Of Dovetails and Chisels

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Forum topic by synecdoche posted 01-08-2013 12:41 AM 1824 views 0 times favorited 5 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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22 posts in 2562 days

01-08-2013 12:41 AM

Topic tags/keywords: joining chisel dovetails question

I’ve been trying to learn how to hand-cut dovetails, following John Bullar’s videos on Youtube (here and here). I’ve had limited success, though.

At first, I was trying to cut them into 3/4”-thick pine, and I started to have a bit more luck when I picked up a 1/2” piece of poplar. Now I can get my cuts to look okay. However, I start to have trouble again when it comes to chiseling out the space between the tails. In John’s video, he makes a couple of taps on each side and they come out. I, on the other hand, hammer and fight for ever micromillimiter of give into the wood.

I’m using a Stanley Sweetheart chisel that I bought last weekend, so it is new (or was). I am wondering if my lack of success is due to the chisel not being sharp enough, or if it the wrong shape.

Of course, it’s entirely likely that it is just me, but I thought I’d rule out the other possibilities first! So any ideas? Or any tips on getting through this part of the process? Thanks, all!

5 replies so far

View Kreegan's profile


1452 posts in 2385 days

#1 posted 01-08-2013 01:21 AM

Most likely your chisel isn’t sharp enough. They don’t come sharp right out of the box and chiseling cross grain requires very sharp chisels.

View 12strings's profile


434 posts in 2623 days

#2 posted 01-08-2013 01:31 AM

I would agree, and unfortunately, the soft pine and poplar will tear out even more with a dull chisel than a harder wood will. Find a way to sharpen, and you’ll be well on your way.

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

View Richard's profile


400 posts in 2930 days

#3 posted 01-08-2013 02:14 AM

I’ll chime in – sounds like a dull chisel.

Once you get your chisel(s) sharp, you will be amazed at how nearly effortless paring becomes.

Do some research on “scary sharp”. Everyone has their own preferred method, but (at least for me) learning to hone on progressively finer grits of sandpaper was a good way to start.

-- "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." - Mark Twain

View sikrap's profile


1121 posts in 3598 days

#4 posted 01-08-2013 03:31 AM

Yeah, if you’re using the chisel as you bought it, its nowhere near sharp enough. You may also have to flatten/polish the back. Depending on your location, you could probably find someone to show you how to sharpen it.

-- Dave, Colonie, NY

View Purrmaster's profile


915 posts in 2332 days

#5 posted 01-09-2013 11:23 PM

I’m not sure about the dull chisel. I’ve sharpened my chisels to great sharpness and used both mortise and bench chisels. I was never able to actually chop through 3/4” piece of wood no matter what wood it is. I am dubious as to whether that can be even be done.

To remove the waste in the joint I would use a fret saw or a coping saw. I’ve found a fret saw easier to use. You can saw out most of the waste that way. Then use the chisel to clean up the sides and bottom of the joint with small slices.

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