Dovetails may look gorgeous and neat as far as joinery goes, but they are also complex and designed that way for a reason as they serve a critical function. The technique of cutting dovetails by hand has been used by carpenters for thousands of years in furniture and joinery as a way to join the front and sides of the object. Dovetails are so named because when they are cut, their shape is reminiscent of a dove’s tail feathers.
The sight of these birds’ tails may have helped inspire the earliest carpenters to try out this helpful geometric arrangement. Thanks to dovetails, you can secure the corners of joinery together with strength and with less of a need for nails, rivets, and other metallic fastenings. They simply employ the cohesion caused by the interlocking and distinctive cuts, pins, and tails to form the joint. With how important they are, you will also notice how difficult it can be at times to cut them to just the right shape to fit properly with one another.
Fortunately, with a handful of select tools and some basic know-how, you will not need a massive array of expensive equipment to cut the dovetails you need to help finish your carpentry project.
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Types of Dovetail Joints and How They Differ
There are several different kinds of dovetails that have arisen over time. While they all have overlap to some degree, each type of dovetail is typically used for different types of joinery and corners. When you go to cut dovetails for your project, cutting the tails or the pins first is an important thing you may want to consider.
You may find you will prefer one approach over the other for different types of dovetails. If you have the resources available, it may be a good idea to experiment with some suitable spare wood to see which technique you prefer for making your dovetails. This has the added benefit of giving you practice with making different types of dovetails without putting an in-progress project at risk of being marred.
The following common dovetail types include:
1. Through Dovetails
Through dovetails are the simplest and perhaps the oldest and first dovetails ever used in carpentry. As the name implies, when cut, these dovetails allow two separate pieces of wood to intersect into a perfect corner with each other firmly and strongly. It is a lot like a linear jigsaw puzzle or legos, how two properly cut through dovetail pieces fit together.
2. Dovetail Jigs
Unlike other dovetail joints, dovetail jigs are not hand-made. Instead, they employ a pre-existing steel frame to produce dovetails with distinctive curves. These jigs operate with routers to produce the curvature and are ideal for projects where you want to add a more distinctive flair and don’t mind using a power tool for your dovetails.
3. Sliding Dovetail Joints
Another simple dovetailing approach, sliding dovetail joints work via a long tail with grooves carved into it. Its sides are angled as well so that it can be affixed to a longboard pin that secures it in place.
4. Box-Joint Dovetails
Rather than employing angling, as the name implies these dovetail joints utilize simple straight cuts for their tails and pins, but at a sacrifice of durability. They are often at times easier to make and employ, even compared to the traditional through dovetail approach for joints.
5. Half-Blind Dovetails
The philosophy of this dovetail approach is one eye open, one eye closed. That translates to cutting so that only one of your dovetail joints will be visible, whilst the other is not. They are more suitable for storage furnishings than they are for larger furniture and buildings, generally speaking. You will know a dovetail is a half-blind design when only a single part of the joint is visible.Interesting Read: Making A Perfect Miter Joint
The Tools of the Trade
To make the kind of woodworking cuts needed to achieve dovetails, you will need a reliable carpentry chisel set, a marking knife, and a dedicated dovetailing saw for starters. Additionally, be sure to have a square on hand, a trusty mallet, and a Moxon vise to secure pieces.
For the Moxon vise, you can always hand-craft your own if that is your inclination, whilst there are also models available for sale if you look well enough. Many carpenters prefer a vise they have made themselves, as they know almost immediately the type of specifications they will need for the projects they have in mind, especially dovetailing.
With a bit of practice, cutting and making dovetails is not a painstaking process, it can be quicker than you realize as you get comfortable with it and your tools. For starters, you will need the tools mentioned above. Each tool you do not possess can either burden your efforts or make it impossible altogether to hand-cut your dovetails.Before starting the process, make sure each tool is well-maintained and ready for service. No matter how good your cutting technique, it is only as good as the quality and readiness of the tool you are cutting with after all. The following steps are generalized, and are usually best employed for Through Dovetails and Half-Blind Dovetails, but can also be applied to the other joint types as well, of course.
Step 1: Mark Your Depth
Before anything else, you need to know how deep you will need to cut. Some carpenters prefer to use the board’s own default thickness as their guide. For most others, there are very handy marking gauges designed for this very purpose. This step has tonnes of overlap with other similar cutting techniques elsewhere in project creation.When making your measurements, your Moxon vise is handy for securing the board in place so you can mark your depth based on your measurements. Again, a custom Moxon vise is especially helpful here. A vise you made yourself is more likely to better secure the sizes of wood you most ordinarily work with, removing even more of the extra guesswork from your measurements.
Step 2: Mark the Tails
This is where your square comes in. The edge will make it easy to mark your way from the ends of the board, to the top square, and finally to the board’s face. Designate the areas you will not be needing with an X or similar easy symbol; these are what you will be removing.
Step 3: Cutting the Tails Out
With your areas marked, now it is time to cut out the tails from the rest of the wood piece you were just working with. Some may want to mark out the cutting angle, but this is not always necessary, especially if you have a good feel for your saw already.Ultimately it boils down to taste; what matters most is a steady and confident sawing hand as you remove the tails for use on the dovetail later on in the process. Be sure to remove the resulting waste wood using a dust collector so that you can proceed with finishing the tails. Also, be sure to clear off any resulting dust.
Step 4: Removing Tail Waste Wood
The best way to clear out the waste wood is with your chisel at about 1/16th of an inch from the depth line or as close as you can get to that. From there, make a rapid downstroke motion along that depth line. At a 30-degree angle, come in and pair back to cease the most recent cut.
Repeat this process at the halfway point, then flip your board over. Continue the process once more until you break through to the other side. To top this overarching removal process off, place the chisel directly into the stop line and use it to clean out the wood. Continue all the way across the line, undercutting the joint a bit. In doing so, you can ensure a slightly better fit with your tails.
Step 5: Mark the Pins
Just like with your tails, you will be using a single board from which you will cut out your pin pieces essentially for forming the dovetail joint. Many of the same principles used in making the tails will apply to making the pins, as you will see.
Using your Moxon vise as your reference as well as your working platform, set the pin board down, just slightly above the top of the vise. Use a tail board to line things up, as you will need this for accurate marking. Apply pressure from there while using your marking knife to mark to the end of the pin board. Mark again as you did with the tail board.
Step 6: Cutting the Pins Out
You will find a lot similar in this cutting operation as you did with the tails, too. Here, the square can come in handy again if you prefer to mark vertical lines for your impending cuts. If you are confident enough, however, eyeballing the reflection of the wood in your saw’s metal can also be a great visual aid for making just the perfect cut, which is a positively brilliant yet simple little trick. With all of that done, once more it is time to clean out the waste wood.
Step 7: Removing Pin Waste Wood
Using your Moxon vise, rotate the pin board at a 90-degree angle before cutting your way down the depth line. This will dislodge the debris left around the outside-facing edge. What is left can easily be chiselled away, directly mirroring how you clear out the tail waste!
Step 8: Fitting and Completion
As you go to fit the two boards together, you may need your chisel to make final adjustments. Not every person new to dovetailing is going to have cut perfectly the first time, so the chisel and final adjustments are especially necessary so that when the pieces fit, they do so as perfectly as possible.
Any places where the fit is overly tight or overlapping can easily be adjusted with your chisel. Eyeball it and gently chisel away at the excess wood until the fit is more seamless. This also ensures it retains its strength for the joint. You must not have large gaps, so whilst the rest of the dovetailing process may seem fast, this is where a diligent, steady hand and patience are key.
With the boards, tails, and pins all adequately adjusted for the perfect fit, you are now ready to fit the joint!
To fit the joint, once it has passed your fitting inspection (making sure that no further adjustments are needed and that everything fits together as intended) you simply need to apply a bit of force to lock and seat the boards into place, forming the corner. As you get more advanced, you can also use these dovetails for intersection corners as well. It is quite easy to see as you make them just how versatile of a joint dovetails in all their varieties really are.
Final Step: Done & Dusted!
As with all woodworking projects, one that requires delicate cuts such as dovetailing will require cleanup. However, given how involved it is, it is never a bad idea to clean off sawdust, tail waste, pin waste, and other miscellaneous debris as frequently as possible using a dust collector. Whilst cutting, any and all dust that can get in your way during a crucial cut can ruin the dovetail.
A clean working platform will ensure that you can go smoothly from start to finish without making a critical error in your cutting and having to start over anew with a fresh piece of wood. Not to mention, the lack of clutter from the waste wood also gives your eyes less of a bothersome mess, freeing up your concentration on the next steps.
It may be a good idea if you are new to dovetailing to practice your cleaning technique alongside your cutting technique since cutting in different ways causes debris to collect in a way you are not used to.
Time to wrap!
With this simple but important affair of constantly clear working space out of the way, you are well on your own way to achieving the kind of strong dovetailed corners you desire! With them, you can create strong, confident corners and joints for your joinery that will stand the test of time and hold up under pressure.
Not only that, but you will also master how to make them look the best and truly express your pride as an artisan and carpenter! We hope you enjoy your new dovetailing work, and that it is as easy to achieve as it is easy to admire and appreciate on finished carpentry.