Dovetails: My Journey

We’ve spent a week or two in the blog discussing dovetails. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to share a story (and not knowing when this chance may surface again), here’s my tale on dovetailing.   

When I began making furniture I hated dovetails. Yes it’s true. I didn’t understand how to cut them; I did, however, know that knowledgeable customers wanted to see them.

I bought a dovetail jig and decided that the jig would be my method. I used the jig when needed, all the time cursing the blessed joint. Because of the jig, or how I was using it, I wasted material. I made the drawer backs the same width as the drawer sides then after the routing was complete, I’d rip off the unnecessary width on the back to allow the solid-wood bottom to move.

Use a Forstner bit to remove a large portion of the waste material cutting some of the time needed to complete the pins in half-blind dovetails.

I also found that the jig, although the best on the market at the time, had a few shortcomings in my eyes. Primarily, it was difficult to make half-blind dovetails , too much setup time. So, being the “look outside the box” guy that I am, I came up with a plan. I would mill the material for my drawers at Ã?½” thick, make the through dovetail at all corners, then glue an additional Ã?¼” of material on the front to create a half-blind look for the drawer fronts. It worked for a while, until a customer noticed and asked about it. I felt woodworking weak.

However, the issue that drove me to hand cut dovetails (a customer pointing out my inabilities didn’t quite do it), came while building a tall chest of drawers. I had the case sides ready to dovetail and they were through dovetails so the jig was pulled into action.

To work on the case sides I had the jig attached to a wooden box (this elevated it to a pleasant working height during normal use). I set the box on top of two five-gallon buckets and the entire setup stacked on my workbench. All that to get a 65″-tall chest case side into the jig for dovetails. But wait, it gets better!

I had all the settings correct, my piece loaded into the jig and started cutting while standing three steps up on a stepladder. As I reached the third finger spacing on the jig, something moved. There’s no way that I’d be able to match the work when I reversed the jig to create the tails portion, so I stopped, pulled the work piece from the jig and removed the first Ã?¾” of material to start again.

An angled platform jig, set to match the layout lines, used at the band saw allows you to leave the saw’s table square to the blade. To change the angle, reverse the jig.

My customer didn’t know it, but his chest had just gotten shorter. Back to the jig and back on the ladder. Holding my breath, I moved past the third finger. All was good. Until, that is, further into the adventure when I found another finger was lying in wait for me. Again, the workpiece moved and I was done. I called it quits that very minute. No more jig use.

I pulled the panel from the jig, pulled the jig off the wooden box and down from the two buckets then carried the jig to my basement knowing that from this point on, I was going to hand cut any dovetails made in my shop. To this day, that jig sits in my basement, covered in dust, waiting for a reprieve. It’s not going to happen!

Jump forward three years. I’m hand cutting all the pins and tails. I’m also struggling each and every time drawers are scheduled in my day. I actually looked for projects without drawers. But, you know customers. They want what they want and I had one who wanted a high chest of drawers , a highboy. An 11 drawer highboy!

I’d put off the inevitable for as long as possible. The next day I was faced with dovetails. The chest was complete , as far as it could be without any drawers , and all the drawer parts were ready. No excuses; I had to dovetail.

Driving to the shop that next morning I had an epiphany. I’d been building furniture long enough that I shouldn’t have problems with dovetails. It was crazy not being comfortable with this classic joint. Right then I crossed the line; I resolved I would be “Master of the Dovetail” by day’s end.

Squirreled away in the shop with no interruptions, I buried my head in the task at hand. Cutting. Chopping. Chiseling. When the day was over I had dovetailed the entire set of drawers , they were the best dovetails I’d ever created. I came to a conclusion immediately; If you can see it, you can be it.

I know that sounds like mumbo jumbo, but it’s true. I’ve never looked back. You too can cut dovetails by hand. It’s a matter of following steps. You’ve seen the progress that can be accomplished within the pages of this blog. Do it and believe you can do it.

Removing the waste with a jigsaw, while not cutting the scribe line, allows you to set the chisel directly at the scribe line and pare to that line easily.

Now I spend time trying to figure ways to speed up the dovetail process. These pictures show methods that can make the act of dovetailing quicker without compromising the hand-cut look, but understand the basics first, then build from there.

,Glen D. Huey

5 thoughts on “Dovetails: My Journey

  1. Randall Nelson

    Please tell me that was not the Leigh jig. I have tried many methods of making dovtail joints from hand cut…most of my hand cuts left gaps so big you could let a cat out through them. I have made many jigs to use both the table saw and the band saw to cut dovetails..with varying success (or failure depending ont the jig) and finally I bought the Leigh jig and haven’t regretted it for a minute. I am making almost watertight dovetails both through and half blind with consistant success and in less than half the time it takes to set up and cut with any other method. In addition I get a treat ….I can cut sliding dovetails with that jig..and since I make a lot of ahaker style tripod tables and candle stands…the sliding dovetail is quite a premium.

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