guys how I cut my dovetails. I don’t have all the proper tools for the job or the best of the tools that I do own. So far I have been able to get by with what is seen here.

I had some scrap oak laying around in the shop so I decided to use some of it for practice. I start by laying out the “tails” first. First step is to find the center of the board and divide it how ever you see fit. I find the center of the board by just putting a ruler at an angle until nice even numbers line up with the ends. Then I mark off where I want the center of my tails to be.

I don’t have a marking tool (yet) so I use this method to transfer the thickness of the wood to my tail-piece.

I also don’t have a so called “dovetail marker”. I just took a scrap piece of wood and drew up a 1:8 line and 1:6 line. I set my t-bevel to match whatever ratio I wish to use. I chose 1:8 for this cut.

I use my t-bevel and square to layout the tails on the board. I mark the waste areas to help me keep the cuts on the right side of the line.

Next step is to cut out the waste area using my dovetail saw and a coping saw. I always make sure to stay away from the bottom line with the coping saw.

In order to help me get nice straight lines I use this setup to “guide” my chisels and keep the cuts nice and straight.

Here are the finished tails.

I use the tail board to place the marks for my pins and transfer the lines around with a square. I mark the waste areas to avoid confusion.

I cut the pins using the same methods as the tails and use my chisel guide to clean out the rest of the waste area. Here are the finished pins.

After some fitting and minor sanding this is the final result of my work. Note the piece is not glued together.

This is my first attempt at cutting dovetails in a hardwood species. I found it easier to do with oak instead of pine and my results seem much better. I plan to keep practicing and hopefully I can gain some speed, it still takes me about 1 hour to complete 1 joint. I’m not to worried about being very fast at it but I figure this is a good skill to learn. When the time comes to do a larger piece involving many joints a decent dovetail jig is definitely in my future. Please feel free to give your opinion of my work. Thanks.

-- Drew, Delaware

18 comments so far

View bayspt's profile


292 posts in 3733 days

#1 posted 03-12-2010 03:10 AM

My dad tells me my great grandfather, finish carpenter by day, furniture builder by night, could cut the joints for a drawer in about 30 min. Thats all four corners. I am like you, about :45 to an hour per joint. Keep up the practice, its the only way to get better and faster. I sure wish there was just a pill you could take.

-- Jimmy, Oklahoma "It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I'm wearing milkbone underwear!"

View Chelios's profile


568 posts in 3095 days

#2 posted 03-12-2010 03:11 AM

Your work is very clean. Looks real nice

View Lenny's profile


1596 posts in 3556 days

#3 posted 03-12-2010 03:17 AM

Hi Drew. Very impressive first attempt at hand-cut dovetails! Also, nice post in terms of showing what you did and how you did it. The end result looks great. I hope you don’t take offense at this question but are you certain that is oak? It doesn’t have the appearance of oak grain to me. Of course, I am here and you had the wood in your hands so it could just be that the pieces are so short they are from a section that doesn’t display the typical open grain found in oak. At any rate, again, great execution of the dovetails.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View DrewM's profile


176 posts in 3028 days

#4 posted 03-12-2010 03:28 AM

Thanks guys. Lenny, I think its oak could be wrong I recycled it from a old built-in bookshelf.

-- Drew, Delaware

View bigike's profile


4052 posts in 3317 days

#5 posted 03-12-2010 03:37 AM

You got it perfect now. dam now if i could only get mine this good or even half that.

-- Ike, Big Daddies Woodshop,

View Chris's profile


49 posts in 3049 days

#6 posted 03-12-2010 04:17 AM

Excellent skill although it took you 1 hour to complete, your time will be greatly less with more practice. I never did that with a coping saw but I tried to use a small Japanese hand saw to put butterflies in a piece of Black Walnut. What a nightmare that was. Now I use a router, it is much quicker. Anyway when you are ready to purchase a jig you will say WOW what a time saver. Once again nice job!

-- One Time Tree Man

View Beginningwoodworker's profile


13345 posts in 3702 days

#7 posted 03-12-2010 04:57 AM

Nice start on the dovetails.

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4128 days

#8 posted 03-12-2010 08:31 AM

Just keep doing it, your skills will develop in accuracy and speed.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View OutPutter's profile


1199 posts in 4019 days

#9 posted 03-12-2010 09:07 AM

Good job Drew. Improvement is more important than the results and the results aren’t bad. I too think you got a hold of something besides oak, maybe some pine but harder than the new stuff. I also noticed that yesterday you let the pins take the outside position and today you let the tails occupy the outside edges. Was that a design decision?

-- Jim

View JimDaddyO's profile


549 posts in 3108 days

#10 posted 03-12-2010 03:02 PM

Good job! I will copy this method for my next try!

-- my blog: my You Tube channel:

View GaryD's profile


623 posts in 3398 days

#11 posted 03-12-2010 03:48 PM

This is one of the things I want to learn to do. Great job Drew. This is an art. Keep practicing

-- Gary, Little River,SC I've Learned that the Lord didn't do it all in one day and neither can I

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 3103 days

#12 posted 03-12-2010 04:01 PM

You did a great job explaining each step so clearly. I have no excuse now for not trying this.

I’m particularly impressed that you did such a good job with pretty basic tools.

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

View DrewM's profile


176 posts in 3028 days

#13 posted 03-12-2010 05:21 PM

OutPutter, It really wasnt a design change I didnt put much effort into planning the layout and this is how they just happened to turn out this time. Rich, give it a try I found it to fun and somewhat relaxing to just sit down and handcut dovetails. Thanks again.

-- Drew, Delaware

View Thomas Mitchell's profile

Thomas Mitchell

17 posts in 3013 days

#14 posted 03-26-2010 02:47 PM

Great Job Drew! It just goes to show that it does not require fancy tools or jigs to make a well crafted piece. It is better to learn by doing things the old fashion way than it is to learn by relying on a jig or fixture that may not be available when you need it.

-- "if you can't set a good example, at least serve as a horrible warning"

View PurpLev's profile


8536 posts in 3677 days

#15 posted 03-26-2010 02:50 PM

nice technique, simple, and productive

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

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