Where to start with hand cut box joints?

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Forum topic by AESamuel posted 02-15-2015 12:09 AM 1566 views 0 times favorited 11 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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77 posts in 1189 days

02-15-2015 12:09 AM

Hi there,

I’ve not been woodworking for long and mainly been making small projects – candle holders, a guitar stand stuff like that – but I would like to start making some boxes, both decorative boxes as gifts and also some boxes to hold tools and I’m wondering where to start in regards to the box joints.

I have a basic selection of hand tools – chisels, some japanese style pull saws, smoothing plane etc. but I don’t have the space for any large tools (a router is out of the question as well as I live in a block of flats where the noise could be a problem) so I would like to utilise the hand tools to make the joints.

Looking around the web it seems like dovetails are the “holy grail” of box joints and I do like the look of them, but my sawing skills aren’t anywhere near good enough to make aesthetically pleasing dovetails so does anyone have any suggestions on what joints might be suitable for a beginner to make some simple boxes. I’ll be using solid wood for the nice boxes, and maybe plywood for the tool boxes.

I’ve seen these dovetail guides by David Barron: and it’s quite tempting to buy one so I can make dovetails while learning to do them without the guide in my spare time. Do you think its worth it?

Sorry for the rambling style of the post but hopefully someone can offer me some advice!
Thanks very much,

11 replies so far

View lepelerin's profile


495 posts in 2291 days

#1 posted 02-15-2015 12:49 AM

I do not have the D. Barron guide. I read it is good.
I used once the one from leevalley, Veritas, I can say it’s excellent.,42884,41718

However you can easily make one yourself. There are many diagrams on the web on how to make it. Here is a link

You can make some finger joints too. Might be easier to start.
Good luck.

View Reinhold's profile


1 post in 1163 days

#2 posted 02-15-2015 12:50 AM

Just start getting practice cutting dovetails. If you start with tails first then the angle on the face isn’t as important as getting the cut square across the end grain. You will have to match the tail angle when you cut the pins. David Barron is an excellent woodworker and while this works for him (I’m sure he can cut fantastic DTs without it) I think it’s a crutch and not necessary.

Take some scrap stock and with a square mark lines across the end and then down the face of a board, as far down the face as the board is thick or a little longer. Practice cutting along the pencil line but leave the line so you can better visual how your cut matches the line. Once you can cut close to your line then start laying out angled lines on the face and practice those. Every day you go into the shop warm up with this practice or a dovetail practice. I bet within a few months you will be able to cut a dovetail you are happy with. Also keep in mind that for the final project you can always cut on the waste side of your layout and then pare to it with a chisel (make sure the chisel is sharpened well).

View HornedWoodwork's profile


222 posts in 1181 days

#3 posted 02-15-2015 01:09 AM

I encourage you to hand cut dovetails too. It’s intimidating at first, I get that, but get some cheap pine and practice. There are plenty of how-to videos for this. Good layout and straight cutting is all it takes. Without the benefit of power tools many of the other box making joints will probably be at least as difficult for you if not more so. You can make finger joints, but you are basically doing the same thing as you would on DT without the angle. If you want tips on DT there are plenty of people (like me) that can walk you through it step by step. Let me know if you want to do that some time.

-- Talent, brilliance, and humility are my virtues.

View Buckethead's profile


3194 posts in 1835 days

#4 posted 02-15-2015 02:32 AM

Cut. Those.Tails.

The rest will follow.

-- Support woodworking hand models. Buy me a sawstop.

View jmartel's profile


7807 posts in 2116 days

#5 posted 02-15-2015 02:32 AM


You can make your own version of David Barron’s guide. See this article he did here:

I’ve made a few of them. They are easy to make. Buying one of his would be nicer, but you can at least get a feel for it first before buying.

-- The quality of one's woodworking is directly related to the amount of flannel worn.

View bobro's profile


320 posts in 1277 days

#6 posted 02-15-2015 02:40 AM

heh- cut plenty of finger joints with a tablesaw, and dovetails by hand, but never the other way around.

Wouldn’t be surprised if finger joints are actually harder to cut well by hand than dovetails are! With dovetails the cuts only need to be true unto themselves, or locally true you might say, and variations in angles and spacing are part of the package, but with finger joints, dead straight up and down and evenly spaced is the only option otherwise it will look sloppy, not charming.

-- Lao Ma: You are so full of anger and hatred. Xena: Everybody's gotta be full of something.

View daddywoofdawg's profile


1028 posts in 1541 days

#7 posted 02-15-2015 04:33 AM

You can try box joints, there really is a joint called a box joint,also known as a finger joint.pure straight cuts.

View JAAune's profile


1788 posts in 2283 days

#8 posted 02-15-2015 05:02 AM

It’s easier to cut dovetails by hand than box joints. A box joint requires a very tight fit so the glue will bond the joint together. Cutting those perfect joints takes lots of skill.

The tapered dovetails provide some mechanical strength which reduces the reliance on a tight glue joint.

-- See my work at and

View LeTurbo's profile


226 posts in 1552 days

#9 posted 02-15-2015 05:34 AM

Your sawing skills are plenty good enough – at least, you won’t know until you try. But your chisels are how you get a really good fit, by gradually slicing up to the line (on which subject, a marking knife is the holy grail – even a 0.5mm pencil line gives you 0.5mm – 1mm margin for error). Go slowly, go carefully, and think about which side of the line you should be cutting on.

I’ll also recommend you try a different wood to pine or other cheapish stuff. I find something like a sapele, balau or other “mahogany-like” wood with a close indistinguishable grain to be the friendliest to work with.

And go easy on yourself. Remember that the beautiful joints you see on the internet are people’s best joints. The rest of the case may look like a dog’s breakfast, but the aren’t going to show you that, are they? So, practise makes for progress, even if not always perfection.

View bobasaurus's profile


3407 posts in 3150 days

#10 posted 02-15-2015 05:50 AM

I also think it’s easier to do dovetails than box joints. Small angle errors and gaps are much easier to ignore. For box joints your eyes pick out flaws in a bunch of parallel lines.

-- Allen, Colorado (Instagram @bobasaurus_woodworking)

View RT31's profile


54 posts in 1623 days

#11 posted 02-15-2015 03:52 PM

I started cutting dovetail by hand this year after getting a L/N dovetail saw for Christmas. What i learned was.

1) Sawing skill isn’t that important. Chisel Skill is.

2) Stay in the waste area with the saw and work to your line with a chisel. I am not Rob Cossman or David Barron and i can’t make dovetails that look good right off the saw or in 3.5 minutes.

3) Use a Knife and not a Pencil. My Dovetails got instantly better as soon as i bought a wheel gauge and started to use a marking knife (pocket knife).

4) The joints will look better after you glue them together, plane, and sand them smooth.

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