Shop Stuff #5: Machine Cut Through Dovetails

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Blog entry by SPalm posted 02-23-2014 05:32 PM 4590 reads 27 times favorited 28 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 4: Two shop helpers Part 5 of Shop Stuff series no next part

Simple, Fast, Easy, Thin Pins, Variable Spacing, Looks Hand Cut, Simple Set Up, Tastes like Chicken.

I have been playing around with dovetails for the last couple of weeks. I have tried many methods of making them, as complete hand cut ones are just too much work for me. I own a commercial Leigh dovetail jig but I have never been happy with the look or the futzing that it took to set it up. So this is what is working for me, all ideas are cobbled together from other designs. I cut the pins on a router table and then cut the tails on a bandsaw. It requires virtually no machine setup once two simple sliding jigs are made. The bottoms of the tails are still chopped out with a chisel, but with thin pins, this is really easy.

I will show a whole sequence of pics on how I do it. Not sure if anything is really new here, but this works for me. First mark the center of the pins with a pencil line on the outside surface, as seen as four pencil lines on the piece of cherry. That’s it. The width of the pins is determined later.

My router table is really just the wing of my tablesaw. I did not have a miter gauge slot for it, so I plowed a 3/4 inch grove in a jointed 2×4 and bolted it to the wing.

I then made a simple sliding sled out of 1/2 inch ply and glued on a stick to ride in the slot. I mounted two fences at opposing angles to the sled and supported them with triangle blocks. The fences determine the angle of the dovetail. (I actually made two of these sleds: One at 8.5:1.5 or 10 degrees and the other at 8:1 or at about 7.5 degrees. But the 8:1 ratio is what I would recommend.) To determine the position of the fences use the miter slot as a reference. Measure up 8 inches, and over 1 inch, and draw a line. Do another line in the opposite direction. Glue the fences on these lines making sure they are 90 degrees to the sled surface, add sticky sandpaper to the inside, glue triangle brackets to the outside, drill a hole for height adjustment access, and add a vacuum attachment.

I used a 1/2 inch straight router bit and raised it through the sled to make the cutting slot. To set the height of the bit, place the tail work piece (walnut) on the sled and set the bit height just a tad taller than it is thick.

I drew two lines on the sled that are 1/16 inch and 1/8 inch away from the bit on the left side. These determine the width of the pins. I really just use the 1/16 inch line which makes a pin width of 1/8 inch. But choice is good. I have half split this and made 1/16 inch pins, but they are too small for my taste.

Slide the sled so that the bit is somewhat in the center. Place the pencil line of the work piece on the pencil line of the sled and plunge into the side of the router bit. The bit enters the outside of the work piece first so it will be a clean cut. Back out and continue down one side, flip the board and do the other angle. Make sure that wood chips do not get under or behind the board when moving it. I use an old paint brush to flip any errant chips into the dust extractor as I progress. It finishes quickly. No clamps or spacing blocks. I want that hand cut look.

The closest fence. (Pic taken from the back)

And the furthest fence.



And I end up with this:

Now transfer the pins to the tail board. I stand up the pin board on the end of the tail board and use a pencil to reach inside the pins and draw lines for the tails. I also use a roller marking gauge to cut a slight groove all around the tail board that is the thickness of the pin board plus a tad.

Whew. Now the tails.
I made a sled for the bandsaw out of 1/2 inch ply and cut a partial slot. This is the reference for marking. Draw pencil lines from a point on this cut, of 90 degrees, and two at the 8:1 angle. (I also have a set for 10 degrees, but you don’t have too.) Take a piece of ply that will be the fence and cut three partial kerfs into it by holding the fence on the pencil lines.

Remove the fence and drill two holes through it for locating dowels. Flip the fence over and transfer (drill through)these two holes into the sled so that the fence will be behind the blade. Do this on all three pencil lines. Then glue in short dowels into the fence. The fence should now be able to pop into each of the three positions.

I also clamped a stop block on my bandsaw’s fence to act as a depth stop. You can just see it in the upper left corner of the pictures.



Install the fence at one of the angles. Retreat the blade into the fence. I place the tail board so the saw cut will just cut the pencil line, but start conservative and creep up on the cut if you want.

And continue on.

Multiple cuts can be made if you don’t like chopping out waste. The stop block helps the blade from going too deep.

Align the fence to the other position, and continue.

Align the fence to the 90 degree position and cut off the outside tails.

Make more plunge cuts to remove waste.

A little chisel work. Place a chisel on the cut line at the bottom of the tails and tada.

Thanks for looking. Now I need to make some projects with dovetails.

-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

28 comments so far

View lew's profile


12495 posts in 3990 days

#1 posted 02-23-2014 05:37 PM

You may not be a Rocket Surgeon, Steve, but you sure a Brain Scientist! Cool way to do these, thanks!!

-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View nailbanger2's profile


1041 posts in 3378 days

#2 posted 02-23-2014 05:51 PM

Tastes like chicken with tarragon. Another well done system. After another 5 reads I may be able to understand it enough to make one. Thanks.

-- Wish I were Norm's Nephew

View Jacquelyn Smith's profile

Jacquelyn Smith

95 posts in 2801 days

#3 posted 02-23-2014 06:01 PM

Thanks for sharing your process! I LOVE that you came up with your own way to do this.
Always a treat to see someone thinking! And your results look fantastic.
One of the reasons I love this site so much!!
Jacquelyn Smith


View SASmith               's profile


1850 posts in 3221 days

#4 posted 02-23-2014 06:13 PM

Looking good.
What are you getting ready to build?

-- Scott Smith, Southern Illinois

View Joe Lyddon's profile

Joe Lyddon

10364 posts in 4286 days

#5 posted 02-23-2014 06:23 PM

COOL setup & procedure…

My router table does not have a miter groove…
... I could use the outside edge!!
... I will give it a try sometime.

DT’s look good!

Thank you!

-- Have Fun! Joe Lyddon - Alta Loma, CA USA - Home: ... My Small Gallery:"

View lysdexic's profile


5258 posts in 2857 days

#6 posted 02-23-2014 06:37 PM


I can not think of reason why you couldn’t do tails first.

-- "It's only wood. Use it." - Smitty || Instagram - out_of_focus1.618

View SPalm's profile


5325 posts in 4116 days

#7 posted 02-23-2014 06:41 PM

Thanks people.

Seems like a lot NB, but really it is pretty simple. A long post I know. I thought of breaking it into two, and posting more complete descriptions and drawings, but hey…

Scott, I have a request for a cherry wall cabinet. And then the thought of doing some tool cabinets. I need to make a trip to the wood store.

LS: I guess you are right. If you think tails first is preferable. Huh. Both jigs allow you to slice off very very fine slices to make the DTs fit nicely. My mind is off somewhere trying to make half blinds with this …..


-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View JL7's profile


8692 posts in 3199 days

#8 posted 02-23-2014 06:47 PM

You are quite the engineer…..that is really clever stuff. I really need to give this a try…..Thanks Steve..

-- Jeff .... Minnesota, USA

View Karson's profile


35152 posts in 4635 days

#9 posted 02-23-2014 06:50 PM

Steve: A great jig and a very nice tutorial.

a great tip on a slot.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia †

View Dan P's profile

Dan P

723 posts in 2126 days

#10 posted 02-23-2014 07:53 PM

Steve, you seem like the right guy to ask this question. In his book “Heirloom Boxes” 2010 printing, Peter Lloyd has some pictures and a brief description of a MDF fence/carriage assembly (pages 20-21-22) that he makes his variable blind dovetails with. It looks like a simple set-up but he doesn’t explain it in detail so it’s over my head. He describes it as “The MDF ‘fence’ assembly which enables my shaper to do just about anything” He states it would also work on a jointer.

If you have access to this book I would love to hear/read what you think.


-- Daniel P

View CalgaryGeoff's profile


937 posts in 2716 days

#11 posted 02-23-2014 08:17 PM

Hey Steve, very ingenious dovetail jig creation. Great work.

-- If you believe you can or can not do a thing, you are correct.

View Mathew Nedeljko's profile

Mathew Nedeljko

715 posts in 4064 days

#12 posted 02-23-2014 08:41 PM

Steve, this is a very ingenious piece of engineering with results that look better than anything commercial I have seen. Thanks for sharing your thought process, and I will definitely have to give this process a try. Favorited!

-- Aim high. Ride easy. Trust God. Neale Donald Walsch

View oakwood's profile


327 posts in 2304 days

#13 posted 02-23-2014 08:53 PM

I like it. Very good idea and thank you for sharing.

View SPalm's profile


5325 posts in 4116 days

#14 posted 02-23-2014 09:02 PM

Thanks people.

Daniel: I am not familiar with that book or that procedure. I have been looking at every DT jig I can for research to solve my lack of handtool skills. So I am interested. I went to Amazon hoping they would let me look at a couple of pages, but no dice. So… I am not of much help with what I know. Why don’t you post it to the larger audience here on LJs and see if somebody understands it (and let me know).


-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View Lenny's profile


1616 posts in 3761 days

#15 posted 02-23-2014 09:17 PM

What nailbanger said! Wonderful ingenuity to come up with this Steve, and nice of you to share it. The Leigh jig has worked well for me. What are you going to do with that 20 lbs. paperweight (your Leigh jig)?

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

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