Chris Schwarz's Blog

Handplanes and Dovetails

When most people think about cutting dovetails, they think: handsaws. However, there’s more to dovetailing than sawing. You also need to be mindful of your handplanes when you’re dovetailing. They can create gaps or help prevent them.

This week I’m dovetailing a bunch of drawers and smallish boxes, so my planes are heavy on my mind.

If I remove any material from the inside of this pin board, the joint will become gap-tacular.

First, let’s talk about how handplanes can cause gaps. If you cut your pins and tails for your box and then plane all the inside surfaces, then you are asking for trouble. Planing the inside surfaces of your pin boards will make you look like a crap-tacular sawyer.

Don’t get it? Think about it for a minute: The interior surface of your pin board contains the wide triangles that fit into your tail board. Every stroke of your handplane on the interior of your pin board makes the joint looser and looser by removing the widest part of the joint (the same advice holds true for the belt-sander crowd).

You can, however, plane the interior surfaces of your tail boards with little consequence. The more planing you do, the more trimming you will have to do after assembly, but this is really no big deal.

So how do you avoid this problem? Plane the interiors of all your surfaces before you cut your joinery. This is a good idea for many reasons. First, planing helps remove any twist or bow in your stock, which makes joinery easier. And second, it prevents your joints from getting looser as you refine their surfaces.

For casework, here’s how I do it: First, I dress all the long-grain surfaces with a jointer plane. Then I cut the joinery. Assemble the carcase. Trim the proud nubs. Smooth plane the exterior. Be done with it.

When cutting a cross-grain rabbet, first draw the tool backwards so the nicker can define the shoulder. This results in cleaner cuts (and is historically accurate, thank you Peter Nicholson).

Here’s the completed rabbet. It’s less than 1/32″ and a bit more than 1/64″. It’s all you need.

Now that we know that handplanes have an evil side, how can we use them to tighten our dovetails? Use a moving fillister plane to cut a shallow rabbet on the inside of each tail board.

This shallow rabbet is the width of your stock’s thickness (use a 3/4″-wide rabbet for 3/4″-thick stock). And the rabbet is less than 1/32″ deep. What does this rabbet do? It makes transferring your marks from your tail board to your pin board (or vice-versa) much easier. The mating board nests right into the rabbet so you don’t have to fuss around with lining things up on the baseline.

Senior Editor Glen D. Huey showed me this trick in 2002. He was using it to line up pieces of differing thicknesses, but the rabbet also made transferring the marks from one board to another almost foolproof.

I use a moving fillister plane to cut the shallow rabbets. A true moving fillister has a depth stop and fence to regulate the depth and width of the cut , plus it has a nicker that scores the cross grain ahead of the cut. This reduces tearing.

This shallow rabbet, which is used by other dovetailers such as Rob Cosman, is completely worth the effort to make it. It takes just a few strokes with your plane and prevents an endless cycle of fussing and adjusting.

The Veritas Skew Rabbet Plane meets all the criteria to make this cut, as does the Philly Planes moving fillister plane and vintage moving fillisters. The Lie-Nielsen Skew Block Plane (with nicker) is lacking only a depth stop (you have to count the shavings and be careful if you use it for this purpose).

Next week: How a hammer can tighten up your dovetails.

- Christopher Schwarz

Here I’m pushing the rabbet against my pin board. This makes transferring the shape of the tails a can’t miss affair.

12 thoughts on “Handplanes and Dovetails

  1. Millo

    Hi, I’m just a beginner in the middle of a VERY SLOW start in the craft. The next two planes on my list were a router plane with a fence and a large shoulder plane (not sure which will come next, I was thinking the router plane).

    After reading this blog I’m kind of liking the idea of that Veritas moving fillister plane, but if I were to still get the router (or shoulder) plane, would you recommend either tool for cutting the shallow rabbet on the tail board by hand?…

    Shoulder plane with a batten? What about the cross-grain action maybe not leaving a smooth surface? Router plane with a fence and spear-point blade cutting to the marking gauge line (would have to take various passes to approach gauge line for stock wider than 1/2″)? Are these ideas just plain silly?

    Thanks.

  2. Steve McDaniel

    Chris,

    Thanks. The swing set I’m working on is coming along well. (I’ll be using draw-bore M&T joints and a shop made draw-bore pin per your info.) Then I’ll be doing a little rehab on my current bench (adding a vise, flattening the top, adding a few dog holes, but nothing really major). After that, on to the dovetails!

    Steve

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Steve,

    I use mineral spirits of denatured alcohol. I don’t like to get water near my tools.

    With lipped drawers I plane them before assembly. If I need to adjust something after assembly, I begin with a skew-mouth block plane used across the grain (which produces an acceptable surface. And I will scrape with a chisel held 90° upright to the work.

    Chris

  4. Steve McDaniel

    Chris,

    Thanks. That helps.

    Do you just use water to moisten, or some other liquid?

    How do you handle drawers where the front has a rabbeted lip? Those can’t be planed from the end.

    Steve

  5. Christopher Schwarz

    Steve,

    I moisten the nubs and trim them with a low-angle block plane that is freshly sharpened.

    For case pieces (such as a blanket chest) I’ll chamfer the corners slightly with a block plane. Then I’ll smooth plane the exterior taking the lightest shaving possible.

    In most cases, when you trim the end grain, you take a little face grain away, too. This lowers the corners a bit, reducing the chance of spelching.

    For drawers, I don’t go to all this trouble. I just plane from the ends and toward the middle of the drawer sides. Usually the secondary wood can be planed in both directions without any serious consequences.

    Good luck!

    Chris

  6. Steve McDaniel

    Chris,

    Nice write up! A couple of questions:

    You said, "Trim the proud nubs."

    Do you do this with a block plane? Chisel?

    You said, "Smooth plane the exterior."

    How do you deal with the possibility of blowing out the fibers on the ends where the grain is perpendicular to the surface being planed? I.e., when you’re smoothing the tail board, how do you keep from mucking up the pins? I can think of two ways that would probably work, chamfering the edges and turning the plane around so that you’re always planing into the edge.

    I’d like to ban the sanders from my shop when I do my daughter’s hope chest, and these are a few questions that would help me achieve that.

    Steve

  7. Mike Siemsen

    I don’t use this rabbeted dovetail method but have considered it. I can see its merits when working with hand prepared stock that might not be of totally consistent thickness, just scribe the end and plane to thickness with the moving fillister. This method also allows you to plane the inside of the pin board later avoiding the problem you describe in the beginning of the post. Thanks for the mechanical pencil on Viagra tip too.
    Mike

  8. Mike

    However, if one leaves pins consistently/evenly a skosh fat–not cutting close enough to or on the lines, or a pencil was used to mark out–you can use a finely set smooth plane to reduce the thickness of the inside of the pin boards to achieve a pretty nice fit.

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