How to Close Gaps Around Dovetails Without Fillers

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Blog entry by stefang posted 01-16-2010 08:20 PM 7700 reads 21 times favorited 30 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Even the best woodworker sometimes get gaps around their dovetails or box joints, This is probably more of a problem for hand cut joints than ones done with a router jig. It can be pretty frustrating to get just one or very few gaps when the rest are all ok. The problem is that someone who wants to show off their craftsmanship certainly does not want to fill gaps with wood putty or other fillers because it’s pretty obvious.

A couple of years ago I read in FWW magazine about how to fix the gaps without fillers. Since then I have used this technique when necessary and it works very well. It isn’t good for huge gaps, so don’t expect more than the technique can deliver. Really big gaps should be fixed by inserting matching wood into the end-grain. Normally you should not try to fix side-grain.

I cut some dovetails on my scroll saw to demonstrate this technique. I deliberately cut the tails too wide in order to get a gap. I like to cut the pins first because it’s easier to clamp the pins to the tail piece for tracing the pattern and it’s also a lot easier to get in with a pencil or knife to trace with. Also, when you trace the pins onto the tail piece you will know that you have to save the lines on your tail piece for a tight fit. I like to cut dovetails on my scroll saw because I don’t have to do any chisel work at all. I do have to use a coping saw to finish off a small amount of waste on the pins, but this is very easy and quick. I can cut dovetails by hand, and sometimes I do just to keep my hand skills current, but the scroll saw is my favorite way, and they still look hand-cut.
The first two photos shows the finished joints with the gaps.



The tool of choice. I guess you can fix just about anything with a hammer! Use the ball end.

In the first photo below I have spread extra glue around the gaps after having glued up the joint. The glue has been rubbed in the gaps in the second photo.



Now the fun begins. Start tapping the end of the pin. More taps and less force is the way to go! Start from the center of the pin and work outwards towards the side where the gaps are. The ball on the hammer spreads the wood into the gap. If your dovetails are too small for your pins then a steel rod of appropriate diameter ground to a round shape on the end can be used instead. It is important that you make the shoulders wider by a little more than 1/32” to give you some extra pin and tail ends (end-grain) to pound on.


Here is what it looks like before chiseling, planing or sanding the pins flush with the tail surface.


Here is the result. I didn’t hammer the ends of the tail pieces, but I’m showing it to remind you that I could have.



You can see that the dovetails are not very consistent in size. I didn’t take the time to mark them up as good as I could have as I was supposed to be in the shop to clean it up so it would be ready tomorrow when my grandson comes to work on his box. I apologize for the fuzzy pictures. My camera doesn’t have a macro function, so closeups don’t come out to well. I hope you try this out. It really works well. Thanks for reading.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

30 comments so far

View cstrang's profile


1803 posts in 2257 days

#1 posted 01-16-2010 08:26 PM

Thats a great idea! I don’t get to make dovetails as much as id like to but when I do I am sure this will help me out from time to time. Thanks for the tip!

-- A hammer dangling from a wall will bang and sound like work when the wind blows the right way.

View abie's profile


727 posts in 2860 days

#2 posted 01-16-2010 08:35 PM

Wonderful technique. I will use this next time on my irregular and uneven dovetails.
TNX Again

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

View DaleM's profile


952 posts in 2473 days

#3 posted 01-16-2010 08:45 PM

Thanks Mike. I see you did this just for us fellow LJs that weren’t quite as experienced as you. It seems such a simple fix that I don’t know why I would want to try anything else. I’m sure there is a maximum amount you can spread the pins using this method, but if my gaps are that big, I probably need to start over anyway.

-- Dale Manning, Carthage, NY

View Dale J Struhar Sr's profile

Dale J Struhar Sr

408 posts in 2219 days

#4 posted 01-16-2010 09:10 PM

Thanks for the tip Mike and for sharing.

-- Dale, Ohio

View David Craig's profile

David Craig

2136 posts in 2198 days

#5 posted 01-16-2010 09:13 PM

Great tutorial and thanks for your troubles Mike. After it is laid out, makes all the sense in the world.

Great little side story Dave. I am relieved your guest speaker didn’t reach for the sledge :)


-- There is little that is simple when it comes to making a simple box.

View Gary's profile


8385 posts in 2522 days

#6 posted 01-16-2010 09:16 PM

Thanks Mike. That’s really usable info

-- Gary, DeKalb Texas only 4 miles from the mill

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10850 posts in 2204 days

#7 posted 01-16-2010 09:18 PM

thankĀ“s for sharing the tip with us
I will load in the hardisc they call…..

ahh the brain said my daughter
so I can remmember it when
I get to were I can make them


View stefang's profile


14944 posts in 2423 days

#8 posted 01-16-2010 09:40 PM

Thanks for the nice comments everyone and to Dave for the interesting story. I don’t know why we think dovetails are the hallmark of craftsmanship, but it is easy to mess them up. Personally I prefer box joints for the simple reason that they are the same on both sides. It’s just that they are so common. Don’t forget that this technique also works very well on box joints, but you have to avoid hitting the corner edge or you will split out some side grainon the other side.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


16731 posts in 2765 days

#9 posted 01-16-2010 09:41 PM

Great info Mike!! I can use that on all my joints :-))

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View strick's profile


2 posts in 2141 days

#10 posted 01-16-2010 10:02 PM

thanks, Mike, for a good tip. Just make sure that the glue you rub into the joints isn’t instant bond ca, right?

-- mark--oregon enthusiast

View paulcoyne's profile


133 posts in 2209 days

#11 posted 01-16-2010 10:21 PM

great little tip mike, something i will definitely use…

-- thats not a mistake... i ment that

View Tim Dahn's profile

Tim Dahn

1510 posts in 2654 days

#12 posted 01-16-2010 11:23 PM

Thanks Mike, great tutorial and good info to know.

-- Good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from poor judgement.

View mtkate's profile


2049 posts in 2414 days

#13 posted 01-16-2010 11:47 PM

I never would have thought of this but it makes sense. Have you done this with different types of wood – I assume pine and softwoods work far better. Any woods where you found it just doesn’t work? I have been playing a lot with hard maple lately… and somehow I am not sure if it would “adapt” to that. Your take?

View Alan's profile


443 posts in 2493 days

#14 posted 01-17-2010 12:03 AM

Great tip. Thanks for showing us.

-- Alan, Prince George

View matt garcia's profile

matt garcia

1853 posts in 2761 days

#15 posted 01-17-2010 12:27 AM

I’ll get a big hammer!!!

-- Matt Garcia Wannabe Period Furniture Maker, Houston TX

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