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Thread: Dovetails

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Dec 2014
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    springfield,or
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    Dovetails

    Hi all
    I've haven't made anything yet with dovetails. The wife wants a simple box for the bathroom, so I figured now's the time to learn. Got all my tools in order, watched some YouTube and went to work. Needless to say, I now have a much greater appreciation for those of you who make beautiful dovetails. I've made 3 boxes (24 dovetails) now and they have all turned out like crap. I think I've done just about everything wrong and while frustrating it makes me want to learn all the more. I just can't get them to fit nice off the saw. I think I'm sawing to the line, square and straight, but every single time they need paring and that's really when all goes to hell. Maybe I'm transferring wrong, but I've watched Paul's and Rob's videos every single night and think I'm following the steps to a tee. When I try to saw right to the line on my pins, they're to big and then the tails fit loose / poorly. When I try to saw just a bit in, too skinny and then pairing. I've also noticed I tend to saw my tails with just the slightest round at the top. It's hard to explain via text, but when I transfer my tails I notice just the slightest round at the top. I don't see it while I'm checking my saw lines. Everything I've done so far has been In straight grain Doug fir, so the sawing hasn't been the easiest as I hit the hard spots and it really jams me up.

    Anyways no real questions just a vent and to say bravo to those of you who can do it well. I really thought it looked quite easy before I tried it. Keep up the good work!

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Feb 2004
    Location
    Perth, Australia
    Posts
    7,426
    Michael, no doubt that you will get plenty of advice from others, and all good. Please try following the pictorial of mine below, and report back your experiences.

    http://www.inthewoodshop.com/Furnitu...ovetails3.html

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Dec 2016
    Location
    South West Ontario
    Posts
    1,058
    Softwoods like Douglas Fir are harder to work. A good medium hardwood like cherry is better to practice on, it guides the saw more accurately. Take a scrap peice, knife 20 dovetail lines and cut to the line but leave it alone. Support the angle and cut with your thumb against the saw at the top, I cut straight down on through dovetails, stopping just before the bottom. With the waste gone I slide a chisel down the line to clean the corner, it leaves a crisp corner.
    ​You can do a lot with very little! You can do a little more with a lot!

  4. #4
    You're simply experiencing what all of us have. It takes some practice, but once you get the first one, you're off (you just have to remember what you did ha ha).

    The key is accurate marking and sawing.

    That said, if you would describe the tools you're using, therein might lie some of your problem. It is extremely difficult to get good results with a saw that is sub-standard.

    Personally, I only scribe lines when I need extremely accurate joints. For drawers, etc, I use a pencil, flattened one side (rub on some sandpaper) and hold the flat side against the pin to mark the tail (or vice versa). Always leave the line/saw to the waste side.

    Practice sawing as William said, straight lines and angles lines.

    Straight grain soft wood like you're using will be harder to saw because the saw will tend to follow the grain. The key there is hold the saw with a lighter touch & use deliberate, but gentle strokes let the saw do the work.

    Something like poplar or basswood milled to 1/2" are good for practicing. If your saw is leaving jagged, serrated lines, it is not suitable. You want a thin kerf rip saw, 14TPI to start.

    You don't need a $250 saw. Even a $15 gent's saw can be made to work. You will need to de-set the teeth, as they are usually set way to wide, and probably will need a resharpening to a rip saw tooth configuration. Not so hard to do saw files are very cheap. De-setting can also be done by simply tapping between two hardwood blocks.

    Hope this helps!

  5. #5
    The learning curve is up hill again! I don't cut dovetails all the time or even much of the time. When I have a dovetail job coming up I start cutting a single dovetail first thing when I get to my shop, a little throw away practice. After a week, I'm all warmed up. I just finished a dovetail carcass in 1" hard maple and if my time was money I could not afford the cabinet! Stay on it, you'll become an expert if you want to be one!

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Sep 2007
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    Longview WA
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    1
    Hi Michael, Cutting dovetails can be a difficult process to get right. For some it comes easy. It took me years to finally 'get it.'

    Reading and watching others explain their process can be helpful. It may be one trick or just the way it is presented to make it click and come together for you.

    Derek is very good at presenting his methods of working.

    One of the things to help on my journey to cutting better dovetails was to use some scrap pieces of 1X4 construction fir from Home Depot or Lowes for practice. A couple tails would be marked and cut then examined to determine what corrections to my method could be done. These would the be cut off, dated and thrown in a box to start another joint. Also helpful is if you cut tails first, do a few of these practice pieces pins first. If you do pins first then make some tails first. It will not only add insights to the differences, it may reveal areas needing an improvement of method.

    One solution to your rounded tops is to cut your tails and pins a touch proud. Then they can be taken down with a block plane to square the tops.

    Here is a post of mine with most of my dovetailing insights > https://sawmillcreek.org/showthread.php?259750

    Another one of my posts doesn't have as much insight into the dovetailing but it uses overly proud pins and tails > https://sawmillcreek.org/showthread.php?278586 < To me they can become a decorative feature.

    What may be my first well done set of dovetails is still one of my favorite pieces. It was just a small bench with a drawer being made for a sharpening station. It was too cold to use glue in the shop. It was just before Christmas so in the house was crazy. The drawer was put together with the thought that it could be glued when it got warm in the spring. That has been over six years now and it is still unglued:

    Unglued Dovetail.jpg

    The tails on this drawer were also left overly proud and then rounded.

    jtk
    Last edited by Jim Koepke; 06-04-2020 at 7:08 PM. Reason: changed on trick to one trick
    "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
    - Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Dec 2014
    Location
    springfield,or
    Posts
    265
    Quote Originally Posted by Robert Engel View Post
    You're simply experiencing what all of us have. It takes some practice, but once you get the first one, you're off (you just have to remember what you did ha ha).

    The key is accurate marking and sawing.

    That said, if you would describe the tools you're using, therein might lie some of your problem. It is extremely difficult to get good results with a saw that is sub-standard.

    Personally, I only scribe lines when I need extremely accurate joints. For drawers, etc, I use a pencil, flattened one side (rub on some sandpaper) and hold the flat side against the pin to mark the tail (or vice versa). Always leave the line/saw to the waste side.

    Practice sawing as William said, straight lines and angles lines.

    Straight grain soft wood like you're using will be harder to saw because the saw will tend to follow the grain. The key there is hold the saw with a lighter touch & use deliberate, but gentle strokes let the saw do the work.

    Something like poplar or basswood milled to 1/2" are good for practicing. If your saw is leaving jagged, serrated lines, it is not suitable. You want a thin kerf rip saw, 14TPI to start.

    You don't need a $250 saw. Even a $15 gent's saw can be made to work. You will need to de-set the teeth, as they are usually set way to wide, and probably will need a resharpening to a rip saw tooth configuration. Not so hard to do saw files are very cheap. De-setting can also be done by simply tapping between two hardwood blocks.

    Hope this helps!

    Robert thanks for the reply. It is definitely not the equipment in this case, I actually went and bought my first "NEW" saw, which is a veritas carcass rip, I also have my great grandpa's old disston dovetail saw, that I have sharpened. I use veritas Dovetail saddle for the marking portion and have tried both pencil and knife. I've learned like Paul states in his video that knife marks on the softwood endgrain isn't ideal. So I've been using the pencil since. Just like anything, I probably need a lot more practice doing it. Another problem I have with starting the cut in the end grain is those stinking (fast growth ring?) hard spots. The variation is sawing pressure from tail to tail is huge. On some I basically go as light as I possibly can and the saw still jams up. On others two or three strokes and Im down to the line.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Dec 2014
    Location
    springfield,or
    Posts
    265
    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Fournier View Post
    The learning curve is up hill again! I don't cut dovetails all the time or even much of the time. When I have a dovetail job coming up I start cutting a single dovetail first thing when I get to my shop, a little throw away practice. After a week, I'm all warmed up. I just finished a dovetail carcass in 1" hard maple and if my time was money I could not afford the cabinet! Stay on it, you'll become an expert if you want to be one!
    The one plus to all this practice is I now have some benchtop caddy boxes.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Dec 2014
    Location
    springfield,or
    Posts
    265
    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Koepke View Post
    Hi Michael, Cutting dovetails can be a difficult process to get right. For some it comes easy. It took me years to finally 'get it.'

    Reading and watching others explain their process can be helpful. It may be on trick or just the way it is presented to make it click and come together for you.

    Derek is very good at presenting his methods of working.

    One of the things to help on my journey to cutting better dovetails was to use some scrap pieces of 1X4 construction fir from Home Depot or Lowes for practice. A couple tails would be marked and cut then examined to determine what corrections to my method could be done. These would the be cut off, dated and thrown in a box to start another joint. Also helpful is if you cut tails first, do a few of these practice pieces pins first. If you do pins first then make some tails first. It will not only add insights to the differences, it may reveal areas needing an improvement of method.

    One solution to your rounded tops is to cut your tails and pins a touch proud. Then they can be taken down with a block plane to square the tops.

    Here is a post of mine with most of my dovetailing insights > https://sawmillcreek.org/showthread.php?259750

    Another one of my posts doesn't have as much insight into the dovetailing but it uses overly proud pins and tails > https://sawmillcreek.org/showthread.php?278586 < To me they can become a decorative feature.

    What may be my first well done set of dovetails is still one of my favorite pieces. It was just a small bench with a drawer being made for a sharpening station. It was too cold to use glue in the shop. It was just before Christmas so in the house was crazy. The drawer was put together with the thought that it could be glued when it got warm in the spring. That has been over six years now and it is still unglued:

    Unglued Dovetail.jpg

    The tails on this drawer were also left overly proud and then rounded.

    jtk
    Jim, Do you think I could be getting the rounding because I start the saw off, dead level? What I mean is I hold the spine straight up and down till I get my square line started and then tilt the saw once that square line has been established.

    The most frustrating part to me about this all is the chisel work. I think I cut a good tail/s, get all excited that its going to turn out good, saw pins, spend all that time chiseling and then crappy fit.

  10. #10
    Everyone who keeps at this long enough will become good at it. It is remarkably attainable.

    Be patient with yourself. IMHO, practice sawing accurately and straight first. I would make a bunch of half laps because they require you to cut straight and do not require paring.

    Next you need to accurately mark the pins. Derek has lots of tricks for that. But start with wider pins so you can knife them well.

    Last you need to be able to scribe and pare to the base line properly, without moving it back.

    Just practice; your 4th will be way better than your 1st if u are patient.

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Dec 2014
    Location
    springfield,or
    Posts
    265
    Another thing I've learned, that the knife wall is extremely fragile. It might be because its douglas fir, but it seems like no matter how careful I am, I bruise or move that wall every single time.

  12. #12
    Make your cuts a bit off the line, into the waste area. Then use a chisel to pare back to the line.

    After you get good at sawing you will be able to get a good fit off the saw. There's a bunch of "hints" that I could give you but it's difficult to teach remotely. Take a look at one of my tutorials here, here, here, and here.

    Mike
    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    Forest Lake MN
    Posts
    316
    Quote Originally Posted by Michael J Evans View Post
    Robert thanks for the reply. It is definitely not the equipment in this case, I actually went and bought my first "NEW" saw, which is a veritas carcass rip, I also have my great grandpa's old disston dovetail saw, that I have sharpened. I use veritas Dovetail saddle for the marking portion and have tried both pencil and knife. I've learned like Paul states in his video that knife marks on the softwood endgrain isn't ideal. So I've been using the pencil since. Just like anything, I probably need a lot more practice doing it. Another problem I have with starting the cut in the end grain is those stinking (fast growth ring?) hard spots. The variation is sawing pressure from tail to tail is huge. On some I basically go as light as I possibly can and the saw still jams up. On others two or three strokes and Im down to the line.
    I first tried with the carcass rip and had a lot of trouble with them, difficulty starting the cut right was part of it and it also did not steer very well and I often overcut the line. It is a 12 TPI with 10 degree rake compared to the DT saw which is 14 TPI with 14 degree rake which makes starting cuts much easier. I had a better time using that saw, though someone skilled could likely use either just fine. Could also have been my specific saw, I have been meaning to sharpen it and see if that makes a difference.

    While most people cut tails first I found I was significantly more successful cutting pins first, no idea why just worked better for me.

    When it really stated clicking though was when I got my knew concepts fret saw, I think largely because it made it faster so I could do more practice in less time. I still am no expert but thats how I got from throw away pieces to something at least approaching acceptable. Oh and also practice on shallow boxes with only one tail and 2 pins, takes more variables out of fitting and lets you see your mistakes more clearly .

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Feb 2014
    Location
    Lake Gaston, Henrico, NC
    Posts
    4,956
    I could never do as good of a job with a marking knife, as I can with a sharp no. 4 pencil. A good no. 4 pencil line can be as small as any scribed line. You have to either leave the line, or take the line. I could never exactly get right with leaving a scribed line. Here is another case, like I mentioned recently about sharpening saws, where being able to see what you are doing is most important. I've been blessed with good eyesight (so far, knock on wood), but I still need good lighting. It's the same reason Derek uses the blue tape-to be able to see Exactly where. I always saw to the line's edge-either edge as required, but it's absolutely mandatory that I have a good view of that line's edge.

  15. #15
    All good advice. Everyone learns differently. What turned my dovetails around was taking a dovetail class with Rob Cosman. He has a very scientific approach which registered with me. I’m sure he has a lot of videos on YouTube which shows his methods. Just a suggestion if you have not already seen them.

    Michael

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