Hand-Cut Half-Blind Dovetails

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Blog entry by thewoodwhisperer posted 07-02-2010 09:27 PM 7443 reads 6 times favorited 13 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Guild members will remember this small excerpt from the Shaker Table series. Its just a taste of some of the fun we have in the Guild. Sign up now and get 15% off your membership.

Dovetails: very few joints are held in such high regard. Not sure why exactly, but there seems to be a nearly universal love and adoration for this flying vermin-inspired interlocking joint. And I don’t care what anyone says, doves are just dirty pigeons in a lighter-colored outfit. To be fair though, the joint is beautiful, incredibly strong, and requires skill and attention to detail to cut by hand.

One of the most common variations of the dovetail is known as a half-blind dovetail. You’ll find this joint most often on drawer fronts where you don’t necessarily want to see the joint from the front. With a few tools, a little know-how, and a lot of patience, this beloved joint is well within your grasp.

And speaking of patience, what’s the rush people? It seems like some folks feel that if they aren’t cutting their dovetails in three minutes, they aren’t doing it correctly. I say put the breaks on and enjoy the process. After all, isn’t that why you’re cutting them by hand? If I wanted them cut in just a few minutes, I’d keep a dedicated jig set up and knock them out with my router. Take your time… one with the wood…...

If you want to see how to cut dovetails with a jig, check out When Dovetails Cry.

-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

13 comments so far

View Ken90712's profile


17563 posts in 3217 days

#1 posted 07-02-2010 10:41 PM

Great example Marc , I will be joining once summer is over. Wife has to many trips and things for us to do now that the back yard remodel is done. I got 5 new design style cutting boards being finished plus 2 Chess Boards. Just got orders for 4 more boards. Anyone thinking of making End-grain cutting boards look at his web page for help, you won’t be sorry!

As always Marc you humor and info are great. Keep it up and thx for the info on finishing as well.

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

View Chelios's profile


568 posts in 3094 days

#2 posted 07-02-2010 10:43 PM

Hey Marc

Nice video. I tried handcut dovetails once and it was cool to see that the more I did the better I got which is not always the case with my other woodworking skills.

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 4155 days

#3 posted 07-03-2010 12:36 AM

Great dovetail video, although I miss the German accent of your competitor.
Your presentation is clear, complete and informative.

I learned to cut dovetails Japanese style about 40 years ago.
Very fast to do after 20 minutes of zazen meditation, lighting incense at a Shinto shrine, 45 minutes of water stoning the chisels, then 3 minutes to cut the dovetails, more zazen, a bottle of sake and call it a day.

-- 温故知新

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 3143 days

#4 posted 07-03-2010 01:22 AM

great little 45 minuts vidioclip on 5 min. dovetails
thank´s Woodwhisper
always great to see some unplugged work


View DrewM's profile


176 posts in 3027 days

#5 posted 07-03-2010 03:36 AM

Great video Marc. Its nice to know the method I use works, just my technique needs a tune up. Thanks for posting this.

-- Drew, Delaware

View tyskkvinna's profile


1310 posts in 3014 days

#6 posted 07-03-2010 04:54 AM

This was the clearest description of how to make dovetails that I’ve seen… thank you!

-- Lis - Michigan - -

View tdv's profile


1188 posts in 3098 days

#7 posted 07-03-2010 10:09 AM

Thanks for that Marc that is some real quick dovetail saw wish mine cut at that speed where can I get one?
By the way do you sharpen your own saws?


-- God created wood that we may create. Trevor East Yorkshire UK

View thewoodwhisperer's profile


604 posts in 4212 days

#8 posted 07-03-2010 05:38 PM

Hey Trevor. The saw I use is a LieNielsen%

-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

351 posts in 3916 days

#9 posted 07-11-2010 03:44 AM


It is nice to see that you are popularizing the dovetails and encourage people to try them themselves.

Now this being said, here are my qualms with yours and pretty much all the videos/books on cutting dovetails out there:

1. You mostly explain the sequence of actions not the fine technique. The two most important things on cutting the dovetails is bing able to cut very precisely with the saw and not making mistakes with the chisel. Cutting precisely needs good techniques (good body stance, good saw holding, good eying and visual clues). The chisel work has its own tricks.

2. You mention in your video that the most important thing is to cut square on the board not to cut to the line. In the blind dovetail you cannot see the inside (modern glues are good enough to produce a strong join even with a little gap) but you can see the side and that has to be close to perfect.

3. One thing that you do not mention is that over-cutting produces ugly results but undercutting produces split wood (if you force the joint). This is why you have to learn good techniques and to strive to cut precisely all the time every time.

Approximate cutting works only on pine and possibly poplar since they can compress a little but on cherry is unforgiving. A dimple of 1/64 or even 1/128 of cherry can result in a split board. Notice that all those 3 -3 1/2 minute demos are on pine or poplar so that you do not have to be overly careful (I do the same trick when some woodworker is visiting and I cut a dovetail joint in few minutes under their amazed eyes).

Now, with respect to your own technique, things that you should consider are:

1. Ditch the careful marking of the board. It is a complete waste of time and does not help a bit. Your dovetails look like machine made (pins too thick and to “nicely” spaced) and the whole point is to make them look hand made. Also, do not use a dovetail marking gage. The angle on the dovetails is not significant for the strength of the joint (Fine Woodworking tested that a few years back). The slight variations you get by placing the pins by hand and cutting whatever angle you feel will make the joint look a lot better (definitely not machine made). When people see a joint like that that is perfectly fit, they are really in awe.

2. Make the lines along the board much longer. You are trying to cut perfectly parallel with the line but the line is too short. Your visual system cannot “see” the slant of the line on such a short line. I make my lines at least 2 1/2 inch long (but I cut only up to the marked border) and it helps a lot. On a half-blind dovetail you might want to cut to that length on the blind side; this was traditionally done by all cabinetmakers up to 19th century and it helps with the cleaning of the inside of the pins.

3. You are cutting dangerously close to the line with the coping saw. That, in my experience is very error prone (you cut with the saw into the good part). This is yet another thing that has to be explained to beginners.

4. You hesitate too much with the saw. Contrary to popular belief, cutting slow with a saw produces more errors than cutting fast. That saw of yours can cut more aggressively and you will produce better cuts especially if you use more of the length of the saw (do long strokes).


For people that want to cut dovetails but think you absolutely need an expensive saw, this turns out not to be the case. For years I used a 23$ Lee-Valley dozuky saw. The only fault it has is that it cannot deal with wood thicker than 1/2” without bending. Up to that thickness it is better than the 125$ Lie-Nielsen saw (I own both).


-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View thewoodwhisperer's profile


604 posts in 4212 days

#10 posted 07-11-2010 04:18 AM

Thanks Alin.

I appreciate all the advice and critique. Please keep in mind that this was only a quick 7 minute video showing how I cut my dovetails. I am not trying to put this out there as the “ultimate guide”.

Honestly, I can’t argue with ANY of your points. Well, except one major thing. My goal in my videos is to show folks how easy dovetails can be. I want to demystify the process…....not hand them a set of stereo instructions in Japanese. Throwing all that information at them would make the process seem much more complicated and intimidating than it needs to be. That depth of information has its place. But my 7-minute video isn’t it. My goal is to get people excited enough about the process to try it for themselves. And if they need to dig into the topic further, there are plenty of resources available that will show them every painful detail about cutting dovetails.

Also, this video was a small excerpt from a larger series of videos focused on building a Shaker Table. The drawer joinery was a small detail and since it was in the context of a larger project, it wasn’t given as much time and explanation as a true stand-alone video might have received. Even still, I think you would have been disappointed with my offering. Some details I sweat. Some I don’t.

-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

View a1Jim's profile


117126 posts in 3605 days

#11 posted 07-11-2010 04:44 AM

Well done Marc

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View thewoodwhisperer's profile


604 posts in 4212 days

#12 posted 07-23-2010 06:41 PM

haha, I know that guy too! :) I actually try to oversize my drawers a bit when doing dovetails. I find that I have a bit of variability that can either result in a slightly tight or worse yet, a slightly loose drawer. So I find that if I intentionally make my drawers a little oversized, I can always grab my smoother off the shelf and trim it to fit. That’s what I would recommend doing.

Best of luck to you and your friend. :)

-- For free video tutorials and other cool woodworking stuff, check out

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