Chris Schwarz's Blog

Dovetails with Help from the Drill Press

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When I make a lot of half-blind dovetails, I’ll use a drill press to help bore out the waste between the pins.

The video below shows how I do. Some caveats to consider before you try to cram your boot between my buttocks via a comment below:

1. Ya, I use machines at times to reduce drudgery. Thicknessing rough stock and removing pin waste are two tasks I dislike. If I have two drawers to make, I’ll chop them out. If I have two carcases and five drawers, the drill press saves time. If this shocks you, you must be new here.

2. This is safe. I’ve heard people say you should clamp the work before every hole in times like this. I see it this way: I have an excellent control surface (the fence). The vast majority of the cutting force is down, like a band saw. And my hands are at least 6” from the bit. It’s an operation that is similar to using a powered miter saw, but safer.

3. Try it. No, no, not in your head. In your shop.

In this video I’m working in 3/4”-thick stock, so I’m using a 3/4” Forstner set to bore down 1/2” into the work. A quick puff of air between holes (good thing I’m not a smoker) blows the chips away so I can slide my work left or right.

The Forstner allows me to overlap my holes a lot. This results in an almost-flat baseline and reduces paring. I do have to do a little chopping and paring at the end, but I know this is a big time-saver when building big casework pieces. There you have it: drill press dovetails.

— Christopher Schwarz

Want a boot camp dovetail experience? Check out Chuck Bender’s “Dovetail Apprenticeship” – it’s an excellent DVD from one of the country’s best craftsmen.

23 thoughts on “Dovetails with Help from the Drill Press

  1. Robscaffe

    I cut a lot of dovetails and agree regarding the removal of waste any method is fair play, I would blast it out if that was the more efficient way. It is simply wasting material to get to the point where careful paring can be accomplished. As high explosives are illegal in my town I use a laminate trimmer with a 1/4″ spiral uncut bit. Stand the board vertical in the vise, you can also clamp a piece of scrap to the backside if necessary to prevent tipping . This is fast and surprisingly controllable with a bit of practice.

  2. toms

    Lonnie Bird teaches his students to hog out the waste between pins with a router. I see no difference using the drill press. It’s drudgery work and the machine takes the drudgery out of it. Keep on drilling them out, Chris!

  3. BLZeebub

    I picked up an ancient floor model Craftsman dp twenty years ago from a WWII veteran. I paid $90. Schweeeeet! Gotta love the classifieds. Nowadays I’d haunt Craigslist. Just sayin’.

  4. MrFredL

    At the end of the video you can see the rabbet on the end. Does this get covered up? Also, what chisel are you using in the video, and how does the edge hold up against the teak?

    1. sharper802

      Looks like a Lie Nielson bench chisel followed by a Blue Spruce fish tail to get in the corners. Hard to tell but he may have used a skew chisel – probably shop-made and ground by Chris – to get into the corners along the side wall followed by the fish tail to get into the corners of the floor.

  5. Mark W

    Hello Chris, two things I noticed, the knife linesgo way past the bottom of the socket, why and how do you hide them?
    The groove goes right the end tail pin, goes it show if it does how do you hide it?

    1. sharper802

      I think those are saw kerfs from cutting the sides of the pins not knife marks. They extend below the line as you cut out the pins. The deeper the cut the more the cut extends beyond the line. The deeper the cut the less chopping and paring of the side wall.

  6. kpinvt

    This is about the only reason I’m reluctant to sell my Shopsmith. It works very well as a drill press, the indexed quill stop is excellent and as far as I can tell dead accurate. Historians at some future date will thank you for doing this to make your work this much easier to identify.

  7. Martino23

    What kind of drill press?

    I am not sure the stop on my drill press would hold at the precise depth needed.

    It is an early 2000 era Delta, and the depth stop does not lock down, only spins on threads.

    Otherwise, looks like a great time saving technique.

    1. Maurice

      Martino23,
      Your depth stop on your Delta is actually very secure and accurate. I’d much rather have a threaded rod depth stop than one attached to the hub of the depth handle.

  8. bobbollin

    I fasirly new to dovetails and mortises. I tried chopping mortises by hand and had mediocre success. I drill the majority of the waste away with a Forstner and my press on the next set, then trimmed with chisels as you are doing. I had great and very satisfying success doing that. It’s what I will do from now on.

    Years ago, while camping, my wife chastised me for lighting the campfire using charcoal lighter. She said that the pioneers never would have done it that way.

    I said, “They damned sure would have if they’d had a bunch of charcoal lighter!”

    Same thing here, to my mind. I know this causes apoplexy for some out there, but that’s no reason why they cannot go on happily chopping away whilst I’m happily drilling.

    Thanks Chris.

    BTW, iclement, I’d be very, very cautious with a Forstner in a hand-held drill. You might find yourself wrapped up real tight pretty quickly. Forstners will grab easily if not held rigidly. It’s not a matter of skill; it’s just the nature of the beast.

  9. lclement4

    I don’t have a drill press, but I see no reason why I can’t do this with my electric drill and forstner bit. Definitely a time saver, thanks!

    Hey, who’s playing the tune in the background? I learned to love bluegrass and American folk music when I was an archaeologist in Tidewater, Virginia.

    1. ecafsub

      Speaking from experience, it’s a Very Bad Idea using a forstner with a hand-held drill that is being held only by your hand. That thing will run completely amok, and you have very little control. Forstners are, afaik, for hogging out square (sides in relation to the bottom), flat holes (not that you can’t tilt the bed of the drill press, but that’s a special situation). Free-handing a forstner is stupidly hard–if not impossible–and a recipe for disaster.

      Try it out, by all means, and when you’re done seeing your workpiece chewed to bits and are tired of trying to keep that stupid bit steady, you’ll want to invest in an inexpensive drill press. :)

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