Handcut dovetails frustration

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Forum topic by Ben posted 12-18-2015 12:50 AM 1186 views 0 times favorited 16 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Ben's profile


376 posts in 2882 days

12-18-2015 12:50 AM

Hey all,

So, I find myself in a strange situation:

I’ve cut 19 dovetailed drawers for my kitchen, a tool tote, numerous storage boxes, etc… All by hand, and with fairly nice results.

It’s strange though. It seems like the very 1st drawer I ever made is tighter than the most recent, with a few exceptions. I don’t seem to have a problem laying out, or cutting square/plumb. The trouble arises in cleaning out the waste.

So far my technique has been as follows:

Start with the tails. Cut out majority of the waste with coping saw. I usually cut to within 1/32”- 1/16” of my knife line. Then I chisel out the rest. This is where the trouble happens. Lately I can’t seem to avoid tearing out large pockets of end grain, just below the surface. The result is that when I go to sand the box out after glue-up, I expose these little pockets and the box is ruined. This has happened twice now trying to finish a small table Im working on.

It doesn’t seem to help any if I angle my chisel so as to create a small hump in the middle and gradually taper it square, or if I just chop straight down square. I even tried a few ends without the coping saw, and chiseling the entire thing. Starting with very light taps on the knife line, then chopping in from the end, and repeating.
This seemed marginally better, but still tore out right at the knife edge.

I have been using the Paul Sellers sharpening technique – freehand cambered on diamond stones, then stropped. I can freehand cut a piece of paper as he does in his video, but the chisel still doesn’t want to pare through the end grain cleanly. Current drawer box is curly hard maple.

I was so frustrated today that I made another box using table saw sleds. This took just as long and had its own set of problems. Namely the jig nor the piece sitting perfectly square resulting in either cutting too deep or not enough, then having to chisel it all anyway and wind up with the tearout again.

I really want to understand what my issues are in technique.

Sorry for the longwinded post.


Latest box is curly hard maple.

16 replies so far

View bondogaposis's profile


4765 posts in 2376 days

#1 posted 12-18-2015 01:27 AM

Sharpen your chisel.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View Ben's profile


376 posts in 2882 days

#2 posted 12-18-2015 01:31 AM

Sharpen your chisel.

- bondogaposis

It does feel like the chisel isn’t super sharp, but then I guess I need to relearn how to sharpen a chisel!

View bearkatwood's profile


1595 posts in 1036 days

#3 posted 12-18-2015 01:43 AM

Your chisel is dull, needs a good sharpening. ;)

-- Brian Noel

View bandit571's profile


20232 posts in 2708 days

#4 posted 12-18-2015 01:47 AM

A few pictures might help??

May seem strange, but, I do the pins first. Then a backsaw to split the lines

Then the chisel work begins.

I only chop down half way, with a slight angle the heads into the board, creates a hollow right in the middle, then I flip the board other, and chop the rest out

I also can come in from the end, and cut in, the waste then pops up out of there. Once the pins look good

I use them to mark out the tails. I cut on the waste side of the lines, leaving the lines. I figure I can pare to fit. Same set up to chop the waste out

Again, I chop down, with a slight angle towards the board’s middle. Looks like this ( Again, I chop down a bit, then come in from the edge, and pop up what is loose. Then a test fit, and then a pare to finese it

Seems to work for me.

-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View SFP's profile


27 posts in 1281 days

#5 posted 12-18-2015 04:35 AM

Wouldn’t worry too much about the tear out while chiseling. The softer the wood, the more tear out you will experience. Very hard if not impossible to avoid no matter how sharp the chisel is. Angle your chisel toward the center of the board as you remove the waste. That will help crisp up the base line and avoid any waste blocking the joint during assembly. Much faster also!

View drcodfish's profile


124 posts in 977 days

#6 posted 12-18-2015 05:25 AM

Check out David Barron’s YouTube video here.

-- Dr C

View Ben's profile


376 posts in 2882 days

#7 posted 12-18-2015 11:48 PM

Check out David Barron s YouTube video here.

Thanks. I had seen that awhile ago.
I made myself a poor man’s version of that jig without the magnet. Does the same thing. However, my problem seems to be not in sawing, but in chiseling out the waste. Apparently chisels not sharp enough.

- drcodfish

View rwe2156's profile


2964 posts in 1505 days

#8 posted 12-19-2015 01:06 AM


Paper cutting or hair shaving aside, cleanly paring endgrain is a true test of sharpness, especially in soft wood.

I think maybe what has happened is you have gradually increased the effective angle of the chisel by sharpening to a convex bevel. This is a drawback of Mr. Seller’s technique.

My suggestion is re-establish a 25-30 degree angle on your chisels by either coarse stones (I would use a jig) or take them to the grinding wheel. If you go to the grinding wheel you will hollow grind them which has definite advantages.

A) you can get a sharper edge by employing a secondary bevel.
B) the wedge effect is reduced compared to a convex bevel resulting in much cleaner, more accurate cutting.
C) helps you find the bevel with freehand sharping because there is a flat to reference on the stone.

I think the problem in this case is the tool, not the craftsman.
Hope this helps.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View shampeon's profile


1775 posts in 2208 days

#9 posted 12-19-2015 01:13 AM

The trick when doing free-hand convex bevels a la Paul Sellers is to spend more time hitting the bevel than the edge. The advantage of a convex bevel, to me, is that there is more metal behind the edge, which prevents fracturing, which can occur with hollow grind bevels.

I don’t want to start a sharpening holy war here, fwiw. Sharpness and utility trumps all. Learning to freehand sharpen takes skill and practice no matter what.

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

View theoldfart's profile


9740 posts in 2476 days

#10 posted 12-19-2015 02:39 AM

^ core dump maybe?

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View bandit571's profile


20232 posts in 2708 days

#11 posted 12-19-2015 03:11 AM


-- A Planer? I'M the planer, this is what I use

View rwe2156's profile


2964 posts in 1505 days

#12 posted 12-19-2015 11:17 AM


- bandit571

What, no pics?
ha ha

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View bonesbr549's profile


1557 posts in 3092 days

#13 posted 12-19-2015 01:23 PM

Check out David Barron s YouTube video here.

- drcodfish

I got that vid and his guide love it mine are dang near perfect every time.

-- Sooner or later Liberals run out of other people's money.

View rwe2156's profile


2964 posts in 1505 days

#14 posted 12-19-2015 01:44 PM

His problem is sharpening, not DT technique.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View Jorg Zimmermann's profile

Jorg Zimmermann

24 posts in 1631 days

#15 posted 12-19-2015 02:40 PM

sharpening has been mentioned quite a lot. What i would add is that when cleaning out the waste you go in half way as seen on your pictures but when you flip it the remaining half of the waste has got no support so by chiseling it out it could break. It would be better to leave some wood standing which functions as a rest for the waste. so first time round you kind of cut a v-groove, flip it clear it out all.

-- Jorg

showing 1 through 15 of 16 replies

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