Dovetail help

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Forum topic by MontyJ posted 03-05-2014 12:34 PM 1154 views 0 times favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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36 posts in 1574 days

03-05-2014 12:34 PM

I’m getting ready to start my first ever woodworking project and I have a couple of questions. The project in question is the entire reason I’m getting into woodworking…a sewing box for the wife. It will be a three level cantilevered design.
My first question involves the dovetails. I really like the look of hand cut dovetails and since there is a first time for everything I decided to jump in with both feet. I have read a lot and watched several videos on the layout and have that part pretty much down, but I can’t seem to figure out how to remove the waste when cutting the pin sockets out from between the tails. Some of the pins will only be 1/8” at the narrow end so I don’t really have room to use a chisel. I thought of drilling a small hole in the pin area and using a coping saw, but that still won’t give the clean, sharp lines needed for good looking dovetails. Everything I read simply says “remove the waste” but doesn’t really say how.
So, how do you do it?


-- Pro Libertate!

11 replies so far

View jmos's profile


827 posts in 2368 days

#1 posted 03-05-2014 12:41 PM

There are a number of ways to hog out the majority of the waste, but to get the clean shoulders you’re looking for you’ll need to carefully chisel the shoulders. Hopefully the edges of the pins and tails are pretty clean off the saw (hand, table, or band); if not, you can pare them with a chisel also.

For the bulk removal with either the tails or pins you can chisel, cut it out with a fret, coping, or band saw, use a forstner bit, or use a table saw. Whatever works for you. I usually chisel.

-- John

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2298 posts in 2368 days

#2 posted 03-05-2014 12:58 PM

Best of luck with your first dovetails. I’m still practicing on scrap for quite a while but I think I’m about ready to implement them into a project. My first few attempts were ugly, but I’ve done a few dozen now.

For the narrow pins I’ve been using a coping saw to remove the bulk of the waste. No drilling necessary, just slip it in the saw kerf and make a sweeping cut to one corner, then to the other. Then I chisel out the remainder, just shy of the shoulder. I make one final pass at the shoulder line. I don’t know what your layout technique is, but I use a cutting gauge which gives me a nice reference for my final paring.

If you’re using a plain bench chisel with flat sides, you’re going to need to make the widest part of the pin a tad wider than your smallest chisel. If you make it the same width, the sides of your chisel will mar the edges of the tails.

If you have to drill a hole to get your coping saw in there, it sounds like your coping saw has a very large kerf. I use a Veritas dovetail saw and a coping saw with Olson blades and there’s no problem.

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

View bondogaposis's profile


4727 posts in 2349 days

#3 posted 03-05-2014 01:32 PM

I had to buy a 1/8” chisel in order to be able to do that.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View crank49's profile


4030 posts in 2969 days

#4 posted 03-05-2014 02:01 PM

A fret saw can be had with a very tiny blade; a #6-0 is not much bigger than a hair.
A scalpel with a #11 blade is so sharp and thin you can slice a sheet of paper edgewise. And, cut yourself almost every time you pick it up.
Or a good sharp thin chisel is hard to beat.
Otherwise, have you considered widening the pins? If they are so thin you can’t cut them they can’t have much strength and that kinda defeats the purpose of a dovetail anyway.

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2298 posts in 2368 days

#5 posted 03-05-2014 02:27 PM

+1 to widening the pins a bit.

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

View waho6o9's profile


8190 posts in 2575 days

#6 posted 03-05-2014 03:35 PM

practice on scraps

& then practice some more

good luck

View Texcaster's profile


1281 posts in 1672 days

#7 posted 03-05-2014 11:19 PM

You might want to look at this

-- Mama calls me Texcaster but my real name is Mr. Earl.

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18271 posts in 3674 days

#8 posted 03-05-2014 11:26 PM

I defer to the more experience wood workers on here; however, I believe you will have a hard time doing work that tight your first time out and not being able to clean up with a chisel.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View TerryDowning's profile


1077 posts in 2116 days

#9 posted 03-06-2014 12:50 AM

What I’ve learned lately about dovetails most recently.

My saw was not sharp enough. A freshly sharpened saw allows you to get close and precise cuts on the waste side of the line and really sets up the paring. If you start with a raggedy, wavy kerf from a dull saw it will show in your paring. I figured this out after watching a video of Paul Sellers cut ridiculously tight dove tails using just saws.

My chisels weren’t sharp enough (even though I just finished sharpening them!)

Make sure that the backs are completely flat. make sure you are raising a burr between the bevel and back on each grit of stones. Don’t break off the burr, move to the next grit and work off the burr. If you don’t have a strop or 8000 grit water stone for polishing, get one AND USE IT OFTEN! I made a strop out of MDF and leather charged with green buffing compound night and day difference once I started doing that. For chisels I strop on the MDF side so the edge does not round over.

The sharper your tools the better results you will have.

-- - Terry

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2298 posts in 2368 days

#10 posted 03-06-2014 01:22 PM

You may save yourself some frustration and wasted workpieces by doing a few practice runs on scrap, as others have mentioned. Do a few test runs and post some pictures, and plenty of people will be able to point you in the right direction.

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

View MontyJ's profile


36 posts in 1574 days

#11 posted 03-06-2014 04:50 PM

Thanks folks. I have plenty of scrap to practice on. I’m also going to invest in a good set of chisels. My father-in-law knows a guy who will sharpen them since I don’t have an 8000 grit stone yet. I’ll follow the directions to make a strop as well. I’ll keep you posted on my progress and ask for pointers.

-- Pro Libertate!

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