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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