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?Âº or a 9Ã?Âº 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?Âº) 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?Âº 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: 7Ã?Âº that matches the use of hardwood, or 9Ã?Âº 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?Âº-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?Âº, 9Ã?Âº and 14Ã?Âº 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?Âº angle. Why 12Ã?Âº, 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?Âº-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?