My Take On Dovetail Angles


My take on dovetail angles might appear to be strange, but I have solid reasons for my choice , if I do say so myself. Here goes.

Dovetail angles are most notably described in degrees, but is often stated as a ratio, either 1:8 or 1:6. These ratios translate into a 7Ã?º or a 9Ã?º angle. These are the established angles; the angles we’re suppose to bow to upon pulling our marking gauges from the bench drawer as we prepare to cut the parts of the joint. One angle is suggested (a better word might be mandated) for softwoods (9Ã?º) and the other for hardwoods.

So, do you need two sets of marking or layout tools? One set for working dovetails in softwood and one for hardwoods? Why would you want to purchase tools that do the exact same task, only at a different angle? And, where is the dovetail joint used for the most part? That’s right, in drawer construction. Many woodworkers use a combination of hardwood drawer fronts with either hardwood sides (poplar) or softwood sides (pine). Yes there are other combinations, but I venture to say these are the most common in American antiques throughout the major furniture periods of Queen Anne, Chippendale and Federal.

I use Newport, R.I., as a demarcation line for typical woods used to build drawers and if you’re building reproduction furniture from Newport south (not Southern designs that use yellow pine as a secondary wood), you are probably using two hardwoods for your drawer parts; poplar as the sides, backs and bottoms with another primary hardwood as your drawer fronts. The two hardwoods traditionally dictate using a 7Ã?º slope.

But, what about us poor souls building drawers based on New England designs? Designs built north of Newport, R.I., where drawers use hardwood for the fronts and softwood, namely pine, as other drawer parts. What angle should we choose for our dovetails: 7�º that matches the use of hardwood, or 9�º used for softwoods? What a conundrum.
 
Additionally, we have the development of the dovetail jigs that suggest (there’s that word again) we use a 14Ã?º-dovetail router bit to make the tails and a straight bit to cut the pins. I can say I like the slope of these dovetails much better. Aesthetically, these are more pleasing to my eye. And that’s what I think should drive your dovetail angles , aesthetics.
 
Don’t accept the traditional ratios. I’ll bet a study of furniture and drawer construction from the 1700s through today would turn up many different dovetail angles. Of course, I’ve used the 7Ã?º, 9Ã?º and 14Ã?º angles during the period I used dovetail jigs to cut my joints. I’ll bet when I switched over to hand-cutting dovetails I used a few angles in between as well , as a beginner, it’s nearly impossible to stay on the layout lines. I know of no joint failures and not once have I seen the angles break or shear along the slope of the tail (something preached if the slope grows well beyond the traditional ratios).

The Angle I Use

So, where am I today with this dovetail angle question? I use a 12Ã?º angle. Why 12Ã?º, you may ask? Here’s my reasoning. I certainly wasn’t going to switch angles depending on the application (too much wasted time) and I wanted an angle that fit somewhere in the middle of the established slopes.  And how many places does the number 12 show up in our world? We have 12 months in a year. Two sets of 12 hours in a day. Most people know that a dozen of anything is 12. And to bring it in line with woodworking, if you’re fitting a raised panel into a 1/4″ groove and the panel needs to be the full width of the groove as it rests tight to the bottom of the groove (a snug fit so the panels don’t rattle), you need to set a 12Ã?º-angle cut for the panels.

And most important, I like the angle when I look at it.

Is it just me? Am I crazy? (That’s a question I’m sure I’ll get a few comments on. Remember the glove incident?) What degree slope do you use for your dovetails and why?

, Glen D. Huey

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About Glen D. Huey

Glen Huey is editor of American Woodworker Magazine, and former managing editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine. He's an accomplished period furniture maker and author of numerous woodworking books and videos (as well as magazine articles).

11 thoughts on “My Take On Dovetail Angles

  1. Rob Porcaro

    My take, for what it’s worth:

    I usually use a 1:7 slope (~= 8.1 degrees) for through dovetails in 3/4 inch stock in domestic hardwoods. Maybe 1:6, not likely 1:8. But if I’m using thinner stock, say 3/8 inch, that 1:7 slope will look wrong and will be weak. So I’ll use something like 1:5 (~= 11.3 degrees).

    By the way, I don’t use degrees, just the ratios. The increments for the ratios (1:7, 1:6, 1:5, etc) are not linear on a degree plot. They are much more intuitively meaningful increments to my eye.

    Bottom line is that it has to look right. If it does, I’m confident, hopefully justifiably, that the joint will be strong. I think what really registers to our eyes is the difference in pin width from the top to the base of the pin. Looks good IS good.

  2. Eric W

    I prefer the look of narrow, low angle dovetails. I usually cut them at 1:8 regardless of the wood species. I’ve found that this angle also hides mistakes better.

    P.S. to Bruce Jackson, spell check is your friend :)

  3. John W Barrett

    Hey, Glen -

    I’ve always cut them to appeal to me visually. I never even measured the angle. Just for the heck of it I did this AM. It’s exactly 14 degrees! You must have psychic powers. Just for the record, I find it irritating to cut 7 or 9 degrees. My fingers are too big and I can’t seem to get the saw lined up clearly.

  4. Chuck Bender

    Glen,

    Measuring the angle would slow me down too much. I have dovetails to cut! All I can say is I’m probably more in line with your 12 to 14 degree angles than the 7 degree you illustrate in the photo. That, of course, is only a generality. It depends entirely on the time period of the piece I am copying. A piece from the late 17th or very early 18th Century, made here in America, will probably have chunckier, steeper angled dovetailed than one from the late 18th or early 19th Centuries. In the end, the angle of the dovetail is in the eye of the beholder. Do you tend to cut the same number of tails to join the drawer front as you do the drawer back? Now, there’s the question…

  5. David

    Glen – This is a minor point:

    "But, what about us poor souls building drawers based on New England designs?"

    Technically, Rhode Island is part of New England, and was considered so in the colonial era, along with Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Quite a few Newport pieces do use white pine, though not the most famous ones by the Goddards/Townsends, which typically used chestnut as drawer sides. In that vien, white pine as drawer sides in a Newport reproduction is no more authentic than poplar (and no less, either).

  6. John Cashman

    I use 14 degrees, because it looks more appealing to me. I should thank the makers of those expensive dovetail jigs, because the 7 degree dovetails they produce look more like box joints. That forced me to learn how to cut the joint by hand, and I’m glad I did.

    I remember a Dear Abby column from many years ago. The correspondent wrote that his wife always cut the two ends off the holiday ham before putting it in the oven. When he asked her why, she said simply that "It was the way her mother always did it." When the man finally had a holiday dinner with his mother-in-law, he asked how the family tradition started. She told him that "the only pan they had wasn’t big enough to fit the entire ham, and she had to trim the ends to squeeze it in."

    Maybe dovetails started the same way.

  7. Bob Coleman

    My grandfather, years ago took a rosewood square, chopped off all but an inch, and ground a 12 degree bevel on the outside edge.

    I never got to ask him why, but that’s the tool I use for every dovetail I cut.

  8. Bruce Jackson

    OK, this is an invite to be a wise guy, eh?

    Here’s what I’ve learned over the years: a) Rules help you get up to speed quickly, and b) once you understand why, you won’t need rules forever and ever. Of course, there are exceptions to a). Can you imagine trying to ride a bike by the book? And then imagine trying to bowl by the book (the video of one Presidential candidate is a sure-fire example of how NOT to bowl by the book).

    So, once I supposedly understand why the fatter angles for softwoods, then do I need to remamber the number 9, as in 9 guys on a baseball team?

    Then for the Arts and Craft style, do we absolutely have to use white oak because that’s what Mr. Morris and Mr. Stickley advised / mandated? As noted by the Chief Target of Spousal Vitriol, European workbenches are made from beech for a reason. The same reasone benches are made from SYP over here – because you can get your hands on it real quick.

    Eventually, like the Greene brothers, Mr. Limbert of Grand Rapids, MI, and Mr. Roycroft, you take elements of what really works in A & C and go your own way with it. As I understand it, white oak is about as rare in California as it is here in Florida. The oaks we have here are live, laurel, Shumard red, but at least this far south, no round bullets.

    Speaking of that, I’m off to Big Blue or Big Orange for some of that nice red oak both insist on directing you to for my LJ bookcase project.

    The bookcase is for my wife. She has her own timeline, and though she’s a sweet lady born in the Philippines, she wants me to stay out there in the garage until she has a properly satisactory case for her piano books.

    By the way, the bookcase has some eleenents of Arts and Crafts but it’s definitely different.

    Your point is well-taken, Glen, any number will do as long as the dovetails hold together.

  9. Al Navas

    Glen,

    Will you change your mind when we change to the decimal system?

    Of course, I am just kidding!

    I am like you, I prefer the steeper angle too, especially for half-bling dovetails where the tail board is a light wood, and the pin board is a darker color. It truly sets them off!

    I cannot for the life of me hand-cut dovetails, because I have not spent enough time doing the chop! chop! chop! thing. But I will concentrate on them in the (near?) future, I hope.

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