What do I need to make hand-cut dovetails?

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Forum topic by Chris208 posted 08-28-2012 07:42 PM 3142 views 1 time favorited 32 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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239 posts in 2265 days

08-28-2012 07:42 PM

Hi LJs!

I want to learn how to cut dovetails by hand, but I’m not sure what tools I will need to accomplish this feat.

Can you please provide info on this?



32 replies so far

View Kookaburra's profile


748 posts in 2219 days

#1 posted 08-28-2012 07:45 PM

The only things you really need are a chisel and a saw. A very sharp chisel. A dovetail saw is nice but not required, but you want a saw for fine cutting, so small teeth!

Oh, and some kind of measuring and marking tools.

ETA, another LJ posted this link to a good practice exercise!

-- Kay - Just a girl who loves wood.

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile (online now)


15346 posts in 2613 days

#2 posted 08-28-2012 07:48 PM

The tool list includes:

- A dovetail saw
- A marking gauge
- A sharp pencil or marking knife
- A set (I’d suggest at least four piece) of good bevel-edged chisels
- A mallet of some sort for striking said chisels
- A decent coping saw

All the usual caveats, too. “This is what I use, others will suggest other things, don’t have to have but one chisel, I don’t use a coping saw, etc. etc. etc.” :-)

There are a number of blog entries in my past here on LJs if you’re curious, and many many more here that do much finer work that I. Good luck!

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View Mosquito's profile


9304 posts in 2287 days

#3 posted 08-28-2012 07:54 PM

To start learning them, a dovetail saw (or as Kay mentioned, any saw, fine teeth preferred)
I used a pair of chisels. One smaller and one larger, depending on the area to be pared.
Marking device.

Technically, all you need would be a coping saw, if you were that good with it…

Me? I use dovetails aw, chisels, fret/jewelers saw (I like it more than a coping saw), chisels, and sometimes a fine rasp. I also have a pair of Veritas dovetail markers, and marking gauge that I use.

-- Mos - Twin Cities, MN - -

View DKV's profile


3940 posts in 2499 days

#4 posted 08-28-2012 09:21 PM

Tools aside for the moment Chris, what you need is practice, practice, practice. Also, unless you do them frequently (IMHO) you lose your edge. One you start doing them nice and tight and then quit for a month they probably won’t be nice and tight the next time you try them. That’s why so many of the LJs “warm up” when they know their next project will include dovetails. Also, there are tons of very nice “how to’s” on Youtube. Good luck.

-- This is a Troll Free zone.

View CplSteel's profile


142 posts in 2159 days

#5 posted 08-28-2012 10:29 PM

what you need is a couple hundred board feet of lumber.

Marking Gauge, Saw with fine teeth, paring chisel to clean it up and a way to keep those chisels sharp (paring chisels don’t need to be hit and shouldn’t be hit if you want them to be sharp, you can get a mortising chisel with a thicker blade specifically designed to be hit, the different tang and handle will let you know).

I have tried with a coping or fret saw and can’t get them to cut straight. Now I use a fine kerf Japanese saw to cut the tails and hog out the middle with a few cuts from a backsaw, and I clean it up with the chisels.

Then again, my dovetails suck.

View barecycles's profile


257 posts in 2324 days

#6 posted 08-28-2012 10:40 PM

Yeah, I agree on the much practice and much lumber comments.

But all you really need is a good saw and Paul Sellers standing over your shoulder watching you make your first cuts.

-- Sweeping up sawdust in Texas

View Kelby's profile


134 posts in 2406 days

#7 posted 08-29-2012 12:15 AM


-- Kelby

View sikrap's profile


1121 posts in 3354 days

#8 posted 08-29-2012 02:58 AM

The dvd “Dovetailing Apprenticeship” by Charles Bender is excellent. As for tools, I think you’ll need a saw (dovetail, japanese, coping, fret, etc.), some well sharpened chisels, a marking gauge and a mallet.

-- Dave, Colonie, NY

View Kevin's profile


462 posts in 3200 days

#9 posted 08-29-2012 03:54 AM

Practice, practice, practice. Sharp saw and chisels for sure, if they are not sharp forget it. I went and bought some cheap pine from lowes at 4f x 1/2” x 4” and used that for practice. I didn’t want to waste my maple, oak, walnut or cherry :)

I made my own dovetail marker, sorta like the veritas one out of 1/4 hardwood with a dado/rabbit joint. Works like a charm and saved myself some money :)

-- Williamsburg, KY

View 12strings's profile


434 posts in 2379 days

#10 posted 08-29-2012 10:39 AM

To go with the already good advice:

REQUIRED: a saw and a sharp Chisel…(I started using the backsaw that came with my $10 stanley yellow mitre box…)
RECOMENDED: a marking guage, to help you ark the baseline…you can do it with a square, but it is difficult to mark the same on both sides of the boards….AND a mallet, because pushing a chisel through lots of wood is easier with some sort of hammer.
NICE, BUT NOT NECESSARY: coping saw or fret saw…I say this because you can just chisel out the waste, but sawing most of it out first is faster.

People cut nice dovetails with lots of saws: hack-saws, frame saws, dovetail saws, even big panel saws…but It seems that most people prefer something with a stiff spine to keep the saw straight.

-- I'm strictly hand-tool only...unless the power tool is faster and easier!

View Tootles's profile


808 posts in 2497 days

#11 posted 08-29-2012 12:48 PM

So far, nobody has mentioned a sliding bevel. You can manage without one if you have to, but it is way better to mark everything out accurately. The alternative to a marking guage is dovetail guages.

Other than that I use:
  • marking guage or try square
  • marking knife or sharp pencil
  • tenon or dovetail saw (small teeth)
  • chisels appropriate for size and hardness of wood (I only own bevel edged chisels, but I don’t generally tackle wood hard enough to require mortice chisels)
  • mallet

-- I may have lost my marbles, but I still have my love of woodworking

View cdarney's profile


104 posts in 3026 days

#12 posted 08-29-2012 02:04 PM

I would say along with the Practice, Practice, Practice is Patience, Patience, Patience.

I found cutting my own dovetails very rewarding and by the time I got finished my first project I was getting pretty good. When my wife saw how long it was taking me she bought me a dovetail jig. I still like doing it by hand.

Practice with cheap softer wood. Pine was suggested. I liked using poplar. When you get the process down with practice wood, write the process on the practice pieces…like “cut tails first” or “widen for a tighter fit”. Also mark what is a “tail” and what is a “pin”. This may be all second nature to some but I don’t cut dovetails that often and the long term memory might not be quite as good.

Above all, have fun with them.

View jamesicus's profile


132 posts in 2687 days

#13 posted 08-29-2012 02:25 PM

For those who are old (like me) with shaky hands and diminished vision:

View jdmaher's profile


427 posts in 2575 days

#14 posted 08-29-2012 04:57 PM


Thanks for that link.

While I won’t cop to the “old” part (though I ain’t no spring chicken), my hands are shaky and my eyes are weak.

Your link should help.

-- Jim Maher, Illinois

View waho6o9's profile


8188 posts in 2572 days

#15 posted 08-29-2012 05:07 PM

Or, you can make your own dovetail marking gauge,
fun to do as well.

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