Order of Work
• Lay out and cut the pins
• Lay out and cut the tails
• Dado for the shelves
• Assemble case
• Make the drawer
• Sand and finish
This display cabinet may be relatively small in stature, but its design incorporates one of the pinnacles of the woodworker’s craft: hand-cut dovetail joints. For many woodworkers, the hand-cut dovetail is seen as a rite of passage, and for good reason. The joint requires a raft of hand skills, including careful layout, accurate sawing, and skillful chisel work. While the joint may seem intimidating at first, with a little practice and the right tools (See page 40), you’ll soon be able to add this feather to your cap.
To build the cabinet as shown, you’ll need to cut two kinds of dovetails. The corners of the cabinet are joined with through dovetails—those visible on both outside faces of the joint. The drawer front is attached to the drawer sides with half-blind dovetails, which show only on the side of the drawer, not its face. The techniques used for cutting both forms of the joint are similar, but with a few key differences, as I’ll explain.
Straightforward construction with subtle curves
Classic case construction is the name of the game here. Through dovetails at the four corners join the sides to the top and the bottom, while the shelves are housed in stopped dados. A gentle curve softens the front and adds visual interest. The drawer front is also curved to match the shelves, and features a turned pull. The cabinet shown here is made of cherry, finished with wiping varnish.
Don’t take my word...
Ask any twelve woodworks how they cut dovetails and you’re likely to get thirteen or fourteen different answers. And each of those answers will be touted as “the best.” Tails first! No, pins first! Dozuki saw? Pistol grip saw? Gent’s saw? Whatever the answer, it probably is the best way for that particular woodworker. The key is to find what works best for you. Investigate different approaches, try various techniques, and experiment. If you don’t do it the way I do, I won’t be offended. Heck, I may even try your technique to see if it saves me some time. No matter what techniques you use, the real key is to practice. Even after nearly 40 years of woodworking, I still make a few warm up cuts before sawing to my layout lines.
Lay out the pins
Mill the stock for the top, bottom, and sides to the sizes specified in the drawing on page 33. Lay out the evenly spaced pins on the ends of the top and bottom, remembering to account for the front curves. As you mark the ends of the pieces, offset the pins on one end to the left and on the other end to the right. Note that dovetails should always start and stop with a half-pin. This maximizes the joint’s ability to resist failure due to warpage. For this project, I made the narrow part of the pins 1/4 wide and used 9° for the dovetail angle. For more on dovetail geometry see Dovetail Angles below.
Scribe the shoulder baseline. Set a marking gauge to about 1⁄32 more than the thickness of the sides. Scribe the shoulder baselines for the pins across both faces at the ends of the top and bottom. While you can use a traditional gauge with a pin, I find a gauge with a cutting wheel does a better job at making a crisp line.
Lay out the angles. Lay out the narrow part of the pins on the upper face of the top and the lower face of the bottom, spacing them as shown on page 32. Set a T-bevel to your dovetail angle and extend lines across the ends of the pieces to lay out the pins.
Extend the cut lines. Once the angles are drawn, use a square to extend the lines from the board’s end to the shoulder baseline.
Dovetail angles can be measured in degrees or as a ratio. When expressed in degrees, that number usually states how far off of 90° the angle is. Typical measures range from 5-20° with steeper angles (5-10°) used for hardwoods and shallower angles (9-20°) for softwoods. However, rather than deal with protractors, many woodworkers prefer to set their angles according to a ratio. Typical ratios used are 1:6 for softwoods (about 10°) and 1:8 for hardwoods (about 7°).
Easy angles. Rather than dealing with degrees, you may find working with a ratio easier. For a 1:6 angle, simply measure over 1 inch and up 6 inches, then connect the dots to determine your angle.
Cut the pins
With all the pins laid out, the next steps are to cut along your layout lines, and then to remove the waste in between them. In many ways, cutting pins is as simple as being able to saw straight. Secure the piece vertically in a vise with the shoulder line no more than an inch above the bench top to minimize vibration from the saw. Feel free to add a few extra lines in the waste areas to get warmed up. Be sure to cut right to (but not past) the shoulder baseline on both sides of the pieces. Then stack the pieces, clamp them to your bench top, and cut away the waste with a 1 chisel. Position them directly above a workbench leg if possible to best back up your mallet blows.
Cut to the lines. Align your body so your arm moves parallel to the cut. Draw the blade backwards a time or two to start the kerf. Then simply push the saw forward with minimal downward pressure, allowing the weight of the tool to make the cut. Try to split the line with the saw towards the waste side. Stop at the shoulder baseline.
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