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How to Cut a Dovetail Joint

The dovetail joint is quite possibly the strongest way to join two pieces of wood at a right angle. We often use dovetail joints while making cabinets, drawers, and other furniture. They’re one of the most attractive joining methods and one of the more complex. Today we’re going to describe how to cut a dovetail joint by hand and with the help of modern power tools.

What is a Dovetail Joint?

The dovetail joint gives corners a much stronger tensile strength using a series of trapezoidal shaped tails and pins that fit together much like a jigsaw puzzle. The tensile strength provided by the dovetail joint improves the quality and workmanship of the piece of furniture or structure immensely. The angle of the pins and tails are much more effective at providing strength than a series of nails or screws. Add wood glue and you have a joint that is extremely strong and reliable.

To fully explain how to cut a dovetail joint, we need to first describe the various parts of the joint. The corners of any type of structure, whether it’s furniture or a building, have to be strong enough to help support the structure. A few nails or screws will hold a corner for a while, but they lack tensile strength. The angle of slope used for the tails and pins depends on the type of wood used. We generally use a slope of 1:6 for softwoods and a 1:8 slope for hardwoods. We often use a slope of 1:7 if 1:6 or 1:8 aren’t appropriate for whatever reason.

How to Cut a Dovetail Joint by Hand

Irwin Pull Saw used to Cut Dovetails

Cutting a dovetail joint by hand requires a lot of patience. One mistake can ruin the entire joint. Here’s what you’ll need for cutting a dovetail joint by hand:

  • Wood blocks or lengths of wood about 3/4 inch thick by 3 inches wide by 5 inches long.
  • A pencil for marking each piece of wood as needed.
  • A backsaw.
  • A coping saw.
  • Two Chisels in 3/4 inch and 1/2 inch sizes.
  • A mallet.

Make sure all of your tools are sharp and in proper working order. Lubricate or wax anything that needs it before you get started so you have the smoothest dovetail joint possible.

  1. Pencil the thickness of the wood on all four sides. You won’t need a marking gauge for this, just hold one board tight against the other and make the marks.
  2. Set the angle and cut to the line using the backsaw.
  3. Cut a mirror angle on the other side of the board, also using the backsaw.
  4. Turn the piece of wood so you can use the backsaw to remove the waste from the sides, effectively creating the tail.
  5. Use the 1/2 inch chisel to square up the cuts.
  6. Transfer the layout of the tail to the second board using the pencil. Simply hold the cut board tightly against the uncut board and trace the outline of the tail.
  7. Cut the center piece out to create the pin in which the tail will be situated.
  8. Use the coping saw to remove the waste and create a smooth cut.
  9. Use the chisels to slowly chip away excess wood from the base line. Angle the chisels as needed to prevent gaps in the dovetail.
  10. Place the tail into the pin and hope for the best.

Freud 1/4In Shank Dovetail Router Bit

While creating something entirely with our hands is possible, modern machinery like the jig and router make it so much easier. The use of the jig makes cutting both the tail and the pin much simpler because the same settings can be used repeatedly.

Types of Dovetail Joint

The dovetail joint is complex and provides nearly as much beauty and finesse as it does tensile strength. Many people choose to paint the tails and pins different colors or use different types of stain to create a unique appearance when they are joined.

  • Through Dovetail
  • Half-Blind Dovetail
  • Secret Mitred Dovetail
  • Secret Double-Lapped Dovetail
  • Sliding Dovetail

Porter Cable Dovetail Jig

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