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Cutting Dovetail Joints by Hand

Woodworking Workshop
Cutting Dovetail Joints by Hand
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Dovetail joints are an ancient way of mating two pieces of wood at a corner. Often used in cabinet-making, the dovetail joint is both extremely strong, and aesthetically pleasing.


I must admit, I can make a dovetail joint, but it’s so loose as to not be usable. It’s on my bucket list of skills to learn. This video by John Bullar explains simply how to cut them. You’ll note that he freehands the angles used (probably because he’s done thousands of them), but you can also get dovetail markers to help with your first time.

Make sure you get yourself a good marking gauge and a fine saw, and you should be able to do it after a couple of hundred tries.

12 thoughts on “Cutting Dovetail Joints by Hand

  1. Izzabella Sayer says:

    WOW and thank you I have been trying to do this joint for such a long time
    now I can get the books and do it myself …………thanks again

  2. Alex says:

    I know it’s just a rendering, but in the Sketchup picture the grain should be running lengthwise on the pin piece. The way it’s pictured wouldn’t have much structural strength.

  3. Tommy Phillips says:

    My all-time favorite dovetail video:

    Pay attention to the twist in the blade of the narrow bow saw when he is cutting out the sockets. It’s what allows him to turn that corner with a single thrust.

  4. rob says:

    fine woodworking has had arguments about cutting the tails first or the pins but aside from silly arguments like that, they had an article about the best way of learning to cut dovetail joints. Practice! Cut a joint, fit it. Cut it again, over and over.

  5. woodshopcowboy says:

    Every woodworker has a certain number of bad dovetails in them…trouble is getting through them!

  6. Rahere says:

    The Japanese are the acknowledged masters of fine joinery, using a finer dovetail backsaw called a dozuki for these purposes. Cutting on the pull, it leaves a far better surface on the tenons, strengthening the bind: it has the advantage over the dovetail saw that rather than cutting on the waste side of the marking, its cut is barely wider than the marking so it makes for an exact joint. The resulting problem is that you can’t get a coping saw blade down the slot, so the waste is removed by cross-cutting from one shoulder to the bottom of the opposite cut, as far as possible, and chiseling out.
    For coarse grain and softwoods like those shown, the rough cut of the western saw is fine, but for fine-grain hardwoods, it was never used for more than roughing-out, followed by fine chiseling. As the Japanese saw has a fine bevel on the tooth end, it cuts by shearing the fibres, rather than tearing them, producing a result entirely compatible with a chiseled surface.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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