2 Ways to Warm up For Dovetails (Without Cutting One) - Popular Woodworking Magazine

2 Ways to Warm up For Dovetails (Without Cutting One)

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Sawing Techniques, Saws, Woodworking Blogs

Warm up For Dovetails

My dovetails are always at their best if I warm up before sawing. But I’ll be honest – when I am pressed for time I have no patience to cut an entire joint, much less prep the wood for a practice set.

So here are two things I do to get my sawing on track that don’t require extra material or significant time.

Warm up For Dovetails

Crosscut Your Rough Stock by Hand
Even though I own some machines, I almost always crosscut my stock to rough length with a handsaw. This hand work gives a clue about what to expect with each board. Is it wet? Dry? Filled with tension and/or pitch? Mild?

But just as important is that it gets me tracking a line with my handsaw and loosens up the muscle groups I’ll use for sawing the dovetails.

Warm up For Dovetails

Cut Starter Kerfs in the Waste
After I lay out my tails, I make a few straight lines in the waste between the tail joints. Then I practice sawing right next to that line and confirm the cut is dead 90° to the faces of the board. I keep repeating this exercise until I get two perfect kerfs in a row that are dead 90° to the front face of my tailboard.

I also make about 10 long saw strokes in each of these “starter kerfs.” These strokes confirm that the saw teeth are sharp, the plate is free from bends and ready to go.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 7 comments
  • Shaun Harper

    You should wait 30 minutes after eating before jumping into the project…

  • Derrick

    Chris – On the subject of dovetails I figured if anyone would know it would be you … I have always wondered if the joints with honking big tails and small pins we result in a weakened pin board side of the joint. Obviously that is not the case as so many examples of them are out there: including many of your videos and the pictures above. I was wondering however if there is any information on proving them any weaker, or if a joint with more evenly sized tails and pins was any stronger.


    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz


      I do not know of any studies of this topic. When I design a dovetail joint I take a page from Joseph Moxon on designing mortise-and-tenon joints. There are no hard-and-fast rules. The joiner must try to equalize the strength between the two components of the joint for the task at hand.

      This depends on the species of wood(s), the thickness and the application. Many times you can get away with super skinny pins because the item isn’t going to be handled roughly. If I were building a crate, I’d be much more likely to use thick pins and thick tails to balance the joint.

      The good news is that the dovetail is usually overkill. So we have wide latitude in designing the joint.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more help.

      • Derrick

        Thanks Chris. That was help enough. I am starting the cutting of the dovetails for both the English tool chest, Dutch tool chest and a wall hung saw till at the same time and would not be cutting super skinny pins anyway, just curious.

        BTW – My saw till is planned to be square rather than angled on the sides and the same width as the Dutch tool chest with doors to be added on front (maybe) later. I was thinking of ganging all four sides together and gang cutting the first set of tails on the bottom of the till and check and then ganging the till together again to gang cut the tails on the top. Hoping to economize on one set of layouts with the dividers and doing the gang cutting to save time and help with keeping the cuts square.

        Any concern with that (especially on the four at once)?

        • Christopher Schwarz
          Christopher Schwarz

          The only concern with ganging four case sides together is that you probably shouldn’t use your dovetail saw for the operation. Its fine teeth will likely clog up too quickly to be effective.

          So you might switch to a tenon saw or a rip panel saw. The only concern then is that you aren’t used to controlling those saws for dovetails.

          Not a big concern, but worth considering.


  • Peter_McLaughlin

    It’s good was to hear a veteran such as yourself doing warm up cuts. I was recently building a tool tote to use in my locker at work. I jumped right in and attempted cutting the first corner of dovetails. Not so good. My technique was poor, to say the least. Then I remembered the dovetail class at Jeff Miller’s shop here in Chicago. He had us start out cutting straight kerfs…..over and over. So, I grabbed a piece of scrap, penciled in about 30 straight marks, and had at it. The second corner turned out WAY better than the first. I guess that’s why orchestras make all that noise before the concert actually begins, no? Thanks Chris, that was a confidence builder.

  • BLZeebub

    Always WARM UP when attempting any physical exertion especially now that the weather has turned. Sawing, chiseling, anything that demands accuracy always prefers a measured approach to that end.

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