fool proof way of laying out dove tails

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Forum topic by wooleywoodsmith posted 03-02-2010 03:42 PM 6070 views 1 time favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View wooleywoodsmith's profile


152 posts in 2777 days

03-02-2010 03:42 PM

Hi I have always loved the way that dovetails look and would like to learn how to hand cut them. I do attempt to work triditionally in the shop as much as I can. It seems that every thyme that I draw out the pins and tails they just do not come out right. can anyone give me some advice on setting up a jig for drawing or measurements or well anything. I am dedicating myself to attempting to cut every day or there abouts and I know practice practice practice but how do I start. Please feel free to email me at or face book me at michael wilson current city of river falls, wisconsin. Thanks Wooley (michael)

-- wooley

11 replies so far

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 2491 days

#1 posted 03-02-2010 03:56 PM

I have not purchased this item yet, but I am very interested in this item

To purchase one, you need to go to
and look under AWR products.

Be advised that there is another Dovetail Master product sold in the US that is completely different. Don’t confuse the 2.

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

#2 posted 03-02-2010 04:02 PM

I don’t have this book, but it may be helpful:
Woodworker’s Guide to Dovetails
Click the picture to see it at

It received some nice statements by leading woodworkers and publishers, such as Scott Phillips, Fine Woodworking, and Furniture & Cabinetmaking Magazine.

I’ve personally watched Scott Phillips hand cut dovetails FREEHAND with only one layout line scribed for the depth of the pins and tails!! I’m sure that level of skill comes only from years of practice, but he made it look so easy.

Many here at LJ are very experienced in hand dovetailing (I’m not one of them…), and they’ll hopefully be able to offer some pointers. I look forward to seeing the other responses you get here.

Have fun!!

-- Lane Custom Guitars and Basses

View SKFrog16's profile


661 posts in 2617 days

#3 posted 03-02-2010 04:27 PM

Here, this is a free site that shows step by step how to go about laying out and cutting dovetails. It is really helpful and may give you some insight.

-- Methods are many,Principles are few.Methods change often,Principles never do.

View wooleywoodsmith's profile


152 posts in 2777 days

#4 posted 03-02-2010 05:15 PM

thanks you guys. Rich I really like the tool/jig but I am too cheap to buy it right now. Union I’ ve book marked that site and will use it as an addition to my references. one thing that I am really wondering is there a set degree/angle on the pins and tails. Somewhere in the fog of my head I am thinking 14*?

-- wooley

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 2491 days

#5 posted 03-02-2010 05:30 PM

I’m not an expert on dovetails, but its my understanding that the standard for softwood is 14 and the standard for hardwood is 9.

I should have mentioned in my previous post that the primary reason I have not bought the dovetail master is a (perhaps naive) belief that I can make one myself.

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

View lew's profile


11261 posts in 3172 days

#6 posted 03-02-2010 07:27 PM

Why buy something you can make?

-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View Mike's profile


93 posts in 2581 days

#7 posted 03-02-2010 10:22 PM

I am just starting to learn dovetails also. I determined that there is no set angle for hand cut dovetails although there are some recomendations out there for max angles to acheive strength with soft and hard wood.

After all the research it seemed like a lot of the angles and spacing stuff was mostly because they where doing it with a jig and a power tool. If you are doing them by hand it is just a matter of finding what you like.

I just took an angle gauge and started playing with laying out and then cut. Its all practice and doing is the way I learn fastest. What was it Edison said…”I haven’t failed I have found a thousand ways not to do it” or something like that.

Good luck

-- Mike, Cantral Oregon

View Glen Peterson's profile

Glen Peterson

555 posts in 2472 days

#8 posted 03-03-2010 12:36 AM

I messed up lots of dovetails over the years and finally took a two day class with Mario Rodriguez. I took it at the CT Valley School of Woodworking, but I’m sure he teaches the same class at his place, the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop. I’m sure there are lots of similar 1 or 2 day classes offered around the country. His method is very interesting. He makes a template from sheet metal flashing which can be easily cut with scissors. His method is also pins first which makes perfect logical sense to me although other practice a tails first method.

-- Glen

View Gofor's profile


470 posts in 3203 days

#9 posted 03-03-2010 08:13 AM

Its a lot personal preference: Pins first, tails first, equal spacing, large pins small tails, vice versa. I made couple of gauges (7 degrees for hard wood and 9 degrees for soft wood) and now rarely use them. I use my bevel gauge instead, set to one or the other or close.

Main thing is that I “cheat”.

First, I lay out the tails. I make sure that the wide end of the tail is at least 1/2 the thickness of the wood from the finished edge of the board. If is something very thin (less than 1/4”), I go full thickness. I do not make the narrow end of the tails, or the spacing between them, less than my narrowest chisel.

I scribe the layout lines lightly, darken with a 5mm lead pencil, and then deepen them with a sharp chisel, bevel side toward the removal side (Cheat step #1)

I cut the tails first, board vertical, starting the saw going up the nearest side and then rotating it over onto the line across the end of the board. (this will be opposite if you use a pull saw, as the purpose is to reduce tear out) If you like to cut straight down, set one side of tail lines vertical, cut them, and then rotate the board for the others. Clamping a straight scrap piece on both sides at the depth line will stop you from cutting too deeply. (Cheat step #2) Cut on the waste side of the line. The chisel will have given you a good place to start the kerf.

I then cut kerfs in the waste about 1/8” apart to ease chiseling, and I usually go to a coarser backsaw for this. If you favor wide tails, this is where you pull out your coping saw to get rid of most of the waste. I then clean everything up with sharp chisels. Start in about 1/8” from the depth line, chop down, pare in, chop down, pare in. Work from both sides of the board, swapping sides after you have gone half the thickness. Pare the bottom using hand pressure only. There is no foul for using a small combo square to check to make sure the sides/bottoms are square with the face.

Using the tail cut outs as template, I mark the pins on the end, and then extend the lines down to depth using a square. The rest of the procedure is the same.

For half blinds, there is more chisel work, as you have to cut the bottoms and sides of the pins primarily with chisels.

You can make additional jigs to give you an angled surface to rest your saw against as you cut. However, as you learn to cut straight on the scribe marks, you will soon not need them. Practice is the best key.

Just a note: Ply wood is the most difficult as it tears out and crushes with the chisel. If you can do them good in it on practice, you are good to go. Pine is a close second. Harder wood is actually easier to do, but it does take a very sharp chisel.

Key points: Lay out with scribe/knife. Deepen with chisel bevel toward waste. Cut on waste side.



PS, these are starter guidelines. As you get more comfortable with your skills, you will reduce your error/cleanup offsets (like chiseling in 1/8” from the depth line) closer, depending on the wood

-- Go

View wooleywoodsmith's profile


152 posts in 2777 days

#10 posted 03-03-2010 03:41 PM

wow thanks Gofor and everyone else. You have all given me some room to work with. I guess all Ican do now is get out in the shop and start never minding many mistakes that I am sure I will make. Good thing we have a fire pit in the back yard no body will be the wiser. lol

-- wooley

View TheDane's profile


4929 posts in 3079 days

#11 posted 03-03-2010 04:24 PM

I have become sort of a disciple of Rob Cosman ( His DVD’s and dovetail saw are on sale at WoodCraft, but there is some useful information (free) on his website.

I also did some projects using Charles Neil’s ‘Smart Tails’ ( If you are working in 3/4” stock, these are terrific. I made mine from cutoffs from table legs. Here’s a link to a video Charles did on them:

-- Gerry -- "I don't plan to ever really grow up ... I'm just going to learn how to act in public!"

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