A few words about dovetails


Dovetails on the case of a chest of drawers I finished a while back. This is pretty much the same thing I am going to do with this dresser.  Note the shim is because the floor is not level 🙂

It is time for me to dovetail the 4 case (outside) pieces of the dresser together.  I hand cut dovetails. For some reason that impresses more people than the complete pieces that I have designed, built, and built square. I understand that perception, because I also used to think this strange way. Dovetails look complicated, intricate, and refined to the average person. In reality they are a bunch of relatively short saw cuts and a little controlled chisel work. Best yet, if you are off a few degrees on a few cuts the final result can still look good and function great. Hand cut mortise and tenon joints are much more difficult to get right.

Why mention this? I guess I want to encourage people to get a sharp saw and chisel and try it for yourself. How?

Step 1 – Watch the Rob Cosman DVD. That is the first step I took to learn the skill. There are many other videos which are probably good, but Rob’s is excellent.

Step 2 – Practice, practice, practice. I took this advice from my favorite woodworking book The Joiner and Cabinetmaker. Chris S suggested making 30 practice dovetails in 30 days . That made sense to me so I gave it a try (yes, those were my pieces). I did 30 joints but took longer than 30 days. At about joint 16 I started feeling more confident. Then I started experimenting with different angles, spacing, and figuring out which steps were really necessary. For practice material I bought some 1×4 poplar and aspen and went to work.  Using 2 types of wood helped keep me distinguish pin and tail boards.

That’s it. A two step process. Anyone can do it. Really.  I still practice before I cut them for furniture. I don’t spend lots of time in the shop and it may be months between cutting joinery of the same type. So, before I dovetail a painstakingly prepared 18 inch wide case, I dovetail a few 3 or 4 inch wide pieces of scrap wood.


Oops. See anything wrong?  This was supposed to be a pin board.  


How about now? You can see I removed the wrong part. Glad it was on the practice piece!


I make at least 2 well fitting joints before I move to the real thing.

If you are practicing, start with 2 pieces that are 2 ft long, or so. Dovetail them together. Inspect your work. What could be better? What is done well? Saw the two boards apart, number the piece, and try again. Make 30 of them and you will be pretty good.

Bob Jones

4 thoughts on “A few words about dovetails

  1. Pingback: Yeah, but how do you cut dovetails? | The Christian Tool Cabinet

  2. Pingback: Yeah, but how do you cut dovetails? | The Christian Tool Cabinet

  3. Pingback: The most critical joint of the DTC | The Christian Tool Cabinet

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