How to Hand Cut Dovetail Joints
Learn this centuries-old hallmark of craftsmanship.
2 to 5 hours
I’ve cut lots of dovetails over the years, some by hand, some with dovetail jigs and a router. If I’m doing a run of drawers, I’ll use the jig and router ten times out of ten. But for a small project, I’ll still cut them by hand.
Why? First, in the time it takes to get the jig and router set up and dialed in, I could be well into cutting them by hand. Second, cutting them by hand is fun and rewarding.
There are lots of “right ways” to hand cut dovetails, so let me show you how I learned it. Most importantly, work as accurately as you can, but don’t be concerned with perfection. Enjoy the look of something truly handcrafted!
- Dovetail saw
- Marking gauge
- Sharpening guide
- Sharpening stones
- Sliding T-bevel
- Woodworking vise
- Hardwood lumber
- Wood glue
Project step-by-step (19)
Mark Dovetail Depth
After milling your parts to final dimension, use a marking gauge to lay out the depth of the dovetails on each piece. For through dovetails like these, that depth is equal to the board’s thickness.
Lay Out Tails
Set the dovetail angle on a sliding T-bevel with its blade protruding both directions. This angle is up to your discretion, but there are guidelines. As opposed to degrees, this is typically set out in a rise:run format. Soft woods are traditionally 6:1, and hard woods are 8:1.
Lay out the tails with a marking knife. Unlike even a sharp pencil, a line cut by a marking knife is exact. The size of your dovetails is up to you, but there should be a half pin (pins are the interlocking part on the other board) on both edges of the pin boards.
Transfer the Lines
Using a square and a marking knife, transfer the tail marks across the ends of the tail boards. From there, bring the tail layout down the other face of the tail board.
Cut to the Line
Staying just inside of your layout marks, saw down each line just shy of the depth line. If you like, mark the waste areas to be cut out so that you don’t cut on the wrong side of the lines. (No, of course I’ve never made that mistake.) You can cut off the half-pin space waste on the outer edges now as well.
Chisel to Layout Line
Here’s where your sharp chisels come into play.
Starting inside the depth line, just wiggle the chisel up to the line. Next, set the chisel on the layout line, press down lightly and wiggle the chisel up to the depth line again. This method sets the dovetail depth accurately. If you chop in hard right on the line, the chisel will push its way past your layout mark.
Chop Out First Side
Once you’ve chiseled down about 1/8-in., you can start more aggressive chopping. Leave the outer ends of the pin waste intact and proceed until you’re about halfway through the board’s thickness. Leaving the outer ends intact gives the waste support when you’re chopping from the other side, helping to prevent tear-out.
Chop Out Second Side
Start the second side as you did the first side, just wiggling up to the line. Then proceed with chopping each pin space waste all the way through. Go lightly as you reach the end.
Pare the Tails
Clamp your tail boards in a vise and use a chisel to pare the tails to their layout lines. Be sure to look at both sides of the board so you keep the tails perfectly square.
Transfer Tails to Pin Board
Set your tails on the ends of the pin boards and transfer their layout using a marking knife. Next, use a square to mark the pins down to the depth lines on both sides of the pin boards.
Cut to the Lines
Cut the pins as you did the tails, staying just inside the layout lines and stopping just short of the depth line.
Chop Out First Side
Chop out the first side of the tail waste exactly as you did the pin waste, using the chisel wiggle method to get an accurate start.
Chop Out Second Side
Flip the tail boards and finish chopping the tail waste out. It’s a little trickier than the pin waste because you’re chiseling an angled cut.
Pare to the Layout Lines
Pare the pins to their layout lines. Again, be careful. Pay attention to both sides of the board to keep everything square.
Test the Fit
Press the joint together to check the fit. Chances are, you’ll need to do some adjusting. Mark the areas that need material removed and carefully pare off a bit at a time, checking the fit often so you don’t overdo it. A good fit only requires a light tapping with a mallet.
What If There Are Gaps?
Rest assured, there likely will be some gaps that bug you. I almost always have a couple, especially if I’m a little out of practice. Don’t worry. You can fill them and make them disappear.
Cut small wedges from an extra board. Make several vertical cuts, then saw the wedges free by cutting in from the side. Make wedges with grain going vertically as well as across the grain so you can easily match the grain at the gaps.