Philosophical ? - Dovetails

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Forum topic by Dchip posted 12-30-2011 07:38 PM 1346 views 0 times favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Dchip's profile


271 posts in 3250 days

12-30-2011 07:38 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question

I have a deep respect for woodworking beyond the practical sense that it lets me build interesting projects for myself and others. As such, it seems like bad “karma” for lack of a better word that my first dovetails would be machine-cut. I was very fortunate to receive a dovetail jig for xmas, but I began to think that I should first act on my long put-off goal of some hand-cut dovetails before I really dive into my new tool. Any thoughts on the subject? It will all probably come down to the project at hand (or how poorly the hand-cut ones turn out), but I still thought it was an interesting topic for an afternoon brain tickler.

-- Dan Chiappetta, NYC,

12 replies so far

View TCCcabinetmaker's profile


932 posts in 2353 days

#1 posted 12-30-2011 08:40 PM

Honestly, it really depends on how much time you want to invest. While some people are faster with hand laying out and cutting dovetails, than setting up the jig, Others are faster with the jig. I know some people have philosophical issues and desires to do everything by hand, but honestly, either way you are still cutting the wood, so if one is a disrespect to the wood so is the other.

-- The mark of a good carpenter is not how few mistakes he makes, but rather how well he fixes them.

View Bertha's profile


13528 posts in 2691 days

#2 posted 12-30-2011 08:41 PM

I’ve got a dovetail jig but I prefer to cut them by hand. You’ll be surprised how fast you get handy with them. The sense of accomplishment is greater for me. I’ve always said I’ll use the jig when I have to bang out 10 drawers or something. That day hasn’t come. If it did, since it’s clearly a big piece, I’d probably hand cut them to make the project more special. Can’t win, man;)

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View TominTexas's profile


42 posts in 2834 days

#3 posted 12-30-2011 09:49 PM

My first experience cutting dovetails was by way of a jig. That was a number of years ago and since then I’ve used a variety of jigs including the woodrat (interesting device). A few years ago, I got interested in pursuing the handcut route and took to it fairly fast. I think this was in part to the time spent using jigs. Learning the geometry of the joint, process of fitting, and cutting accurately while using jigs made the transition to hand cutting easier, at least, for me. Most of my dovetail joinery is done by hand nowadays unless there is a need for a large quantity as Al pointed out – setting up a jig is time consuming but paid back through multiple pieces made as in a production run.


-- East Side of Big D

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

4929 posts in 3958 days

#4 posted 12-30-2011 10:14 PM

There is a “purist’s” view and a “practical” view. I use both depending on the project. Don’t let a less than objective opinion dictate your preference.


View IrishWoodworker's profile


159 posts in 4076 days

#5 posted 12-30-2011 10:32 PM

The only reason the old masters used “Hand-Cut-Dovetails” was because they did not have a machine to do it. This is coming from a guy that is a 90% hand tool user. No i don’t own a dovetail machine…and when I start to cut dovetails for a dresser or something else I wish I did.

-- Dont just dream it, get up and live it!

View EPJartisan's profile


1118 posts in 3123 days

#6 posted 12-30-2011 10:44 PM

Something I was told back in college. If you know what your hands do, you know what to tool is meant to do. I am a firm believer in educating my mind and body. How can you understand wood grain if you only cut with a power saw. I have lots of time saving tools, but in the end.. what i actually enjoy doing is working with my hands. And if you know how to hand cut dovetails you can find uses for them all over. You can’t hook everything up to a jig. So I took a class on dovetails and found that they are so so so much easier than I thought and felt the class was a waste of time and money.. for ME :) YET if I was going to make a cabinet I would use my jig, but I hate the look of perfection.. it looks like a machine made it. Dovetails are purely functional … only the power tool market plays up their importance as an aesthetic principal.

-- " 'Truth' is like a beautiful flower, unique to each plant and to the season it blossoms ... 'Fact' is the root and leaf, allowing the plant grow and bloom again."

View Greedo's profile


473 posts in 2958 days

#7 posted 12-30-2011 11:31 PM

my first experience with dovetails was in school, it was not at all part of the program but i was ahead of the others so the teachers wanted me to use hand cut dovetails on the drawer of a cabinet. I was really exited and scared at the same time, when i finally got to do them i was surprised at how fast it went, and i was lucky because all the joints were a perfect fit from the first try.

Now that i do it for a living i use the akeda dovetail jig and limit myself to half lapped dovetails, can be made rapidly in one pass.
What i can tell you is that if you have one or two drawers to make then you may aswell just cut them by hand for a first try, that shouldn’t stop you from at least testing the jig. When i got mine i made a little box with scrap wood just to understand the functioning of it. It was only untill 6 months later that i actually had a use for it in an actual project.

View Don W's profile

Don W

18715 posts in 2565 days

#8 posted 12-30-2011 11:40 PM

I have a jig but cut by hand. I just started cutting by hand recently, and I get a little better each one I do. I find I now use DTs more often. I get pleasure out of cutting them by hand, with the jig it was just another chore.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View TheDane's profile


5423 posts in 3661 days

#9 posted 12-31-2011 12:12 AM

It depends. It is a practical decision for me … sort of like choosing the right tool or technique for the job at hand.

I have a dovetail jig, but hate to use it. Why? Because routers make a mess and I hate to clean up the shop!

I have cut a bunch by hand, and find my skill level constantly improving every time I pick up my dovetail saw. And I am blown away by the proficiency of guys like Paul Sellers, Christian Becksvoort, Rob Cosman, and others.

The jig produces solid, half-blind dovetails, so I use it when weather permits (cleaning up out on the driveway is a ‘nreeze’ ... pun intended).


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

View Richforever's profile


757 posts in 3718 days

#10 posted 12-31-2011 01:08 AM

I’ve used a jig, but recently started doing it by hand. It’s the hand/eye coordination; the freedom of design; the feel of the wood; the ability to cut pins and transfer to tails and have them fit; the ability to do it without all the setup and testing with a jig. It just seems more like freedom and woodworking and creative expression for me.

-- Rich, Seattle, WA

View CharlieM1958's profile


16274 posts in 4216 days

#11 posted 12-31-2011 01:18 AM

By all means, learn to cut them by hand one day, if you wish. But don’t let that stop you from using your jig first. It’s like comparing apples to oranges as far as I’m concerned. Setting up and using a dovetail jig is a skill of its own, completely different from cutting dovetails by hand.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Loren's profile


10390 posts in 3646 days

#12 posted 12-31-2011 01:51 AM

Make some rough boxes with hand cut through dovetails and you’ll get
a feel for what it involves. For a time, when I was starting out I would
cut a single dovetail joint on the end of a pine 2×3, test it for fit, then
cut it off and throw it away. This is how I taught myself to handle a
bowsaw. Then after a few weeks, I made some little crude dovetailed
pine boxes with nailed on plywood bottoms. Then I tried one with
a groove for the bottom. Then I found some 1×12 clear pine boards
salvaged from an old bookshelf and made a simple chest with probably
12 dovetails per corner… and it turned out well and wasn’t that hard to
do and made me proud.

You can cut them on a bandsaw too… and if you have a scroll saw too
you can cut the pins and tails with a 3/8” blade on the bandsaw and
cut out the waste with a narrow blade on the scrollsaw with a little
fence clamped to the table. Marc Duginske’s book tells how to do it
and it is not that hard at all.

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