dovetail joints
IMAGE 1
Walnut-maple dovetailed drawer. This image shows a dry-fitted dovetail joint prior to glue-up and final planing.

Introduction

When people arrive at a dovetail discussion such as this, they normally arrive with a certain degree of apprehension. This apprehension being the difficulty in fabricating hand-cut dovetails that they have read about in the past. This can certainly be a deterrent to taking on these joints. I was no different than you when I began, so I understand. If you have never cut a dovetail then I hope I can get you off on the right foot.

Do not kid yourself: Dovetails are not the easiest joint to make well. However, with dedicated and conscientious practice you will be able to master them soon enough. While substantial practice is necessary, I think what really helps is to have a good plan before you get started. This plan, if well thought out, can keep you from repeating mistakes and keep you on the right track as your skill level improves.

I really wish I had had such a plan when I began making dovetails, but I did not. I do not recall my first dovetails (thankfully), but I am positive they ended up in the trash bin. I'm a bit wiser now than I was back then which really means that whenever I begin a dovetail project now I automatically go over my plan and proceed with the knowledge that I've been there, done that.

Over the years I have read many woodworking books and forums on making dovetails. And I am sure that we have all read that dovetails are what separate real woodworker's from the wannabe's. While I do not necessarily agree with that, I will say that superbly designed and crafted hand-cut dovetails reveal the fact that the woodworker has spent consideral time mastering this joint. I have the greatest respect for those who take the time to hone this skill to the highest level possible.

We can all live just fine without crafting dovetails, but there are always those little voice's in our heads that prod us to try our hand at them. I, like many before me, succumbed to those little voices and I hope you will as well because you will learn a lot and derive a great deal of satisfaction knowing you took the time to learn how to craft hand-cut dovetails. In no time you will be looking at a drawer joined with dovetails you painstakingly crafted by hand.

Before we get too far along I just want to point out that there are a lot of decisions we have to make before we even pick up a pencil to sketch our dovetails out. One of the most important decisions that we need to make is how do we want our dovetails to look when we are done.

This may not be a concern to you at this moment, but trust me - this will become very important as we progress. Let's get started!

Tails vs Pins

Before we go any further in this discussion, we want to be sure that we are all on the same page in so far as which are the tails and which are the pins. For the sake of this discussion, I will refer to the tails as those cut on the maple board (light colored board to right) and the pins as those cut on the walnut board as seen in the photo below.

My designations may not be historically correct, but that does not matter. What does matter is that we understand which board is which in this discussion.

I also want to make it clear that as the title says, I will be discussing nothing other than hand-cut dovetails. I do not use any power tools to cut my dovetails. This is simply my personal preference for this joinery style.

dovetail joints
Image 2
Dovetail drawer joint of walnut and maple boards.

While these images are close at hand, I want to point something out now about dovetail design layout. I will refer back to this later on, but want to want to emphasize some differences in design.

Looking at IMAGE 1 above note how the maple (light-colored board) joints go under and over the walnut board. If the maple board were the face of the drawer the walnut segment of the joint would be wedged shaped as shown in the image. The view from the walnut side would be slim or square rectangles. When you design your dovetails you have to take this into account before you get started. I prefer the face of the drawer to show the wedge shapes and not the rectangular shapes.

dovetail joints
Image 3
Walnut-walnut dovetail joint. This is actually the sides of a base used to support a statue in our local church.

Wood Selection

Contrasting wood really makes dovetails standout. Using similar wood all around works just as well, but IMHO just does not look as well thought out. I prefer light colored wood for the sides for two reasons: (1) The light-colored wood reflects light more evenly into the interior of the drawer and (2), I think that light-colored drawer sides againist a dark face board are superior to either light-light or dark-dark wood combinations. These are certainly my subjective preferences. You will develop your own personal choices as you progress.

Drawer Stock Orientation

Drawers live in fixed openings. Each drawer should slide snugly in its respective opening throughout the year. Each drawer and its opening is different no matter how hard we try to make them fit identically. Once you are aware of these restrictions the better you can plan your drawers for the best possible fit through the entire annual moisture cycle. The average relative humidity in most of the world is lower in the winter than it is in the summer months. That said, you must take into account this seasonal moisture change and one of the best ways to do that is to try and use quarter-saw stock for every member of your drawer. Lets take a look at the next image and see just how moisture affects our drawer stock.

dovetail joints
Figure 1
Lets assume that the figure above is a section of one of our drawer boards. As can be seen it is quater-sawn.

In regards wood movement due to varing moisture changes the general rules of thumb are these:

Longitudinal shrinkage for an 8-foot board will be about 1/16-inch from the time it is cut to when it has dried to about 7-8% which is dry enough for woodworker's to use. That change in length is not much for us to be concerned with. Tangential and radial moisture changes are cause for concern and are as follows:

Tangential change is about 8% and;

Radial change is about 4%.

In other words, tangential change is twice that of radial movment.

Looking at the board in the drawing the tangential section of the board is the narrowest of all the board dimensions and that is done for good reason which is to minimize the affect that moisture will have on our drawer fit. This, in turn, affects how our drawer will operate from month-to-month. And this means that in June or July your client will not be calling letting you in no uncertain terms that she cannot open any of her new cabinet drawers.

So now we know that the board as cut (quarter-sawn) will expand more in its width than in its height. We also know that the board length is not a concern. Now lets recall the fixed cavity that we are going to fit our drawer into. If the height of our drawer increases too much the drawer will become locked in place when the moisture is high. But if our stock is quater-sawn we know that this is not going to be a problem for us because the board will only expand radially half that of its tangential dimension or width.

Now one more important point to be aware of: The time of year that you craft the drawer must be taken into account. If you fit your drawer in December it must fit somewhat loose because the stock will expand when the relaive humidity increases in the comming summer months. If you fit your drawer during the summer months when the relative humidity is highest you should fit your drawer very snugly because it will loose moisture and shrink in the coming winder months when the relative humidity is at the lowest. Obviously, the best time to craft drawers is during the summer months because you know they will not fit any tighter than they currently are. Crafting drawers in the winter may be problematic due to the low relative humidity, but if you use a humidifier in the shop this will help.

The drawer bottom should not be overlooked. IMHO, if you are going through all the trouble to dovetial all your drawer joints you should use a solid wood bottom. I think these are the final touch to a finely crafted drawer. But a word of caution. We've been discussing wood expansion due to changes in relative humidity. If the grain in your drawer bottom runs right to left I can guarantee that your client may be calling you sometime in the summer depending on how snugly you fit the drawers. While I did say that we should not worry about wood expansion in the longitudinal direction that was becf

Going slightly off topic if I may: If you do not plan to use metal runners for your drawers (which I really hope you do not) then you should be aware of the fact that the drawer sliding in and out is going to meet with some friction. That in itself is not a problem so long as you leave sufficient clearance and take into account seasonal moisture changes. Lastly, and this probably may only happen once in a woodworker's lifetime (if they are lucky), but I have came across some maple that seems to be waxed and makes for some exceptionally smooth opening drawers. I use this special maple for drawer side-member's only.

Dovetail Tools

This could be an endless list, but I'll spare you and just describe the tools that have worked very well for me. The list is a follows:

  1. Vise or rig to hold your stock as your saw or chop your stock;
  2. Dovetail layout markers to scribe your dovetail cut lines;
  3. Dovetail saw guide to hold your saw in proper alignement;
  4. Dovetail saw to cut your mark your cut lines;
  5. Chiesls to chop out your dovetail waste.

1. Vise or Custom Rig

I use a rig I developed years ago for crafting my dovetails. As noted earlier all you really need is a good vise to hold your stock as you saw your cut lines. I developed my rig because it holds the stock at a very convienent height for me and just makes the job go a lot smoother.

2. Dovetail Layout Guide Markers

I use Veritas Dovetail Markers.

dovetail joints
Image 4
This photo shows some of the dovetail layout guides I use. Beginning from the left is a 1:8 followed by the 1:6 layout guide. The rightmost guide is both ratios in one. Just flip it to suit your layout design.

Looking at the above image you will note that the 1:8 dovetail layout guide creates slightly steeper cut lines than does the 1:6 layout guide. The thinking for this difference was based on the softness of the stock being used. It was felt that softer stock required 'wider' joints than did hardwood stock. IMO, with the quality glues that we have available today I do not think it matters which you use. Speaking only for myself, I think that small drawers look best with very thin dovetail joints. Wider drawers benefit from the wider variety. This is a personal choice you will have to decide on your own.

3. Dovetail Saw Guides

You may wish to use a dovetail guide to cut your dovetails. I use a Veritas guide. I have used this guide for years with great success;

4. Dovetail Saw

I use a Japanese dowel cutting saw to cut my dovetails. I have many fine toothed saws for cutting dovetails and they each have their strenghts and weaknesses. I find the dowel saw to work best because it has a super thin kerf that is very easy to control when cutting the smallish dovetail joints that seem to be the norm for me of late.

For the sake of clarity: The Veritas dovetail guide that I use utilizes very strong rare earth magnets to keep the saw blade perfectly flat as I make my cuts. My Japanese dowel saw has a very thin blade and only cuts on the pull stroke. It would never work as it does without the strong magnets to keep it true to my cutting marks.

5. Dovetail Chisels

You may wish to use a dovetail guide to cut your dovetails. I use a Veritas guide. I have used this guide for years with great success;

Dovetail Design

Before you take another step in your design process you must keep in mind the size of the chisels you have a your disposal for chopping out the waste from your dovetails. If your chisels are too wide to fit your dovetails you have a problem. I like to layout my outer dovetails designing them to match my narrowest dovetail chisel and then work inwards from there. I will explain this in more detail later on, but the key point is that your narrowest dovetail must have a matching chisel to chop it out.

I always begin my dovetails by laying them out to scale on paper. (Note. Lee Valley makes some great grid paper that I use for scaling my dovetails or anything else I want to draw to scale.) But, before I touch pencil to paper I ask myself a simple question: How do I want my dovetails to look when done? In other words, how will the drawer look when closed and open? (For the sake of simplicity, I will be using a drawer as reference throughout this discussion.) That said, we have several choices to consider in how our dovetail joinery is oriented on our drawer:

  1. Do you want the side board joint fingers above the face board ends?
    Looking at Photo 2 above, if the light-colored board were the side board it would be representative of this design concept.
  2. Or would you rather have the face board joints to extend across the top and bottom of the side boards?
    Using the same photo as reference, if the light-colored board were now the face it would be representative of this design concept.

Lets consider these two options in more detail.

If the maple board (Photo 2) were the face board, look at how the dark angled pins look on the face. Now take a look at Photo 1 and assume that the walnut board were the face board. The ends of the tail board is now facing the front of the drawer. They no longer have that nice angled look that the the pin boards had. If I may, the facing tail board could be mistaken for a box joint. If you spend a lot of time fabricating a dovetailed drawer, I think the last thing you want to realize is that your dovetails ended up looking like box or finger joints. I spent nearly a year on a custom jewelry box and came to that realization only after the box was completed. I was beside myself, but there was absolutely nothing I could do to change that fact. The truth be know, not one person made mention of this, but that did not help me in the slightest. Speaking for myself, I want my finished dovetails to look like dovetail. Not finger-joints!

Hopefully you will be smarter than me and not make this mistake. You may not even see it as a mistake. I am only trying to make you aware of how the joints will look when done before you begin cutting your stock. This is precisely why I ask myself the question I do before I begin my design layout: How do I want my dovetails to look when done?

Dovetail Construction

Dovtail construction is all about the details. Phasellus imperdiet, risus ut cursus ultrices, augue sem tempus nisl, sit amet euismod leo quam in ipsum. Nam sed est sit amet dui tincidunt suscipit. Integer suscipit, turpis vel dictum cursus, sapien purus porttitor diam, ac facilisis sem augue et risus. Sed in ligula. In semper augue sed nisl. Nunc eget ligula ut magna tempor fringilla. Etiam mi nibh, laoreet ut, rutrum ut, accumsan sed, arcu. Sed eu mauris eget orci dignissim lobortis. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nam quam. Nunc venenatis urna eget mi. Praesent placerat. Suspendisse potenti. Sed odio leo, tempus ut, sollicitudin id, vehicula quis, erat. Vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus orci luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae; Phasellus blandit lectus ut risus. Suspendisse massa. Curabitur vulputate, est eu consequat condimentum, risus ligula egestas lacus, in dignissim nisi metus a metus.

Content coming soon. Phasellus imperdiet, risus ut cursus ultrices, augue sem tempus nisl, sit amet euismod leo quam in ipsum. Nam sed est sit amet dui tincidunt suscipit. Integer suscipit, turpis vel dictum cursus, sapien purus porttitor diam, ac facilisis sem augue et risus. Sed in ligula. In semper augue sed nisl. Nunc eget ligula ut magna tempor fringilla. Etiam mi nibh, laoreet ut, rutrum ut, accumsan sed, arcu. Sed eu mauris eget orci dignissim lobortis. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Nam quam. Nunc venenatis urna eget mi. Praesent placerat. Suspendisse potenti. Sed odio leo, tempus ut, sollicitudin id, vehicula quis, erat. Vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus orci luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia Curae; Phasellus blandit lectus ut risus. Suspendisse massa. Curabitur vulputate, est eu consequat condimentum, risus ligula egestas lacus, in dignissim nisi metus a metus.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION !!!

More content coming soon so stay tuned!!