The Dovetail Diaries

The advancement of one man's woodworking skills.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Putting some dovetails in the Dovetail Diaries...

The dovetail joint has been around for over 3000 years.  You would think that we would be used to them by now.  But what other joint commands such awe and strikes so much fear in the heart of an aspiring woodworker as the simple dovetail joint?  Heck, some amateur woodworkers even name their weblogs after them.

Now don't take it the wrong way when I call the dovetail joint a simple joint.  I know that it takes great skill to cut a tight dovetail joint.  Believe me, I know.  But when you inspect the joint it is a simple invention.  Cut the parts, pieces called pins and tails, in two pieces of wood so that an attempt to pull them apart makes the joint tighter.  One could cut a fine example of that joint with only a handsaw and a chisel and, of course, practiced skill.

It seems that there is much money to be made 'improving' on the creation of this joint.  Several companies make boutique dovetail saws that give the user every advantage.  In the past I've tried some 'informal' dovetails in pine with a cheap, flimsy saw.  The results were so abysmal that I decided I would probably never be able to master cutting dovetails by hand.  It was only after committing to building a Shaker side table as part of The Wood Whisperer Guild Build that I purchased a Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw and tried my hand at the joint again.

Fortunately the results were much better this time around.  Was it the saw?  While the saw definitely helped the accuracy, I think it was a confidence that I gained by committing to cut the joint properly.  Of course, a good tool can also inspire the user to step up their game.

You may think that a good dovetail saw is expensive, and I'll admit they are not exactly cheap.  I mean, it's just a saw for crying out loud.  But cutting this joint by hand represented not only a hurdle to jump but, believe it or not, a bargain.

You see, my router is an old Craftsman that belonged to my grandfather and it has a 1/4 inch arbor.  I was going to have to buy a new router jig AND a new router as the router jigs I was considering all required a dovetail bit with a 1/2 inch shank.  Several hundred dollars later I would be able to cut identical dovetails as long as the board was not over 24 inches wide.  The saw would allow me to cut dovetails of varying widths on a board as wide as I could find and for considerably less money.

Am I happy with my decision?  You bet.  I jumped in with both feet and cut my first dovetail joint on my project stock.  No practicing for me.  Actually, I cut the dovetails to secure the top rail to the front legs the week before and they're hidden, so we'll consider those practice.  The second joint on the other side of the drawer looked even better, so much so that I decided to cut through-dovetail joints on the rear corners of the drawer.  Each joint looked better than the one before.

On Saturday my wife and I stopped by the Woodcraft store in Virginia Beach, VA.  My wife picked up a dovetailed drawer corner on display and commented on how good the joint looked.  As I flipped it over I saw an illegible signature on the inside. I could make out that the first name started with an 'R' and the second with a 'C'.  The light bulb clicked on.

Maybe there is something to that 'practice' thing after all.


  1. Jeff those are looking good. I picked up an inexpensive saw at Woodcraft this weekend to start learning myself. Hopefully mine come out as nicely as yours have.


  2. Thanks. I felt better about them once I started looking at the dovetail joints in some commercial furniture. LOL

    Good luck with your dovetails.