My first successful dovetail

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Blog entry by Jim posted 07-02-2010 06:34 PM 2108 reads 3 times favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch

For several months I’ve been trying to master the elusive dovetail joint. The only thing I’ve been able to create is a whole lot of firewood kindling. It’s been a frustrating and trying experience. I’ve read many tutorials, reviewed the Pins first or Tails first debate. Looked at ways and jigs to keep the cuts in the correct plane and alternative methods to clear out the waste material. My joints were always too loose, too tight, not lined up correctly and nothing I tried gave nice clean, straight and sharp shoulders, there were always gaps. Determined that one day I would figure this out, I kept on looking for the solution to my quest, the holy grail of woodworking joints … the dovetail.

I’ve started a new project, a small secretary roll top desk. It has a single pencil drawer in the base and a few small drawers in the roll top area. I looked at options for making the drawer joints but kept coming back to the conclusion that this project really demands dovetails. I remembered that Shannon Rogers (The Renaissance Woodworker ) had a video podcast called Olympic Dovetails that I’d not yet watched. I watched it through and thought, ok this is a method I’ve not yet tried. Doing everything with a dovetail saw and chisels to clear the waste. I’d tried the bandsaw, fret saw and other methods but just chisels only … it was worth a shot but it would require really sharp chisels not the ones I normally use that pretty much only dent the wood.

I’d recently purchased a WorkSharp 3000 for the purpose of maintaining my turning tools. It was very good at that but now I needed to try it with my chisels. They needed to be razor sharp for this to work.

WorkSharp 3000

In a short time I had my chisels so sharp I could shave with them. Yes I actually tried the “shaving the hair off your arm” trick to test sharpness. It worked, now I have to explain the bald spot on my forearms :-)

Next I had Shannon’s video on my Apple iPad sitting on the work bench. I followed him step by step through the process. It was pretty easy when you have a master showing you the way. I must admit it was quite enjoyable using the ultra sharp chisels, the wood waste was pared out from the tails and between the pins like I was cutting butter. Shannon had a trick of angling the chisel slightly to avoid damaging the shoulder. This also created an undercut to ensure a tight fit, it worked perfectly. Watch the video for a better explanation, here is a link

Then the moment of truth, everything looked good so I put the joint together and … you guessed it … nothing lined up. I was about to toss it aside as yet another failed attempt when I realized I had inserted the wrong set of pins into the tails … duh! I flopped them around and stood there in amazement. Not only did everything line up but the fit was perfect, not a single gap and tight enough to need to be tapped together by hand yet not too tight so they could be easily knocked apart again. It was a thing of beauty. I had done it finally, a perfect dovetail joint. Thanks to Shannon, The Renaissance Woodworker at my side and a very sharp set of chisels.

-- Jim in Langley BC Canada ---

9 comments so far

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 3140 days

#1 posted 07-02-2010 07:10 PM

congrat´s with the first born
it looks goood
now let´s see some projects from your hands
I´ll gess this is what you will doo all summer
so a big rolloing toolboxcart with lots of drawers
wuold bee a niiiice project to practish on

take care

View lanwater's profile


3111 posts in 2959 days

#2 posted 07-03-2010 12:30 AM

It looks great.
My first and only attempt at cutting dovetail by hand was a disaster.

-- Abbas, Castro Valley, CA

View papabear's profile


87 posts in 3371 days

#3 posted 07-04-2010 09:29 PM

And here I thought there were jigs coming out of ones ears to make these joints.

They look nice and strong so I’ll have to experiment one day.

Great looking corner.

-- Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

View Jim's profile


253 posts in 3670 days

#4 posted 07-04-2010 10:05 PM

Yes there are, and I own one. I wanted to do a traditional hand cut dovetail without all the gizmos and machinery. I’m glad I did because it’s a lot more convenient than pulling out the jig, getting it set up and material aligned. Then getting the router set up, template bushings installed. Then the noise and dust. Doing it by hand was a real treat and something I will do a lot more, now that I know how.

-- Jim in Langley BC Canada ---

View SCOTSMAN's profile


5849 posts in 3610 days

#5 posted 07-04-2010 10:12 PM

People are easily frightened by the sound of the dreaded hand dovetails. While here in Scotland every schoolboy had to be reasonably proficiant at making them, when I was a boy.Practice, practice, practice, makes for perfect, and you have done a superb Job for your first try. Well done. And others, I beg you to try on scrap wood it’s not prohibitively difficult at all ,just simple rules to follow and common sense. Also good luck for the fourth of July my very good and dear American friends.Alistair

-- excuse my typing as I have a form of parkinsons disease

View Joe Lyddon's profile

Joe Lyddon

10119 posts in 4077 days

#6 posted 07-05-2010 12:16 AM

Very good information!

Thank you very much!

It’s that second board, no matter what you did first, that makes the biggest difference as to leaving the line or cutting up to the line from the waste side to get that good fit… IMHO.

I’ve always done tails first… I will ave to try Pins first sometime.

I also use the band saw to hog-out as much of the waste as I can & cleanup with the chisel… seems to save a lot of time (for me).

There is no replacement of Practice, practice, & more practice to get it down pat.


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

View BertFlores58's profile


1698 posts in 2947 days

#7 posted 07-05-2010 04:54 AM

Now, I can see in your work how I did my first dovetail using pine. If you want more advance techniques doing it manually, just click on my projects specially the megan's box where a 4 mm thick can be dovetailed to a 8 mm. The result is good and strong. Hope you like it. Thanks.

-- Bert

View a1Jim's profile


117115 posts in 3602 days

#8 posted 07-05-2010 05:02 AM

Fantastic first dovetail I wish My first and all my dovetails looked that good

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View WorkSharp's profile


10 posts in 2885 days

#9 posted 07-28-2010 01:57 AM

Work Sharp here…

Thank you for sharing your exciting accomplishment, beautiful dovetails!
We are proud and honored that Work Sahrp helped you achieve your goal.

Work Sharper, Not Harder.

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