How to Hand Cut Dovetail Joints
Learn this centuries-old hallmark of craftsmanship.
2 to 5 hours
I’ve cut lots of dovetails over the years, both by hand and using dovetail jigs and a router. If I’m doing a run of drawers, I’ll use the jig and router 10 times out of 10. But for a small project, I’ll still cut them by hand. Why? First, in the time it takes to get the jig and router set up and dialed in, I could be well into the process of cutting them by hand. Second, hand-cutting dovetails is fun and rewarding. There are many “right ways” to cut them—I’ll just show you the method I learned. The most important thing is to work as accurately as you can, but don’t be concerned with perfection. Enjoy the truly handcrafted look!
- Dovetail saw
- Marking gauge
- Sharpening guide
- Sharpening stones
- Sliding T-bevel
- Woodworking vise
- Hardwood lumber
- Wood glue
How it Works
A dovetail joint is made by cutting interlocking parts on two pieces of wood. The tail board has the dovetails. The pin board has pins that slide in between the dovetails. Each outer edge of the pin board has a half pin, meaning only one face of the pin is angled. It’s a strong joinery method because the parts mechanically resist being pulled apart and have a lot of gluing surface.
Project step-by-step (19)
Mark Dovetail Depth
After milling your parts to their final dimensions, use a marking gauge to lay out the depth of the dovetails on each piece. For “through” dovetails like these, that depth is equal to the board’s thickness.
Lay Out Tails
With the sliding T-bevel on the end of your board, set the dovetail angle—given in a “rise and run” format instead of degrees. Softwoods are traditionally 1:6 and hardwoods 1:8. Lay out the tails with a marking knife. Unlike a line marked by even a sharp pencil, a line marked by a knife is exact. You can choose your dovetail size, but there should be a half pin on both edges of the pin boards.
Transfer the Lines
Using a square and a marking knife, transfer the tail marks across the ends of the tail boards. From there, bring the angled tail layout lines down the other face of the tail board.
Cut to the Line
Staying just outside your layout marks, saw down each line to just shy of the depth line. If you’d like, you can mark the waste areas to be cut out so you don’t cut on the wrong side of the lines. (No, of course I’ve never made that mistake.) Cut off the half-pin space waste on the outer edges now as well.
Chisel to Layout Line
Here’s where your sharp chisels come into play.
Starting inside the depth line, just wiggle the chisel up to the line. Next, set the chisel on the layout line, press down lightly and then wiggle the chisel up to the depth line again. This method sets the dovetail depth accurately. If you chop in hard right on the line, the chisel will push its way past your depth mark.
Chop Out the First Side
Once you’ve chiseled down about 1/8 in., you can chop more aggressively. Leave the outer ends of the pin waste intact and proceed until you’re about halfway through the board’s thickness. The outer ends will give the pin waste support when you’re chopping from the other side, helping to prevent tear-out.
Chop Out the Second Side
Flip the pin boards over and start the second side as you did the first, just wiggling up to the line. Then chop each pin space all the way through. Go lightly as you reach the end.
Pare the Tails
Clamp your tail boards in a vise and use a chisel to pare the tails to their layout lines. Be sure to look at the layout lines on both sides of the board so you keep the tails perfectly square.
Transfer Tails to Pin Board
Set your tails on the ends of the pin boards and transfer their layout with a marking knife. Next, use a square to mark the pins down to the depth lines on both sides of the pin boards.
Cut to the Lines
Cut the pins as you did the tails, staying just outside the layout lines and stopping just short of the depth line.
Chop Out the First Side
Chop out the first side of the tail waste exactly as you did the pin waste, wiggling the chisel to get an accurate start.
Chop Out the Second Side
Flip the tail boards and chop out the rest of the tail waste. It’s trickier than pin waste; you’re chopping an angled cut.
Pare to the Layout Lines
Pare the pins to their layout lines. Again, be careful to pay attention to both sides of the board to keep everything square.
Test the Fit
Press the joint together to check the fit. Chances are you’ll need to adjust it. Mark the areas that need material removed and carefully pare off a bit at a time, checking the fit often so you don’t overdo it. A good fit requires only a light tapping with a mallet.
Assemble the Joint
Once you’re satisfied with the fit, apply glue to all the mating surfaces and press the joint together. With the glue applied, you may have to be a bit more forceful with your mallet.
Sand and Finish
Once the glue is dry, sand and apply the finish.
What If There Are Gaps?
Rest assured, there likely will be some gaps that bug you. I almost always have a couple, especially if I’m a little out of practice. Don’t worry. You can fill them and make them disappear.
Cut small wedges from an extra board. Make several vertical cuts, then saw the wedges free by cutting in from the side. Make wedges with grain going vertically as well as across the grain so you can easily match the grain at the gaps.
Glue in the Wedges
Spread a little glue on the wedge and slip it into the gap. When the glue dries, cut off any extra material and sand the repaired area.