This is a time-consuming but rewarding way to make a drawer. There is no stronger, beautiful or individual technique than cutting dovetails by hand. Like all good things, it requires practice. But once you have a couple drawers built, you’ll find your saw and chisel skills improve exponentially.
A couple notes on this technique: There are entire books written about dovetailing, so we couldn’t possibly cover everything that’s involved. However there are a few basic principles and tricks that make the process easier.
Use good tools. A sharp well-tuned saw and chisel make all the difference. Cheap, inaccurate or dull tools will make the learning curve much steeper. Before you try this technique on a drawer for a project, try it out on some scraps first. Even experts need to “warm up” with a test joint or two when dovetailing. — CS
A sharp and high-quality cutting gauge, such as the Tite-Mark, makes lines that are easier to see than with a scratch gauge,
which uses a pin.
Mark out your tails on the end grain and the outside face of the drawer side. Strike your lines with a marking knife followed by a mechanical pencil. This will increase your accuracy. Mark the waste portions of the joint with an “X” and then make your cuts.
Remove the waste between the tails with a fretsaw or coping saw. The closer to the bottom of the tail you get, the less clean-up work you’ll have with a chisel.
Remove the waste outside of the tails with a backsaw, which cuts straighter than the fretsaw.
The Tite-Mark gauge can be used like a chisel to remove waste from between the tails and on the ends of the joints, as shown. If you sharpen the tool’s flat cutter, it will slice wood like a chisel.
Remove the remainder of the waste with a bench chisel. The most important thing to note here is you should stand so you can see when the chisel is perfectly perpendicular to the work, as shown here.
I picked up this trick from the Internet and it works great. To mark the pins, clamp the tail board in place to the pin board using a set of inexpensive 90° clamps, available from any home-center store. This clamping setup allows you to focus on marking accurate lines.
I like a spear-point knife as shown here because you can work on the left and right sides of a tail with just one tool. With other tools, such as a pocketknife, you run the risk that your knife line isn’t in exactly the right place.
Transfer the lines marked on the end grain down the face of the board. Mark your waste pieces and remove the waste using a backsaw, fret saw and then a chisel.
Before you try to assemble the joint, relieve the inside edges of the tail board with a knife as shown. This part of the joint is never seen and it allows you to easily slide the parts together.
A deadblow mallet is all you need to assemble small drawers. For larger assemblies, I recommend backing up the joint with a piece of scrap to distribute the hammer blows evenly.
The assembled joint. No, those aren’t gaps. Those are the pencil lines that I split in half with my saw.
I have tried a variety of ways to clamp dovetails, but I keep coming back to these cauls. They take just a couple minutes to make and put the pressure right where it’s needed.
To glue the 1/4″-thick veneer front to the assembled drawer box, use your workbench as a giant clamping caul as shown.
Apply the veneer before planing or sanding your dovetail joints. Otherwise you’ll just make more work for yourself. It’s better to do all the trimming at once.