This tutorial is intended for the students in my
dovetails class. The instructions here are
intended to supplement the classroom instruction
and, therefore, may not be sufficient for someone to
learn how to
make hand cut dovetails, just from
Cutting dovetails is a
woodworking skill that improves with practice. Your
first dovetails will likely have a number of
problems, and you may feel disappointed with what
you produced. Just about everyone experiences the
But your second set of
dovetails will be better than your first, and your
tenth will be outstanding compared to your first.
Sure, there'll still be things you'd like to do
better, but even the "expert" feels the same way.
Keep practicing and your dovetails will be as good
Dovetails are an ancient method of joinery. There
are wooden relics from Egyptian tombs (about
3000BCE) that include dovetail joints. Dovetails
were especially valuable to our ancestors because
glue was often not used in furniture - joinery
techniques, such as dovetails and pinned mortise and
tenon, were relied upon, rather than glue.
Today there are many machine made joinery techniques
which provide very adequate strength, especially
when paired with modern glues. For example, a drawer
lock router bit, plus modern glue, can create a
strong bond between the front and sides of a drawer.
And once set up, the material for many drawers can
be processed rapidly.
can be created via machine, using special router
bits and a dovetail jig. So why do hand cut
First, let me ask, "Why
dovetails?" rather than some other joinery
technique. Many people find dovetail joinery
beautiful in and of itself. The contrast between the
(usually dark) wood of the front of a drawer and the
light wood (perhaps maple) of the drawer sides is
striking. Combining this color contrast with the
geometric shape of the dovetails produces a look
that is just not found with other joinery
So why hand-cut
dovetails? Dovetails, especially half-blind
dovetails, are excellent joinery for case
construction. Most case construction is wider than
most dovetail jigs so it's difficult to use a
dovetail jig in case construction. Drawers in
furniture, such as a bureau, are often all different
heights. If a dovetail jig is used, the jig must be
set up for each drawer, and setup is a time
consuming process. It's often easier and faster to
do the dovetails by hand.
Finally, certain dovetails can be made by hand which
cannot be made by machine, and craftsmen use these
dovetail shapes to show that the joinery is hand
done, rather than machine made. These shapes,
combined with precise fitting of the dovetails,
demonstrate the woodworking mastery of the maker.
But enough discussion, let's talk about how to make
through dovetails using hand tools.
These dovetails are call "through" dovetails because
the tails and pins go completely through the other
piece of wood. Half-blind dovetails are so called
because the tails do not go through the pin board.
Because they do not go through the pin board, the
end grain of the tails is not visible when viewing
the pin board face. The pins are visible on the tail
board so the dovetails are "half-blind" - visible on
one board but not the other.
tools needed for cutting through dovetails are shown and
Marking gauges - I use the wheel marking gauges,
but knife or pin gauges can alternately be used.
In many cases for dovetails, it's nice to have
Dovetail saw - For years, I used a small
Japanese pull saw for making dovetails. When
preparing for this class, I purchased dovetail
saws from Lee Valley (LV) and Lie Nielsen (LN).
Both work fine but the LV saw is a bit less
expensive. The LV saw is 14 teeth per inch (TPI)
while the LN saw is 15 TPI. LV also makes a 20
TPI dovetail saw but I find it to be a bit too
slow. The teeth on a dovetail saw are filed rip
instead of crosscut because you're cutting with
the grain when cutting pins and tails.
Dovetail marking gauge - This is generally a
saddle gauge. You can purchase one from LV or
make your own. For hardwood, a 1:8 angle (about
7 degrees) works well. Some people just draw the
lines for the tails by eye, but this often leads
to irregular looking tails. You can also use a
sliding bevel gauge set to about 7 degrees but
these are a bit more work to set up and you risk
the blade moving on you unless you get it good
and tight. The saddle gauges are much easier to
Small square - For marking certain parts of the
pins and tails.
Dividers - These are used for marking out the
tails. There are other ways of marking out the
tails but the divider technique is easy and
quick. The divider technique leads to evenly
spaced, equal sized tails so if that's not what
you want, you'll have to research some of the
other techniques. A 6" divider will work fine
for dovetails, but a larger or smaller divider
can also be used.
Pencil and ruler - For marking and layout.
Marking knives - I use a set (left and right) of
Japanese carving knives. Many things can be
used, including a small pocket knife. For very
closely spaced tails, you'll need a very thin
knife to mark the pins.
Chisels - These are used to chop out the waste
on both the pin and tail boards. You don't need
a lot of chisels - two are usually enough - but
you'll appreciate having good quality chisels so
that you don't have to stop and sharpen them so
often. For most dovetail work, a 3/8" and a 1/4"
will be all you'll need. If you start making
very small pins, a 1/8" will be useful.
Mallet - I use a round carver's mallet but any
mallet you're comfortable with will work fine.
Clamp - whenever you're chopping out waste, the
board should be clamped down.
Soft faced mallet (not shown) - When tapping the
pin and tail board together, it's nice to have a
soft faced mallet. Alternately, you can put a
piece of scrap wood on the tail (or pin) board
and tap on that.