First attempt at hand-cut dovetails.

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Blog entry by itsme_timd posted 12-10-2007 04:15 PM 6515 reads 0 times favorited 24 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Now I see why they have machines to do this…

I think I went into this overconfident in my abilities. How hard could it be to cut out a simple notch in a board??? Fairly hard when your attitude exceeds your ability.

First, I bought a ‘fancier’ saw than the basic dovetail saw and it just made things worse. Then – when that didn’t work I broke out the coping saw for some nice wavy cuts, I got out the chisel and tore it up real good, and finally… the Dremel came out! That’s when things got ugly.

Oh well, I’ll get a better saw and try again. I was trying to make my wife a Christmas present with contrasting woods and these attractive hand- cut dovetails. I ended going with oak dowels instead… maybe next Christmas.

This did give me an idea though. I’d really like to do as much by hand as possible and I’m trying to avoid getting a jig. I thought about making dovetail templates on lexan sheets. A few different ones for different wood thincknesses. In concept I think this would work.

Depending on how my wife’s present turns out I’m going to enter it in one of the contests.

-- Tim D. - Woodstock, GA

24 comments so far

View Karson's profile


35149 posts in 4603 days

#1 posted 12-10-2007 04:26 PM

Good intentions don’t always pan out. I watched Frank Klausz hand cut a dovetail in about 3 minutes Friday night.

It’s easy when you have done it for 40 years.

-- 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 Russel's profile


2199 posts in 4142 days

#2 posted 12-10-2007 04:40 PM

Hand cut dovetails are easy, unless you’re interested in things like accuracy, functionality and appearance, then they get testy. I had to do some dovetails for a class a I took and boy it was easy to watch.

-- Working at Woodworking

View cheller's profile


254 posts in 4312 days

#3 posted 12-10-2007 04:52 PM

I’d highly recommend spending some time with some practice boards. A couple of years ago I took a workshop class at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. (I’m taking another in January and I can’t wait.) The class focused on hand tool skills starting with sharpening and moving on to practice boards and practice joints. It culminated with the creation of a candle-box/CD holder, which I still haven’t finished. One of the most valuable parts of that class was practicing hand cut dovetails – both through and half-blind. Of course having the technique described and demonstrated in detail didn’t hurt.

-- Chelle

View rjack's profile


110 posts in 4058 days

#4 posted 12-10-2007 05:04 PM

I’m not all that great at hand cutting dovetails either, but I agree with cheller – you have to practice alot. Start out by taking a squared pine board and cut 50 straight lines. Draw the lines first so you can see if they are straight as you cut them. Try moving your body left or right to adjust the cut. Pay close attention to your arm position, body position, cutting motion, etc.

Also, before you start cutting a production dovetail, do a few practice cuts on scrape wood to warm up.

I hope this helps!

-- Roger - Havertown, Pennsylvania

View rpmurphy509's profile


288 posts in 4057 days

#5 posted 12-10-2007 05:05 PM

Hand cutting dovetails is hard even with the proper tools, unless you’ve been doing it for a while.
I like the idea of doing it by hand, I’m just not very good at it (yet). I’ll continue to make the
attempts though, if anything, just as a self-challenge.

Lets see some pictures!

-- Still learning everything

View che's profile


123 posts in 4229 days

#6 posted 12-10-2007 05:09 PM

I’m by no means an expert but I’ve gotten acceptable results after a couple hours of practice. I’m using Rob Cosman’s technique. I highly recommend the DVD’s. Having a properly set up dovetail saw is critical. Most saws are not set up properly. Make lots of “5-minute” dovetails (one tail and two pins) which requires a minimum of chopping to practice.
This is my first attempt…IMG00096.jpg
And a real project after another hour of “warm-up”...Desk 001

-- Che.

View itsme_timd's profile


690 posts in 4034 days

#7 posted 12-10-2007 05:21 PM

Che – your first attempt looks pretty good to me! I’ll get some pictures of mine posted soon…

I’ll need to get one of those DVD’s. I have a Woodcraft store close by and they rent them there.

-- Tim D. - Woodstock, GA

View Paul's profile


660 posts in 4295 days

#8 posted 12-10-2007 05:35 PM

Ditto on the practice.

But even the published professional woodworker who taught a class I took showed us how to create tapered shims to tap into the gaps of our dovetails – that were virtually undetectable after the glue dried and sanded flush.

My point – you have to practice because you don’t want to be spending even more time hiding your gaps. But even the hand of the “pro” wavers now and then.

-- Paul, Kentucky

View mot's profile


4922 posts in 4239 days

#9 posted 12-10-2007 06:33 PM

Dovetails have brought me sorrow and delight…often in the same 15 minute period. As much as tools are important, and practice is essential, make sure your stock is perfectly square, and perfectly flat. You can have so many errors injected into your joints with poor stock preparation, that all the best tools and all the perfect practice will not compensate for.


-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 4165 days

#10 posted 12-10-2007 06:55 PM

I liked Frank Klauss’s comment, ‘Stop measuring and learn to saw straight.” That’s twice I’ve mentioned that recently,here, but it is profound. All the tricks in the world won’t help if you can’t saw straight. Just practice sawing a straight line across a board.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View mot's profile


4922 posts in 4239 days

#11 posted 12-10-2007 07:06 PM

Absolutely, Tom. That is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. You can mark and measure and draw pretty lines on your board, but if you can’t saw straight…well, it just makes life harder than it has to be.

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View che's profile


123 posts in 4229 days

#12 posted 12-10-2007 07:17 PM

I knew all the hand – eye coordination linear hand motion I learned in the pool hall would come in handy.

-- Che.

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 4165 days

#13 posted 12-10-2007 07:19 PM

That’s the way, stroke it!!

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View oscorner's profile


4563 posts in 4514 days

#14 posted 12-10-2007 09:00 PM

I read an article lately that stated that box joints were as strong as dovetails when tested(I wish I could remember which magazine showed the pics or was it on the internet?) . Anyway, if that is the case, then you are just a box joint jig away from happiness. Of course, I love the look and functionality of dovetails, but have found that even with a jig, they can bring you many hours of frustration.

-- Jesus is Lord!

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 4142 days

#15 posted 12-10-2007 09:27 PM

From a glue perspective, dovetails are just fancy box joints. Dovetails on the other hand can provide a certain level of structural integrity without glue. Besides, dovetails are cool. ;-)

-- Working at Woodworking

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