Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Handcut Dovetails in 6 Minutes.

Don't be fooled by the long standing myth that hand cut dovetails are a thing only to be had by the elite.  Do you think cutting them by hand is hard?  Thank again!  Don't think you have the time to learn?  Horse pucky!

Keep on reading and I will let you in on the dirty little secret of handcut dovetails.  I guarantee it!

Well, because you've made it thus far, your either a complete woodworking nut who is looking to improve their woodworking craft, or you think I am full of horse pucky.

Your likely correct on both counts.

I am so full of crap, I would bet you can smell it coming out of your computer screen.

I am here today, to share the truth.  Don't tell the magizine publishers because they want to sell you another magazine with a cover story that reads something like, "Master Handcut Dovetails in 25 Minutes.  Guaranteed!"

Here's the woodworking industry's dirty little secret.

Quality joinery IS difficult.
Quality joinery IS time consuming.
Quality joinery comes with LOTS of practice.
Quality joinery comes with no short cuts.
Quality joinery is never a sure thing.

In my day's as a woodworker, both as a hobby and profession, I've tried lots and lots of different ways to "master" this elusive joint.

I've tried cutting them by hand, and chisel.  I've tried the bandsaw, table saw, router, coping saw, hack saw, and chain saw.  NONE of which created the perfect result I was hoping for.  And finally it dawned on me.  The reason I was never able to accomplish "The perfect dovetail" was because I had yet to put in the time honing MY technique.  Finding the way, that was best for ME.

It was far easier to ignore the technique and find another way to hold two pieces of wood together.  I finally had enough of that attitude and decided to hone my skills once and for all.

I made a professional decision that every drawer to leave my shop from that day forward would be constructed using dovetails.  I was forcing my hand in two ways.  1.  It would kick my butt and make me a better craftsman, and 2.  Find me a client who doesn't want drawers with dovetails.

I needed to find the method that would work best for me.  After much research and dollar saving, I purchased the Leigh 24" machine that dreams are made of.  I also bought every router bit and accessory known to man, and a couple dedicated routers.  

A machine has to be set and ready to use without a ton of setup and tinkering EVERY time I want to use the tool.  This BTW is a lot easier in the new shop, now that I have room to leave the machine up at all times.  I also need options.  I had no idea of the best size, or layout for what would be most effiecient and yeild the best product.  It was that reason, I invested in the full set of router bits made by the manufacurer.  If I have the tool.  I will use the tool.  That was my mindset.

The learning curve with the machine is quite good.  The provided manual is great and walks you through the process very well.  But what really bothered me is that I STILL, even with all the bells and whistles would get joints that didn't fit right for some reason or another.   Even with an expensive machine, a lot of patience and practice has gone into getting consistant results.

How much practice you ask?  10 boxes?  20 boxes?  Nope, I'm feeling comfortable with the machine and it's product after about 200 or so drawer boxes.  Each drawer has 4 corners, each get 2 passes.  Each board has about 3-4 pins and tails.

That's about 6400 dovetails. 

Lots of practice!

I still get a clunker from time to time that doesn't work, but for the most part, I know what is going to come out the other end.  That was not the case when I was first tried the machine.  All tools have some tolerances that need to be figured in.  Human powered or A/C. 

This is far from glamorus, or really creative, however it's the dues we all need to pay from time to time in order to learn more about our craft.

Feel free to leave a comment about your technique or questions about mine!

As always.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Excellent and with the economy performing like it is, I my never cut another dovetail by hand. I do sometimes feel a little self-conscious, standing at my table, banging out drawer after drawer or box after box, but whatever. It's how I make a living.
    Thanks for the post.

    I knew they were machine cut dovetails.

  2. Biggest learning curve for me was how tight to secure wood. TIGHT. Great article.

  3. Man alive that is a lot of drawer parts!

    In the early days I had an inexpensive dovetail jig. One day I forgot to put the collar in the base of the router and ruined the plastic template, and I never replaced it.

    For me the only way to cut that many dovetails would be with a router. They look great.

  4. Thanks all for the comments. This was a fun post to share.

    @James. I feel your pain. After nearly 8 hours of cutting and routing, I defiantly feel like I am paying the piper as well. But as you sad. THIS is how I make my living.

    @Lenderboy. You are SO right! And on so many levels. One of the biggest hurdles I had to figure out was all about clamping the workpiece in the gig. Seems simple enough right? WRONG!

    @Jeff. What's so sad, is that I still have about 12 more to do that are all 9"-12" in height. All of these were 4.5" Uggg. I have had an inexpensive little 12" gig that I messed around with for a while. Consider the ruined template a blessing in disguise.