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While I own an electric plunge router and all manner of bits and guides, I tend to cut my stopped dados using hand tools for a couple reasons. One: I’ve found that it doesn’t take much more time when I have less than a dozen dados to do. And two: The hand-tool method involves less risk to the project.

The real trick with the hand-tool method is to know the right steps to get accurate results. You’ll need a few basic tools: a marking knife, dividers, a chisel, a combination square and a crosscut backsaw (such as a carcase or sash saw). And if you have a hand router, you’ll have an even easier time.

Step one is to lay out all your joints using your marking knife. Mark all the extents of the dado, including its depth, width and length. If I have a lot of dados to cut I’ll set my dividers to the thickness of the mating piece. That allows me to mark both sides of the dado simultaneously and means no measuring errors.

So here’s the drill: You’re going to saw out the walls of the dado using a piece of scrap as a fence. Then you’ll chisel out the waste , or remove it with a router plane.

It sounds simple. But positioning the fence can be a real trick. Doing it by eye almost always results in errors. So you should do it by feel. Here’s how. Take your marking knife and drop its tip into the knife line that defines one wall of your dado as shown above. Slide your combination square up to the knife so its ruler is flat against the knife and the combination square’s head is against your work.

Hold the square in position. Remove the knife. Now slide the piece of scrap up to your fence. How you slide your scrap is important. If you simply clap it to the ruler of your square you’ll knock it off your line. Instead, slide the scrap-wood fence forward and back and gently bring it up to the ruler, like a piece of paper swishing back and forth as it comes to a gentle landing on the floor. This keeps your square in place.

Pull the square away and clamp the fence down. Now use your backsaw to sink one wall of the dado. Use your fingers to press the sawplate against the fence; you don’t need a lot of pressure. Tip the tote of the saw up so the cut begins at the toe of the sawplate. This dado is going to be 1/8″ deep so I tip the tote up about 1/8″. This might result in the kerf being a little deeper than it needs to be where the dado stops, but this is a good thing. It makes the waste easier to remove and provides a place for excess glue to go.

Also, I always allow the saw to cut beyond the end of the dado. This area is almost always hidden by drawer runners or (at the least is inside the case).

Saw until you hit your depth mark on the front of your work. Remove the fence and repeat this for the other wall of the dado. Then define where the dado stops with a chisel cut , straight down.

Now you can remove the waste with a chisel or with a router plane. If you use a chisel, first trim the corners of the waste, creating a hill shape. Then remove the hill with more shaving cuts. Check your progress with a rule.

If you have a router plane, set its depth stop to match the finished depth of your dado and work away the waste in stages until your dado is the right depth.

I think you’ll be surprised at how fast this technique is , and the results look like you used a plunge router with a square bit.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 8 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz


    You can definitely chisel it directly. Sawing the extents is an extra step, but it usually results in a cleaner result. There are lots of ways to get the job done, and this is just one.


  • Darren J

    I’m a novice, so excuse me if this is a dumb question. Why would I need to create the saw cut instead of just using the chisel to depth? I did essentially that on a current project, so I’m curious which of my flaws could have been improved….

  • Ray Stericker

    I really enjoy reading how Chris does these basic hand tool procedures. As someone that is doing more work with handtools there does seem to be a shortage of recent information on how to do some of these operations with hand tools.

    I am planning on making a Shaker Candlestand and want to cut the dovetail leg joints by hand. I know I have seen it described somewhere or maybe saw Roy do it on TV, but haven’t been able to lay my hands on the procedure.

    My first practice joint came out OK with some paring, but it just made me realize how much I didn’t know about how to layout and cut the joint.

    Thanks for helping to fill in the knowledge gap.

  • Rob Porcaro

    Ken, I like the directness of your method which eliminates one potential source of error, always a good thing.

    I use the Japanese azebiki saw for cuts like these.

    I agree Chris, doing this with an electric router, especially when deep into a project, is too risky; it would terrify me. I’m imagining the tense set up, the blowout of grain at the start of the dado, etc. Hand tools for sure here!

    Rob Porcaro

  • Mike Siemsen

    Ken’s method is what is used with hand planed stock where the thickness of the stock varies from board to board or even tapers slightly. If you don’t have a router plane pare the cavity close to fit and then use a drywall screw screwed into a block of wood to "plane" off the depth. Screw a bugle head drywall screw into a board straight and square, leave the head protruding ever so slightly. Rub the head on a coarse stone or drop it on a belt sander and remove enough of the head to get a sharp edge. Back the screw out to the depth desired. The hardened bugle head will be very sharp and flush off the bottom of the cavity with a few light strokes.

  • Ken Meltsner

    It occurs to me that once you have one wall defined, the second one can be done without measuring by using a slice of the mating board to offset the second cut by that board’s thickness. To avoid widening the dado by a saw kerf or so, you could set a second fence against the slice and use that to position the dado’s second wall instead of cutting directly against the slice.

    Or at least it sounds like it would work, and that the saw kerfs would end up within the mating board’s thickness. I think.

  • Adrian

    I cut stopped sliding dovetails recently by hand and basically followed this procedure, but instead of using a fence I used the method you’ve described elsewhere of cutting a little groove with a chisel to guide the saw against the marked line. Is a fence better for some reason? (Seems like in the case of dovetails it would be difficult for the sloped part of a dovetail because I’d have difficulty getting the angle correct on the fence.)

    Also, since I’d never cut this joint before, I did a pair of practice attempts first. I tried to use a chisel to remove the waste. And I found it very difficult to get the joint to fit properly. It seemed like I had a lot of trouble getting the bottom flat with just a chisel. It would appear flat and then when I test fit the joint it would only go in a little. (Of course, then I couldn’t figure out where the joint was tight and what needed to be removed.) When I switched to the router plane I had a much easier time getting the joint to fit together.

  • Charles Bodner

    I saw the open part of the dado from the edge, with the saw on an angle up from edge to back. When I reach the back I stop and saw from stopped end to edge. That way I don’t over shoot the stopped end and the sawdust from the stopped end has a way out.

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