A Dovetailing Kit for Beginners - Popular Woodworking Magazine

A Dovetailing Kit for Beginners

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Last week I discussed the Zona Razor Saw and how it’s the ideal saw for beginning dovetailers. It’s just $12 to $15 and cuts extremely well. This saw got me thinking about what other inexpensive tools could fill out the kit for the beginner (or someone who is short on money).

So here’s my best shot at this list. I’ve also included (at times) what I think is the next best upgrade for each item.

Dovetail Saw
Get the Zona. If you want a step up, get the Veritas 14 pt. Personally I think the best bargain in dovetail saws is the Lie-Nielsen tapered dovetail saw. I can’t believe this saw is still only $125. When I bought mine, people said Thomas Lie-Nielsen was nuts for selling a dovetail saw for $125. Now it’s the least expensive premium dovetail saw and – in my opinion – the one against which all others are compared.

Marking Knife
Make you own from a spade bit (that was my first knife), or get the Veritas striking knife (shown above). It is $16 but performs just as well as knives that cost five times as much. I want to dislike it because of the plastic handle, but I cannot. It’s a great knife.

Marking/Cutting Gauge
The best cheap gauge ($22.50) is the Pocket Marking Gauge from Lee Valley. The second best cheap gauge is this 3-in-1 Brass Marking Gauge for $29.50. (I know this is sounding like a Lee Valley commercial, but they specialize at good tools at a good price.) The best gauge – period – is the Tite-Mark. Accept no imitators; reject all clones.

Unless you do wacky stuff, you need only a 1/2” chisel and a 1/4” chisel for carcases and drawers. For the last year, I’ve been testing the Buck Bros. chisels sold at Home Depot. They have two lines. One made in Millbury, Mass., and another line made in China. Ignore the Chinese ones.

The U.S.-made ones are quite good for about $10 each. They are high-carbon steel and drop forged. The side bevels are small enough that you can clean out the waste between tails without too much trouble. They do have downsides. The plastic handle is indestructible but heavy. And the edge needs much more frequent sharpening than a premium chisel.

The upgrade is to buy a Lie-Nielsen chisel. Buy a 1/2” for $55. They are perfection.

Fretsaw & Coping Saw
This is tough. For the beginning dovetailer, I recommend vintage coping saws and fretsaws. For a fretsaw, search ebay for a German jeweler’s saw. You want a smaller one (2-1/2” throat). You’ll spend $10 to $20 and get a sweet saw.

For coping saws, got to ebay again and search for vintage ones. You’ll want a saw that accepts pin-end blades. Again, you’ll probably spend $10 to $20. Don’t bother buying one from the hardware store. You might as well set your $20 bill on fire and flush it down the potty.

Fretsaw & Coping Saw Blades
Go with Pegas. They are cheaper and better than any other blade on the market. Tools for Working Wood sells them. It’s silly to buy anything else.

Dovetail Markers
The Veritas Dovetail Saddle Markers are inexpensive and perfectly made – $14.50. Pick a slope you like and stick with it. You need only one – I promise. The upgrade is the Sterling Toolworks Saddle-Tail. The dovetail template from WoodJoy is less expensive ($29) and extremely well made. Its demerit is that it has two slopes on it. When I’ve used this tool I’ve gotten turned around too many times.

Make or turn your own. Here are the free plans.

Yes, pencils are an important part of dovetailing. I use .5mm and .3mm mechanical pencils to darken my knife lines so I can see them. (I am horribly nearsighted.) I buy my pencils from art supply stores.

I use small dividers to lay out my dovetails. If you go this route, you are best served by going to ebay and searching for vintage dividers. Off-brand and no-name dividers work just as well as the Starrett stuff. Be patient and you will be surprised what you can score for $10 to $15.

So that’s the basic kit. When I dovetail stuff, I don’t have much more on my workbench. If you have better recommendations for tools, feel free to leave a comment.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • Brent

    While I find your list complete and value oriented, and in line with my own kit and process for dovetails, I am sadden at the $100-$150 combined it cost. It may be off putting to a first timer who is looking to exploring woodworking but has not yet committed. I am going suggest some alternative processes that use different tools that first timer may have already. I admit that they are slower.

    You can mark the dovetail’s baseline with a plane blade; by using one board laying on a face, has a spacer for the blade to script the mating board standing on end. I have used this method for compound angled boxes like this sea chest. http://www.chrisgochnour.com/2014/02/sea-chest-workshop/

    Of course, a bevel gauge and square can replace the dovetail marker, or a shop made dovetail marker. I have one made from two pieces ½” Baltic Birch plywood jointed by glued dado. I was given it 12+ years and have not seen a reason to replace.

    A worked around for Divider, by using tape or ruler is to measure width of the board to an angle to get whole numbers. https://paulsellers.com/2014/09/making-my-toolbox-laying-out-the-dovetails/

    While a coping saw does speed up waste removal, one can just use a chisel.

  • nbreidinger

    I wanted to correct the link for the Sterling Toolworks Saddle-Tail (in case someone doesn’t know how to use Google!)


  • Brent

    I have and like the Estwing Soft faced Hammer that Paul Seller recommend as widely available in the USA alternative to the Thorex 712/Vaughan NT150 1-1/2″ Nylon-Face Hammer he uses.


    • Brent

      Sorry, Paul Sellers.

  • Shawn Nichols

    I’m not a daily dovetailer or sawyer of many curves but I bought the coping saw from TFWW a few years ago and have yet to be disappointed. I have plenty of high end tools but this tool helped me knock out seven hand cut dovetail drawers on a dresser last year without fail – I didn’t even change the blade.


    Thanks for the tips Chris.

  • Phikatz

    The link for the spade bit marking knife is wrong, was it supposed to go here?


  • Brent

    I like that Pocket Marking Gauge. True, it’s small face requires more attention to keep it squared to the board that a standard gauge. But, it’s small reference face is nice problem solver when your standard size gauge doesn’t fit, so it will still have a place in your toolbox has one adds nicer marking gauges, like Veritas Mortise Marking Gauge and Tite-Mark. I just wish it had larger locking screws or slots for a screwdriver…

  • ajaymes

    Great post, while not for dovetails I recently ordered a Bahco Superior Tennon saw to compare against inexpensive vintage ones. Cuts great stays sharp nice strong spine for a modern saw. Kerf is a little heavy but the cut is neat and it drives strait like a train on a track all for $22+$9 shipping. The spine does not run into the handle so it flexes a little but not in the kerf. Easy to change if you make to a wood handle but it might be a good thing, if you drop it and step on all in the same motion it flexes there and doesn’t damage the spine.

    • tsstahl

      Looks like it is set up for crosscut instead of rip. Crosscut generally has a wider set (makes a wider cut) than rip meaning you have to be really careful about your tolerances to get a good fit. Crosscut saws also tend to wander off the line when cutting end grain. The preceding is a gross simplification of the differences between rip and crosscut saw teeth. Warnings of doom and gloom aside, any sharp instrument will work for you with enough practice and patience. 🙂

      • ajaymes

        Yes I use it as a my bench saw for most of my cross cutting I have a thinner vintage saw I use sometimes if I want a thinner kerf but I constantly seem to have to straiten that one. I haven’t seen many low cost new saws with Rip teeth a few panel saws but that’s it unless you count PVC saws and those have pretty thick blades short of pricey saws i dont think you can find a rip toothed saw with a back

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