Hand cut dovetail help

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Forum topic by JasonZahn posted 01-23-2015 01:41 PM 1035 views 0 times favorited 12 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View JasonZahn's profile


56 posts in 682 days

01-23-2015 01:41 PM

Topic tags/keywords: dovetails hand cut dovetail dovetail issues dovetail gap

Hi All,

I’m just starting the process of learning hand cut dovetails.

Practice is going ok, and I’m getting a better (but a long way from good) fit pins to tails, however, I keep running into a consistent problem with my practice pieces.

After I tap the joint together, there is between a 1/16 and 1/32” gap at the shoulders, mainly on the pin board, but on portions of the tails board as well. I’m not sure if I’m setting my marking gauge for the thickness of the workpieces incorrectly, or what. Also, when I chop/pare, after the initial chisel mark at the shoulder at 90 deg, I am undercutting by a degree or two, as has been recommended.

I have a wheel type gauge, and I’m setting it by basically ‘clamping’ the piece between the wheel and the ‘knife’, and then marking from there. I am left with a small bit of pins and tails proud to flush up with the block plane, but for some reason I’m not getting full seating of the joint.

I’ve attached a couple pics in hopes that someone might throw some help my way. I’m trying to cut one a day

and become somewhat proficient so that I can try my first dovetailed project on the next few months.

Thanks all for your help.

12 replies so far

View bondogaposis's profile


3972 posts in 1776 days

#1 posted 01-23-2015 01:57 PM

It looks like you are not cleaning out the corners thoroughly on the pin board. You may be using too large chisel to get into that tight spot.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View JayT's profile


4688 posts in 1635 days

#2 posted 01-23-2015 01:58 PM

The second pic looks like you aren’t getting the corners completely pared out. It can be very tough to get into those corners without messing up the walls of the pins and tails. Many guys use skew chisels to help. I have a shop-made (by someone else) 1/8in chisel that helps to get those corners.

Edit: or +1 to bondo. He must type faster. :-)

-- "Good judgement is the result of experience. A lot of experience is the result of poor judgement."

View LJD4662's profile


34 posts in 1125 days

#3 posted 01-23-2015 02:09 PM

Like the other guys said, you just need to spend a little more time cleaning out those corners with the chisel.

View JasonZahn's profile


56 posts in 682 days

#4 posted 01-23-2015 05:25 PM

Thanks guys, I’ll give that a shot.

View TheWoodenOyster's profile


1275 posts in 1359 days

#5 posted 01-23-2015 10:54 PM

It is hard to tell from the pictures, but you may be crushing your layout line a little bit. The first time I did hand cut dovetails, I was pounding too hard on my first few taps. You have to be soft with the first few taps and then tilt your chisel out a few degrees to get the pressure off of the pin board shoulder (aka your knife line). Then you can whack a little harder.

Another comment is that it looks like you are using pine of some sort. I have found softwoods sort of difficult to dovetail in because they give a little too much. I like to dovetail in medium hardwoods like cherry and walnut. The shoulders give enough resistance not to mush over like pine, but don’t fight back too bad, like purpleheart. Soft Maple is also a good “softer” hardwood that is pleasant to dovetail in.

I agree with the others about cleaning up the corners.

I learned a lot by watching David Barron on youtube. He has some really great videos on cutting dovetails. Check those out.

-- The Wood Is Your Oyster

View Hammerthumb's profile


2514 posts in 1399 days

#6 posted 01-23-2015 11:53 PM

Wooden Oyster is correct. It looks like your initial chops are too aggressive. I like to pare the scribe line to a depth of about1/16” to 1/8” before chopping, and then the first few chops I do are not very deep. You have to have a little bit of a shoulder before you hit it hard as the shape of the chisel will want to push your scribe line back. Like Oyster says, this will be more of an issue with softer woods.

All in all, I would say that the dovetails you have are not to bad. Little more practice and you’ll be an expert.

-- Paul, Las Vegas

View JasonZahn's profile


56 posts in 682 days

#7 posted 01-24-2015 12:41 AM

Yep, you guys were right. First off, I wasn’t cleaning out the pin board as required. Once I got in there carefully with a narrow xacto type hobby knife, I was able to get the joint to seat better.

Also, I took more care to be gentle on the first few taps near the shoulder line, and pare back a small section. This seemed to help too.

Of course now that I got the joint to seat well, I had a couple small gaps elsewhere…go figure!!

Wooden Oyster: I’m a David Barron fan too. I find his videos helpful, and I actually just bought one of his dovetail guides. It’s helping me sort of jump start things.

Back to practicing..,

View ducky911's profile


237 posts in 2214 days

#8 posted 01-24-2015 01:28 AM

I did the same thing one a day until I got it right.

Take a look at my project “blanket chest seat” and you will see some wood guides I made to help keep saw straight and a pic of a bunch of my samples.

one guide for pins and one guide for tails

View hokieman's profile


173 posts in 3178 days

#9 posted 01-24-2015 01:46 AM

I agree with wood oyster. Be gentle when first “chopping” at the the scribe line. I put chopping in quotes because it is just gentle taps at first to keep the integrity of the scribe line. It looks like the corners could be cleaned up a bit more too.

You have great control of the saw, though. Very good for your first attempts. That is critical with those joints. Keep it up. You’ll be better than Frank Klauz any day!

View hokieman's profile


173 posts in 3178 days

#10 posted 01-24-2015 01:47 AM

Oh, yeah, very sharp chisels avoids crushing that scribe line too.

View theoldfart's profile


7946 posts in 1875 days

#11 posted 01-24-2015 01:57 AM

^ As above +1

This is going to sound a bit back-ass-too but the softer the wood the sharper the chisel needs to be. Otherwise you are crushing the wood instead of cutting it. Keep on doing it, they will get better with practice.

-- "With every tool obtained, there is another that is needed" DonW ( Kevin )

View JasonZahn's profile


56 posts in 682 days

#12 posted 01-24-2015 10:25 AM

Ducky911- great job on that chest, and I LOVE that idea for those dovetail guides. I never considered a longer guide with a groove that would ride along the workpiece, but I’m going to have to make one.

Hokieman- I’m quite sure my name and Frank Klausz’s name should never be mentioned together when it comes to dovetails, but I can sure aspire to his level :-)

I was surprised to find that the pine was the more difficult of the scraps that I’ve practiced on, but I guess it makes sense after reading the comments above…the chisels having a tendency to crush instead if cut.

In fact, I was shocked yesterday when I practiced on a piece of curly maple and found it to be worlds easier than the pine.

Thanks for all the help everybody, looking forward to some fast improvement.

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