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Dovetails with Dividers

Rob Cosman showed me how to lay out dovetails using dividers about 12 or 13 years ago, and I have never looked back.

I’ve caught a lot of crap for using the divider method from fellow hand-tool woodworkers who say that laying them out by eye is much faster. I don’t disagree.

However, there are some advantages to taking the extra time and use dividers.

1. My work looks more consistent from corner to corner. This doesn’t matter much with drawer work, but it does show on chests and carcases where you can see two or three corners simultaneously.

2. When I make an occasional mistake, the consistent layout allows me to get away with it.

What do I mean by that? Take this morning for example. I’m teaching a class in building a tool chest and am making the dovetailed skirting that goes around the carcase. I got my parts turned around and ended up using the wrong tail board to mark out the pins on the skirt.

When I discovered the error, I muttered a curse at myself for being such a dolt.

But then I put the pieces in the correct orientation and they fit perfectly anyway because my layout was precise and identical at all four corners. Problem solved (see the photo above).

If you want to learn how to lay out dovetails using dividers, check out Rob Cosman’s tutorials on his DVDs and his web site. Or watch this video prepared by Megan Fitzpatrick on the procedure.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 15 comments
  • DannyC

    Not being sure how to contact you directly, I’m doing it as a comment.

    My comment (actually fits above pic) is simply this. (after a comment first).
    When you join two boards together – you edge them and glue them and done.

    So, why not dovetail them together? Would not the “look” be better? A design detail – yes?

    (keeping this short) Also, why make them all the same size as you already make? Why not make the waste (small section) 1/4″ and the shoulder (wide section) 1″ with 1″ between them?

    Also, why make them the same size – on the panel? make the 1st one as sized above, then the next one either 50% bigger or twice as big, then the next one, then the next (till the center of the board) then reduce in size to the other side?

    Also, why use straight pointy edged dovetails – why not “puzzle shape”.

    For ex: 1″ circles laid side by side with 1″ circles laid on the tangents above them? Then that would give a very interesting shape to a panel. The panel can be same stock or contrasting stock (greatly or mildly).

    Almost any interlocking shape can be used – the only key is interlocking.

    Why don’t I do it to show you – I have trouble making simple dovetails when someone else is doing it for me! hahahaa

    So, how many people actually do this? I haven’t seen any.

    Just an idea – what do you think – got any spare pine boards that can be split and rejoined?

  • John Hutchinson

    Gorgeous photo, Chris !!! At first I though I was looking at penciled hash marks on the wood. And then I realized that IS the wood. Oh my. I need a monster jpeg for a poster.

  • dspettit

    Chris, I built the Anarchist’s Toolchest last year. Exactly 100 hand cut dovetails between the skirt, carcase and the drawers…….all laid out with dividers. Couldn’t agree with you more!!


  • lindhrr

    Used the divider method for years,sometime just eyeball and mark,but like the divider method better since being shown by Cosman(a true craftsman).And where is the race???????????????????????????????????Maybe I should have my track shoes on when I cut dovetails.

  • Bill Rainford

    I’m a divider layout guy as well. After layout and cutting enough this way, setting the dividers goes pretty fast. If I have to do a lot of layout of the same size, say when making a series of drawers or boxes that are the same size etc I’m able to use that same layout and would argue that spread across a run it saves me layout time and keeps things at a level of consistency that keeps my inner engineer/OCD happy.

  • Fraise

    The thing is to put a little mark on one end and the piece it matches. You have my permission to do this freehand.

  • David

    Ill go with the dividers – I like the process. A good process makes me feel warm and cozy. ha.

    I just bought 2 sets based on Chris’ recommendations.

    I appreciate the eyeball process – but the Engineer in me likes to have a method. And I’m not good enough yet to not make mistakes that the divider process may help me to avoid. Since I’m not a production shop – I can spare the extra 2 mins.

    Thanks Chris.

  • deric

    I use this method but set the half pin lengths with my small double square set to a nice looking length. I find it easier than tying to set a second set of dividers and putting the point on the end of the board. The other end of the blade is then used to mark square across the end for the pins. It works for me.

  • Jason

    I’m going to sprain an eyeball here if I roll my eyes much more. Is it really so much slower to lay out with dividers than by eye as to be an actual issue? Certainly not for me. There are many ways of doing almost everything and most are quite valid (there ARE some wrong ways to do things, afterall). Are people really so starved for an argument they need to quibble about the speed of laying out dovetails? Apparently so. This is almost like the sharpening jig vs. freehand “discussions”. Who. Freaking. Cares? Do your layout however you like and get to the making.

    Chris, you catch far more flack than you deserve and I know it wears on a person after a while. Know that a great many of us really appreciate your dedication to the craft and to getting us to open our minds, try our hands and focus more on “doing” and less on debating the myriad “how-to-do-its”.

    Me, I’m keeping my dividers and sharpening jig

  • apbeelen

    I never saw that before…nice and simple, I like it! I love the yellow pine in your picture, too!

  • JMAW Works

    Just last week my bacon was similarly saved by symmetric layout of tails. I had flipped a housed mortise elsewhere on the piece that was absolutely asymmetric. I thought I would surely have to re-cut the piece, but thankfully with only a bit of paring and a small shim, I was back in business.


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