My first 19 dovetails

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Blog entry by siavosh posted 07-25-2013 07:29 AM 1814 reads 1 time favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I wasn’t planning on doing dovetails as the next step in my apartment hand tool curriculum because frankly I wasn’t ready. My saw lines were still crooked, my box joints in the last project sucked, and I was still struggling with impatience when pairing joints with my chisel. Yet time was scarce, and I couldn’t wait any more to take a stab at the much celebrated and feared joint. I decided to cut my first dovetails, and in the process make what turned out to be an awkwardly sized “pencil holder.”

Having recently acquired my first plane (a LN 62) as well as some second hand pine boards, I picked the most warped and bowed one to practice some planning. I cut up the board into manageable sizes (mostly determined by the plane unfriendly knots) and did my best to plane some sense into the bends and warps.

Next up was using my newly constructed shooting board which I had struggled earlier to make more square (still isn’t perfect).

Then the artistic step came, how to arrange the face patterns. I didn’t have much insight here so I tried to keep the grain continuous around the box. The most important step I stumbled onto here was labeling the matching corners which helped me avoid a lot of mistakes when it was time for cutting.

Finally, it was time for laying out the actual dovetails. I think I picked an 80/10 degree angle, it looked dovetail-y and didn’t seem too far off from other recommendations for softwood.

Next, cut them!

I don’t have a coping saw (yet), and so all the waste had to be chiseled out.

Now it’s worth mentioning that I like being a good neighbor, so I don’t hammer my chisels, it’s all gentle pairing using my body weight and arms. This is a slow process, and led to more impatience which inevitably lead to a lot of tear out. I had to slow things down. I put on some soft meditative music and cut up some summer peach, and continued through the night.

At the end there were 12 dovetails. I wish I could say that each one was better than the last, but alas, there was no rhyme or reason to their quality. Out of all 12, I think the first one was the best. Most suffered from tear out, bad saw cuts, impatient chiseling, or bad layout. Honestly, the fact that they came together at all was quite satisfying.

Side story: After my last blog entry on my LN, I admitted I was worried about sharpening such a nice new blade with my non-existant experience. Fellow SF lumberjock shampeon offered to give me his old Stanley block plane so I have something I feel better experimenting with and learning how to sharpen. I was floored by his generosity and took him up on the offer (thanks again!). It’s a old Stanley 220 he had gotten in an ebay batch, and it felt great in the hand. I cleaned it up as best I could following online guides, the sole and sides looked to be still very flat and in good shape. The blade itself needed some work though. The bed angle I believe was quite high (25 degrees—maybe someone can tell me if this is accurate for a 220?), so after some nail biting I chose a (primary) bevel angle of 20. Using a honing guide, protractor, and 1000/4000 combination waterstone I spent more than an hour grinding away the dull blade. It definitely made a difference.

The sound, the feel, it was a joy to use. Tuning it, and seeing the difference showed me why so many people become obsessed with vintage planes (I put in an order for Garret Hack’s book after this ;)

Back to the dovetail box. For the bottom I figured I’d get more practice, so I used some (too) thin hobby Alder board. As you can see, besides the poor sawing and chiseling, I accidentally (I have no recollection) chopped off one of the tails—even after X-ing out only the waste! Ugh. A permanent reminder to stay focused. This of course led to a 19 dovetailed box.

Another gratuitous shot of the Stanley in action—3 tails, 3 curls. Too much fun.

Next was prep for glue, and the actual glue up.

At this point I learned a little about gluing and sanding the joinery gaps, this ended up making a big difference in the final appearance. And finally, with help from the lumberjock finishing forum, I shellaced it with 3 coats and a final paste wax finish—my first finish.

I was pretty happy with the end result considering all the firsts I went through. Thanks for reading!

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8 comments so far

View murch's profile


1380 posts in 2623 days

#1 posted 07-25-2013 11:37 AM

Very enjoyable story. My dovetails are on a par with yours. I’m still learning and hopefully, improving.

-- A family man has photos in his wallet where his money used to be.

View MrFid's profile


874 posts in 1903 days

#2 posted 07-25-2013 02:40 PM

Looks great! You’ll find they improve once you stop using pine. Mine did.

-- Bailey F - Eastern Mass.

View waho6o9's profile (online now)


8191 posts in 2576 days

#3 posted 07-25-2013 03:21 PM

Great box and a nice story as well.

Good work Siavosh!

View JustJoe's profile


1554 posts in 2037 days

#4 posted 07-25-2013 03:24 PM

It’s a good start! A lot of the tearout is because of the wood – a lot of the new growth pine resembles a sponge. If you get some hardwood scraps to practice on you’ll see a bit of a difference.

As for the dovetails – they need to be on the end of the board so the grain flows right into them and they remain firmly attached. Those that you cut on the sides of the board are liable to all pop off as soon as the boards start trying to move with the humidity changes. (on the dark bottom board I’m talking about the sides with the two and three tails – those will be very weak)

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View siavosh's profile


674 posts in 1870 days

#5 posted 07-26-2013 12:46 AM

Thanks folks, definitely need more practice. I was wondering if anyone had any thoughts on how much of a difference a dedicated dovetail saw would make? My feeling is for a beginner like me its added precision would be a lost feature. And I should for now save the money and keep practicing with my 240mm ryoba.

@JustJoe – Great point, the grain direction didn’t even occur to me. I was wondering why I hadn’t seen a dovetail bottom to a box before, d’oh!

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View Buckethead's profile


3194 posts in 1868 days

#6 posted 07-26-2013 01:09 AM

I love the box, the tails are good, and the writing superb. Very enjoyable read.

-- Support woodworking hand models. Buy me a sawstop.

View shampeon's profile


1775 posts in 2182 days

#7 posted 07-26-2013 06:51 PM

Looking great, Siavosh. Your focus on accuracy is going to help you progress, even if it feels like things take a lot longer.

JustJoe is right about the possibility of the bottom coming loose. With dovetail boxes, you’ll typically see the bottom sitting in a dado. One nice thing about dovetails is that you can plan your pins and tails so the dado doesn’t have to be stopped; it will still be hidden.

One easy fix for this box would be to just drive in some finishing nails at angles on the bottom.

-- ian | "You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity."

View siavosh's profile


674 posts in 1870 days

#8 posted 07-27-2013 05:49 AM

@Buckethead thanks, glad you enjoyed it! I think I rambled quite a bit, but it’s too fun sharing here on LJ.

Ian, great to hear from you! Yeah I have no faith in the bottom of this box (currently it’s holding some envelopes). I think the dado you mentioned is the way to go. For my next box I think I’ll either learn to cut one with a saw and chisel or invest in a router plane

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