A Dovetailing Trick for Beginners - Popular Woodworking Magazine

A Dovetailing Trick for Beginners

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

I don’t think I’ve cut a single dovetail for eight months – my work has been mostly chairs and casework that relied on other joints. So I’m a bit out of practice.

When this happens and I need to cut dovetails, I quickly default to the method I use to teach students to dovetail. This method helps build good habits when sawing and helps you fix any mistakes.

This method is used on the second part of the joint that you cut where dead-on accuracy matters. It works on either the pinboard and the tailboard. This trick has two principles:

  1. A saw will follow the path of least resistance. If you can lay in accurate kerfs on all the surfaces of your joint, the saw will follow them.
  2. To correct a mistake in sawing, you need lines on your work that guide you, showing where the saw kerf should have been. Paring your joint without guidelines is working blind and asking for trouble.

In the following example, I am using this method on the pinboard. (Apologies for the weird changes in color temperatures on the photos. My bench light has a really warm color.)

The layout on the front face of the pinboard in knife and pencil.

Lay Out the Joint
As always, I transfer the shape of the tailboard onto the end grain of the pinboard using a marking knife. Then I darken the knife lines with a fine mechanical pencil. Then use a knife and a square to mark the shape of the joint on the outside face of the joint and darken those lines.

The layout on the inside face of the pinboard in pencil only.

Use a square and a pencil to do the same thing on the inside face of the joint. I skip the knife here because it’s the inside of the joint and won’t be seen.

It’s also a good idea to draw a pencil line in your baselines, as shown.

Saw the Joint
First lay in a shallow kerf on the end grain. I start sawing on the far corner and nibble back to the near corner. Get as close to your knife line as possible. The kerf on the end grain should be quite shallow – no more than 1/16”.

Now saw down the front face of the joint, following your knife line. Here’s how: Keep the saw in the kerf in the end grain. Drop the handle until the saw is nearly vertical as shown in the photo. Gently extend the kerf from the end grain to the baseline on the front face.

This method uses the saw’s plate to give you a straight line down the front face and is a really powerful trick for getting crisp dovetail shapes.

Raise the handle of the saw and kerf in the back of the joint, following your pencil lines.

After you hit the baseline, saw a shallow kerf down the inside face of the joint. You’ll have to raise the handle of the saw to near vertical to do this. After you hit the baseline on the inside face, take a breath and tilt the saw so its back is parallel to the floor.

At this point, you have a shallow kerf that connects your baselines and follows your knife lines. All you have to do is saw out the middle of the joint. The kerfs will guide you.

Finish the joint by sawing straight down.

If your sawing was wonky, you also have the knife and pencil lines that will guide you as you pare the joint to the correct shape.

This method adds a couple minutes to the sawing process on a pinboard, which can add up if time is critical and you have a lot of work to do. But it also increases your accuracy, which can save you time if you are having a sloppy day.

Give it a try before pooping on me in the comments section!

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • mark_ragnar

    The last line of this article is the best!

  • markg123

    This looks like a really good technique to me and I would love to try it, but I’m afraid I got a little lost with the terminology in an article titled “A Dovetailing Trick For Beginners”. The author starts out describing the “outside face” and “inside face” of the joint, but then switches terminology to “front face” and “back of the joint” and uses it inconsistently in both the text and pictures. Can’t make hide nor hair of what he’s talking about. And what the heck is the “saw’s plate”?

    Not trying to poop on anybody, but the “Beginner” word in the article title is what drew me here.

  • Woodbanchee3

    A no poop example of why hand sawing is the most critical hand tool skill when it comes to most hand joinery.

  • John Passacantando

    Damn, I wish I had heard about this long ago. I would have 1. fewer saws and, 2. a Japanese soaking tub, ofuru, that wouldn’t have needed steel cables to keep the dovetails together. But now I know!


  • CrazyDave

    Thanks for a very clear exposition of this technique. I have used this technique for many years. I have always been baffled and perhaps a little intimidated by dovetail machines and longer ago that I can recall i mentioned that to Roy Underhill at a Highland Woodworking fall show where he was cutting dovetails in the usual furious Roy fashion. He graciously slowed down and showed this method to me for which i will be eternally grateful. Slow, perhaps a little but results are what matter. I tell Family, friends and other “customers”: Good, Cheap, Fast, pick any two but I never do fast.

  • clay deforge

    Excellent advise!!

  • Shaun Harper

    I’ve sawn this way for a couple years now and really like it. Not sure ow or why but I think it became a habit after cutting 8 drawers with half-blind dovetails. I’ve asked this question before. I seem to have more control starting my cut on the near edge instead of the far edge. Just feels more comfortable. Anyone else do that? That is where you need to start the cut for half-blinds anyways.

    • Nickajeglin

      I feel the same way. I think it has a lot to do with the height of the bench. It’s more natural to drop my arm and squat down a little than it is to raise my arm and stand up on my toes. I will even cut all the Leeds on the front face, then flip the board in the vice to avoid having to cut the back side.

      • Nickajeglin

        *leeds should be kerf… Aurtocorrect.

  • Loxmyth

    Makes perfect sense to me, as a beginner myself. Do the show faces in the most controlled manner possible,

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