Practicing Hand Cut Dovetails #1: First 4 Attempts

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Blog entry by Mosquito posted 05-22-2012 04:18 AM 5206 reads 1 time favorited 20 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Practicing Hand Cut Dovetails series Part 2: Second batch, 5, 6, 7, and 8 »

So for whatever reason, I decided that I wanted to learn how to make hand cut dovetails. I don’t really have an implementation for it on a project yet. I just wanted to start trying something new, and begin acquiring skills that I haven’t tried before. These are all cut tails first. So far I’ve got 4 sets made, and you can clearly see the improvements…

First off, I tried on a scrap piece of random pine that I had. Needless to say, they’re not very good… at all, but they at least loosely resemble dovetails, in some way (I didn’t bother very much with the chisel, which doesn’t help)

After adventuring with the Pine, I decided to buy a piece of poplar to dedicate to practicing dovetails. This is my second attempt:

Third attempt:

Fourth and Final attempt for now. Still a fair number of gaps, but much, much better than the rest of them.

Any pointers would be greatly appreciated. I hope to document the process as I go through it for my next blog, to hopefully stir up some conversation for improvement.

Any input is much appreciated :-)

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

20 comments so far

View doordude's profile


1085 posts in 2981 days

#1 posted 05-22-2012 04:25 AM

keep practising, each one is getting better as you go.

View George_SA's profile


370 posts in 2211 days

#2 posted 05-22-2012 06:39 AM

Well you are further down the road than I am. Judging by the progress you have made you will be a master hand cut dovetailer quite soon :-)

I saved the following site addresses in my favorites box marked “hand cut dovetails” for the day that I want to attempt them. and

I hope that it might be useful to you.

-- Sometimes life gets in the way of one's woodworking :)

View Jim Rowe's profile

Jim Rowe

1038 posts in 2310 days

#3 posted 05-22-2012 01:34 PM

Great progress. Keep at it. This jig might help you as you improve

-- It always looks better when it's finished!

View PurpLev's profile


8535 posts in 3646 days

#4 posted 05-22-2012 01:42 PM

great progress. seems like you are getting there. PINE is horrible to practice with for DT so don’t look at that as a good example. Other than that, it’s all about practice practice practice, with time it’ll be more natural and your joinery will get tighter and cleaner. #4 looks nice!

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

View Bertha's profile


13528 posts in 2691 days

#5 posted 05-22-2012 01:42 PM

MASSIVE improvement! Those really small pins are hard for me to accomplish.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 2996 days

#6 posted 05-22-2012 01:52 PM

You are doing it right. All of our first ones came out rough (at best). The most disheartening thing is when you cut them out perfectly but you laid them out backwards… Guess how I know this? :)

The pine in the first set is much too soft to be making that fine of pin. If you do them in pine, they need to be chunkier for strength as well as ease of cutting.

A marking gauge with a sharp blade (not pin) will serve you much better. Don’t even mess with trying to chop out the waste unless you are using really clean cutting wood. Even then, I think it is a technique best left to more “rustic” work. A fret saw with fine blades to cut out the waste will make things a world easier. Just saw near the lines and then trim with paring chisel.

Marking out the second side (Pins first? Tails first? It is all personal preference) with a knife will make the fit a lot tighter. Set 4 looks like you are off by a pencil line width. Either that or you are sawing on the line rather than next to it.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View abie's profile


874 posts in 3769 days

#7 posted 05-22-2012 02:15 PM

Nicely done ..
I am getting back to practice on these and agree with other about pine, redwood and even poplar
sharp blades and a sharp knife to set your lines is my advice
nicely done
I also am using a “Veritas” magnetic block gizmo with saw and it helps keeping the lines sharp and crisp.

-- Bruce. a mind is like a book it is only useful when open.

View helluvawreck's profile


31071 posts in 2864 days

#8 posted 05-22-2012 02:17 PM

All you can do is practice until you get them right. Your photos show improvement.

It appears to me that your angles are a little steep. The angle should be between 6 to 8 degrees depending a lot on the type of wood used. I think also that you should not try to cut the pins with such a small point – especially while learning. I believe that you would profit by investing in a couple of good books and or videos about cutting dovetails because they will give you a good set of proven rules to apply even though they will vary somewhat. There is no reason in getting some bad habits that you will find you have to change later. I have found that a 7 degree angle works good in general and I prefer to cut the tails first because it’s easier for me to mark the pins more accurately this way. You seem to be determined to succeed at dovetails and are willing to practice until you do. This determination is the most important thing in my mind. Everything else will fall into place if you stay with it. Good luck.


-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View Mosquito's profile


9305 posts in 2290 days

#9 posted 05-22-2012 03:18 PM

Wow, thanks for all the feedback guys!


Thanks George, I’ll definitely check out those links


Thanks Jim. I saw that jig when it was posted a little while back, but wasn’t entirely sure how it was used, but I think I’ve figured it out… I might have to look into it a little more.


Thanks PurpleLev. I didn’t like the pine either, which is why I bought some poplar instead :-)


Thanks Al, I guess I was just going at it the way Rob Cosman showed in a video. I may be practicing with larger pins, and see how that goes. I think part of my issues may be coming from not being able to set the blade adjacent to the other cut very well.


Thanks David. I’m currently fighting with an exacto-knife type thing for laying out the pins (I’m going tails first, as I found it easier to transfer the lines from tails to the pin board). I think I just need to find the right blade to use. I’ve tried 3 or 4 so far, and have a set of about 20. I find that some of them don’t seem to be long enough.

The first two were cut using a coping saw, but I think the blade was too big, as it was hard to get it to round the corner. I think I may have also been cutting too fast with it as well (too aggressive of a blade) as I felt I always got myself in trouble quickly with it. The last two were done using a jewlers saw with fine blades, and seemed to go much better. I can get closer to the line right away, and then don’t have to worry about turning in time to hit the line. Less waste to remove this way too.

I think you are right on the 4th set. I tried to cut inside the lines as best I could, but I think it’s something I have to keep reminding myself to do as I keep practicing.


Thanks Bruce. I think I just need to keep trying blades to use for my marking knife, or buy a purpose made marking knife.


Thanks helluvawreck. It’s probably not a good reason, but the reason that the angles seem steep is probably because they more than likely are. I was laying out the lines at less of an angle, but found that I naturally kept wanting to make them bigger. I’m going to try to fight that better. I’ve watched quite a few free videos around for cutting dovetails, but I think I’m at a point where I have enough of the “basic” idea down, that I can justify buying something to further develope my skill.


Are there any books or instructional videos that you guys find particularly helpful?

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 2996 days

#10 posted 05-22-2012 06:11 PM

I like Paul Seller’s video (actually he is here on Lumberjocks as well I believe) A really calm and relaxed approach.

Also this is great:

A bit different (a set of more complicated blind dovetails but amazing on so many levels) Someday, I would aspire to work nearly as well as this gentleman. Well, maybe by the time I am 105 or so if I start now.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3332 days

#11 posted 05-22-2012 07:20 PM

Excellent progress. You will soon be there.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Mosquito's profile


9305 posts in 2290 days

#12 posted 05-22-2012 07:32 PM

Thanks David, I like that positioning jig that he uses in the second video EDIT: referring to the positioning jig for transferring the tails to the pins


Thanks Mike, I’m hoping so :-)

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

View David Kirtley's profile

David Kirtley

1286 posts in 2996 days

#13 posted 05-22-2012 07:42 PM

Veritas makes one. I tried it but decided it was more trouble than it was worth. As long as you can cut straight to a line, it doesn’t really matter if the angle is a bit off as the parts are marked against the other.

The world will not come to an end if your dovetails are not exactly 6:1 or whatever. They are all rules of thumb. Do what looks good to you. If you were purely after mechanical strength, you would be making box joints anyway ;)

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View Mosquito's profile


9305 posts in 2290 days

#14 posted 05-22-2012 07:52 PM

Sorry, I should have specified more accurately which one. I meant the wooden one with the straight edge that he used in the vise to help transfer from the tail board to the pin board. Thanks for the tip about the magnetic saw guide, though.

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

View andyboy's profile


565 posts in 3271 days

#15 posted 05-22-2012 09:03 PM

Isn’t practice a beautiful thing. Brave of you to show the first ones. Good on you. A lot of people give up there and then. Perseverance is the key. I like to mark mine all out before cutting. Most people trace the pins or tails, but accurate marking out and a sharp marking gauge is key then a good saw. If your dovetail saw is bouncing around too much and the kerf is too wide, give it a few hits with a hammer to lessen the set. You will find it holds a better line. Use a coping saw to remove the waste but cut short of the line so you can pair out the remainder with your sharp chisel. If the gauge mark is sharp, your chisel will sit in the cut that it makes.

The dovetails in this video are first time attempts.

-- Andy Halewoodworker. You can't finish if you don't finish. So finish it, because finish is everything.

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