View Full Version : Handcut Dovetails

Noah Alkinburgh
06-12-2003, 10:08 AM
Well, I made my first attempt at hand cut dovetails. It was quite an experience!

I have a disston dovetail saw that was my grandfathers. It is very sharp. It might need to be tuned for doing dovetails, I am not sure. I had some scarp sassafrass laying around so I decided to use it for my test. I have very crumby chisles, and I discovered that I need one that is smaller than 1/2" but I made do. I sharpened up my 1/2" and went to work.

I had to cheat (?) and use a coping saw to clean out some b/c I couldn't get my chisel in there. I don't know if that is legal or not, but it was all hand done. :)

Not real pretty but I am very pleased with the results. I also took some time lapse pictures of the process and have them at My First Hand Cut Dovetails (http://www.alkinburgh.com/gallery/dovetail)

Please take a look. I would love any comments or feedback...I am going to try again for sure. I am going to make an attempt at half-blind too. Anyways, I thought you guys might like to see. Thanks for looking



Dave Anderson NH
06-12-2003, 11:44 AM
Not a bad first effort. Things will get tighter and faster as you do more of them. One of the most important things you've done quite well, and that is paring to your marked line. It looks right on the money. To develop your skills faster and to prevent frustration, you might want to look for a wood without such a coarse grain and a tendency to slpinter. Poplar, cherry, and maple come to mind as good choices. Stay away from pine until you have a lot of practice, its softness and lack of strength can also give you fits.

Greg Wandless
06-12-2003, 4:20 PM
Making hand cut dovetails is one of my favorate joints. Keep praticing and you will get better, I promise.

I aggree with Mac , try using poplar to pratice on. Its cheap and cuts pretty cleanly.

One other suggestion, instead of using a straight edge ruler to set the positon of the bottoms or backs of the dovetail use a 1-1/2 thick piece of stock clamped along yoy scribed line. That way you can use to make make sure your choping down square to the face of the wood.

Good luck.

Jim Fuller
06-12-2003, 5:14 PM
But I looked for as much information as I could find, and like you I just set into cutting. Your first attempt is much better than mine, but you will get better if you keep cutting. I use HC dovetails on everything I can. If I offered any advise, it would be, when you get a good joint, in scrap, save it. Then when you are making a drawer cut, you can hold it in position and look at the direction and placement of the pins and/or tails. Hope you have as much fun with yours as I do. Nuther thing, I bought some Sorby high dollar chisels, if I had it to do again I would ask for help in selecting. I like them but they hurt the palm of my hand if I don't wrap them in something.

Tom Scott
06-12-2003, 5:43 PM

You're a braver man than I by posting your first dovetails. I'm sure yours look better than my first.

Looks like you have the process down, and you definitely can chisel to the line. Once you learn to cut to the line your life and your dovetails will get better. The goal on sawing is to "split the line". In other words, you want one edge of the saw kerf to be right on your scribe line. I still go through the process of marking the waste side to make sure I am on the correct side of the line...boy what a sinking feeling it is to make a cut and then realize it's on the wrong side :( . To practice this I set up up a board, mark a depth line, mark angled lines (as on the tail board) all the way across, and saw each while really concentrating to split the line. Then do another as if you were cutting the pin board. I will still do this occasionally if I haven't cut DT's for a while.

After learning to saw, the next biggest step for me was accurate layout. Marking from the tail board to the pin board has to be perfect. I like a nice thin (but not too thin) blade that I can really push against the board I'm marking from.

Great job, and keep it up.


Noah Alkinburgh
06-13-2003, 10:49 AM
I appreciate all your feedback...

Dave: thanks for the tips on the wood. I had Sasafrass scrap which is why I choose it. I knew it would be better than pine. Could I work with White Oak? or is it a similar issue. I might have some maple scrap but not much.

Greg: that is a great suggestion about the board instead of the ruler...it had occured to me to do that...wasn't sure if that would be ok...after doing this though my thoughts are that whatever works to make the joint right is ok...:)

Jim: I found my instructions here and there. I read a couple of magazine articles, some insturcions in a weekend project book, and the insturctions from Charlie Self available on the woodcraft site. I kept reading and it seemed like I could do it and I had the stuff already available to me. Figured I should give it a shot before plunking down big money to buy a dovetail jig :)

Tom: I think you hit it right on...cutting to the line. I have never been good with a hand saw...I have a hard time cutting to the line with a power saw :D (oops a corded tool) Thanks for the suggestions and encouragement.

I appreciate it guys...may try again this weekend if I have time...might try half blind too. Question can half blind be done if the stock is the same thickness? Would you just cut the pins smaller then the thickness of the stock? i.e. using 3/4 stock you mark 1/2" and cut that way?


Paul Barnard
06-13-2003, 2:00 PM

Yes you can use same thickness material for half blind DTs. Just a note though, it is usually the tails that are short (i.e. don't go all the way through). Good job on your first attempt. A nice trick when making practice corners is to use two different woods (walnut and poplar are a good combination) as the joint really stands out.

Noah Alkinburgh
06-13-2003, 2:25 PM
Yes tails it would be not pins....thanks for pointing that out Paul. Boy if that doesn't proove I am a newbie nothing will :D

Thanks for the tip on the contrasting woods, its a neat idea.


Steve Denvir
06-14-2003, 2:04 PM
Noah, I'm going through the same process myself, and trust me, practice does make perfect. Or at least acceptable. I found that Ian Kirby's book, "The Complete Dovetail" was a tremendous resource. It walks you through every tiny little detail, even how to stand while sawing. I can't recommend it enough. It's made a real difference to the quality of my dovetails.

Good luck