Glen D. Huey’s No-Fail Dovetailing – Part 1

First, grab a long piece of wood, and chop it in half (5″ wide is a good place to start and at least 6″ long after cutting , you’ll need plenty of clamping real estate). Pine is a good choice to start with, because it has a high “mash factor,” which means it’s a little more forgiving on fit than say, oak. Choose a face side on each piece and mark it with an “F.”

If you have a marking gauge, set the measurement by using the end of your tail board (as shown below), and scribe the baseline for your dovetails on both faces of the pin board. And if you don’t have a marking gauge, measure the width and scribe your baseline with a knife against a straightedge.

Now, take your pin board and clamp it in your vise with the outside face away from you. Following Glen’s method, you mark and cut the pins first, which makes it easy to mark the tails later on (we’ll cover that in Part 2).

Place your dovetail marking gauge (Glen swears by a 12Ã?° gauge, but other angles are available) on the face about a 1/4″ in from the left edge, and mark the edge of your first half-pin as shown below. Then, place your dovetail marking gauge about 1/4″ from the right edge and mark the half-pin on that side.

Now, you have to decide how wide each tail and pin will be. If you’re working with a 5″-wide board Glen suggests three tail areas (two would be too easy!). Divide the wide edge of the tail area (the space between the lines) into three sections. Make a mark at the center of each section that will become the center of a pin. Don’t worry about being too precise with the placement though , after all, if they’re perfectly spaced, people might not believe you cut the dovetails by hand!
Mark the pins with the dovetail gauge by moving 1/8″ each direction from the marks.


Now transfer the lines down the face of the board to your scribe line using a combination square, as shown at right. You don’t have to mark the lines on the other face of the board, but you may find it helpful, at least until you get a little sawing practice in. Clearly mark the waste areas with a solid X, so you can tell at a glance what material you’re about to clean out.

Place your saw just outside the front inside corner of the left pin (which is its right edge), using your thumb as a guide. Always leave your line…¦but nothing more (it gets easier with practice).

You want the saw at a steep angle , the goal is to hit the back edge and the scribe line at the same time. Once you’ve hit the baseline in the front, angle the saw up and keep sawing, until the saw is parallel to the floor and you’ve hit the baseline on both sides. Go slowly and check your progress on the opposite side of the board (that’s where the additional lines come in handy). Stop when you reach the baseline.

Move on to the right side of the next pin, then the next and so on, until you’ve cut the right side of all your pins. Now go back and do the left sides. And always remember to “leave your line.” Why do all one side first? That way, your saw stays at the same angle for several cuts in a row, so you’re not having to constantly adjust the angle back and forth. It’s more efficient, and it helps build muscle memory.

Once you have all your pins cut, chop out the waste. Clamp the piece with the wider side of the waste area (the tail sockets) face up (you may want to put a scrap pieces between your workpiece and your bench). Place your chisel just a hair in front of your baseline, with the bevel side facing the end of the board, and angle the chisel a couple degrees to undercut the joint (make a slight concavity in the center of the waste areas), which will ensure there is no waste material remaining to interfere with the fit of the dovetail.

Because of the slight angle, your first mallet strike will drive the chisel into your baseline, and define the back edge of the tail area. Now, you’re ready to pop your first bit of waste. Place your chisel, bevel side up, at the upper edge of the end-grain area you’ve just chopped, and tap sharply with your mallet. The chisel should bite into the wood and lever up the waste. Now go back to chiseling the face of the board, again angling it just a few degrees, and give it a few sharp whacks with your mallet. Then chisel out the waste. Continue until you’re about halfway through the board, then flip it over and repeat the process on the other face. Work carefully on this face; the area is narrow so it’s easy to knock off a corner of the pins when removing waste and that shows in your dovetails.

Now your pin board is finished. We’ll move onto the tail board in the next installment.

, Megan Fitzpatrick & Glen D. Huey

8 thoughts on “Glen D. Huey’s No-Fail Dovetailing – Part 1

  1. Jill Morgan

    I am trying to sell an Eastlake bookcase/desk. The dovetailing is contrasting dark circles (pegs?) about 1/2" from the edge of the corner drawer. I can not find anything out about this "dovetailing" Thanks Jill

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    On the dovetail slope question: the historical record is all over the map, as are the historical examples of dovetails that I’ve seen.

    When I was shooting an article for Frank Klausz a couple years ago he took me to one of the back rooms in his shop. There he had a bunch of pieces of antique casework he had collected merely for the examples of dovetails they presented. The slopes ranged from shallow to seriously sloped. All survived the ages.

    I think you need to use your judgment more than the books here. Make dovetails that have a slope that looks good to your eye (if they are going to be visible). Space them so they look good to your eye. If you experience joint failure during cutting or assembly, start dialing back your slope.

    Dovetail slope is a fascinating topic. Thanks for the question Wilbur.

    Chris

  3. dave brown

    I was only teasing you guys about the unintended ad placement. ;-) Woodworking nerds love poring over pictures looking for hidden details. :-)

    I think it’s awesome that Robert & Glen are so involved in woodworking that they’re published, etc. PopWood keeps getting better & better.

    regards,
    Dave

  4. Glen Huey

    I believe is an old wife’s tale. And, a rule that is hard to apply. The primary use of the dovetail joint is the connection of drawer sides to the drawer front. In most New England style furniture that’s using softwood (pine) into a hardwood drawer front. Which angle or slope do you use?
    Some readily available router bits are 14 degree in slope. Where would we ever use those? Why would a company make them?
    In all the years that I’ve created dovetails by hand I’ve never had a joint pull apart or the corners chip. I think the aesthetics are most important. I like the look of the 12 degree slope. That’s why I use it and why I teach it.

  5. dave brown

    Very nice article Glen!

    PS You should tell users where to find a cool dovetail marking gauge like that. ;-) (I couldn’t quite make it out so I saved the pic in grayscale and it made the URL easier to read)

    cheers,
    Dave

  6. Wilbur Pan

    If I’m doing my trigonometry right, using a 12 degree gauge would give you a dovetail with a 1:5 (actually 1:4.7) slope. This would be a more acute angle than I had previously read. I always thought the rule was a 1:6 slope (9.5 degrees) for dovetails in softwoods, and 1:7 or 1:8 (7-8 degrees) for hardwood dovetails. The reason for this is if the angle at the corners of the tails and pins was too acute, the corners had a higher chance of chipping off. Is this just an old wives tale?

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