Editor’s note: The following is the second part of a three-part series on cutting through dovetails with a combination of hand and power tools. The first part, which involves the pin board, can be found through this link. Below is the second part. The third part will discuss how Glen developed the process for his custom shop.
With the pin board complete (click here for Part 1), it’s time to transfer the shape of the pins onto the tail board. Lay your tail board face-side down on your bench. Line up your pin board at the end of the tail board, with the face side facing you (the narrow end of the pins should be at the front edge). Make sure the two pieces are flush at the front and sides.
Now trace the shape of the pins onto the tail board with a sharp pencil, then slide the pin board back and mark an “X” on the tail board directly in front of each pin (which is the waste area). Set the pin board aside.
Use a band saw to carefully cut along your lines on the waste side up to your baseline, leaving the pencil lines. As when you hand cut the pins, do all one direction first, then go back and change your angle for the other sides to avoid dancing back and forth at the saw. Now trim off the half-pin waste at the edges of the board. Also, make a cut down the center of each waste area (this will keep the waste from getting stuck as you remove it with your chisel). If you don’t have a band saw, you can make these cuts with your handsaw, though you’ll likely have more fitting issues unless your saw skills are dead on.
Clamp the tail board to your workbench (it doesn’t matter which side is facing up. Again, 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. Strike once to define the baseline, then chisel out the waste. Unlike on the pin board, you won’t be able to remove the waste directly from the end; you’ll have to approach it at an angle at a point about 1/8″ from the baseline. And remember, the bevel of your chisel should face up with this cut to help lever up the waste. Continue these two cuts until you’re about halfway through the board, then flip it over and repeat the process on the other face. The cut you made down the center of the waste will help eject. Clean out any remaining bits of waste on both workpieces with your chisel or an X-Acto knife.
Now you’re ready to test fit the two pieces. Place the tail board face-side down on the bench, and hold the pin board with the face side facing you. Walk the two pieces together until they’re about halfway joined. If you have any fitting problems, take them apart and trim away the bits that are sticking. And you’ll likely have fitting problems…¦even after some practice. It’s better to undercut then go back and refine where necessary than to overcut and cause gaps (as you can see I did on the second tail in the lead photo , oops). Once you have the pieces halfway joined by hand, a few strikes with a rubber mallet should seat the two workpieces together.
Inspect your work carefully, and identify any problems. You can work on those next time. Heck , after three weeks of almost daily practice, I’m still struggling with hitting the baseline perfectly on both sides when hand sawing, and I still overcut my tails from time to time. But as Editor Chris Schwarz keeps telling me, “It’s good enough for 18th-century casework” (because 18th-century woodworkers covered the visible dovetail faces with trim). Despite the wee gap, the dovetails will hold. Nonetheless, I’m going to keep working on those baselines.