Hand-Cutting Dovetails
Popular Woodworking|October 2021
Basic steps for beautiful joints.
Logan Wittmer

Dovetails. They get put on a pedestal as a sign of quality. And while not every project or furniture style warrants them, I enjoy sitting down, listening to an audiobook, and cutting them by hand. Once you break down dovetails into a series of basic steps, I think you’ll find that hand-cutting them is easier than you think. Here’s my process for hand-cutting through dovetails.

Essential Layout First

Before any thought is given to picking up a saw, you’ll want to prep your stock. The front and back parts need to be the same length, as do the sides. Unless you want a twisted case, you’ll also want to make sure that the ends are square. The shooting board takes care of squaring everything up and allows me to sneak parts to final length. Now you can begin some layout. I start by using a marking gauge. Photo 1 below shows the style I like. It’s a small gauge that has a razor blade for the marking edge. It leaves a good, crisp line. I’ll set the gauge so it’s slightly larger than the thickness of my workpiece — about a thirty-second or so.

The next step is to mark all of the parts. This means dragging the marking gauge around all of the faces and edges on each end of the workpieces. You want this line, called the baseline, to be easily visible. Make a hard mark in one pass, as double lines will cause some problems down the road.

The tails versus pins first debate is only second to the great “toilet paper over or under the roll” debate. Without getting into it, I cut my tails first. You have a few ways you can lay the tails out. I step offthe tail board with dividers, as you see in Photo 3. You can also measure them, which is slightly harder, in my opinion. Or you can just eyeball them. Take your pick. All three options work well. We have a great video with Megan Fitzpatrick explaining laying out dovetails with dividers on Popularwoodworking.com if you’d like more details on that process. The final thing I like to do before picking up a saw is to mark my waste areas. Trust me, as you’re getting into a rhythm, it’s easy to slip up and accidentally cut something wrong, so I do myself the favor of marking the waste.

First Cuts

To cut the tails, I prefer to use a pull saw paired with a dovetail guide. This was a combination I picked up from David Barron (I use his 1:6 dovetail guide), and I’ve found it’s the most accurate thing in my hands while cutting dovetails. However, these same techniques apply if you’re using a western-style saw, a different guide, or no guide.

I place the workpiece low in my vise. It’s important to make sure it’s secured tightly and doesn’t vibrate as you’re sawing. A Moxon style vise is perfect for this, however I’ll often use my leg vise as well. Regardless of the holding method, always mark the outside face of your workpiece.

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