Dovetail Evolution

If you have ever attended one of my woodworking classes or a seminar on joinery, you probably have been bored to tears by my dovetail story. Or you laughed out loud. Just as my mind has, my dovetail work has evolved. As I began building furniture, I knew that I would have to dovetail if I had any hope of selling my work.

My first dovetail chapter included an old Sears template guide that produced perfectly sized, perfectly shaped dovetails with identically sized pins and tails – the kind used on kitchen cabinets. Ugh! Phase two brought about a better dovetail jig. With it, I decided that half-blind pins and tails were too difficult to set up, so I built drawer fronts from 1/2″-thick  stock then applied a 1/4″-thick shaped drawer front (kitchen cabinet construction was still in my blood). That process worked until a customer noticed the half-ass technique and verbally chastised me during the delivery. After a bit more trouble with fingers moving, I gave up jigs and succumbed to hand-cut pins and tails. I defined each pin and tail with a dovetail saw cut, then chop out waste with a chisel.

After some considerable hand-cut experience, I remembered that I was in business to make a profit. Hand-cut dovetails are period correct, but the process is slow when every minute has to earn dollars. As I discovered a way to cut the pins using my band saw and an angled platform as shown the photo above, my dovetails evolved again. I could power-cut the pins, but continued to chop away waste using my chisels. My tail boards were produced using the same techniques, but without an angled platform.

This method of dovetails produced perfect angled cuts that detracted, at least to my eye, from the hand-cut look I wanted. It was time for another evolution. This time I decided to hand-cut the pins and tails, but use a power tool to hog away the waste as depicted in the opening photo. This provides a hand-cut look – I am sawing the actual pins and tails – as the angles and the width of pins and tails different. It also provides a time savings due to the quick removal of waste when creating pins – waste between the tails is either nibbled away while at my band saw, or it is chopped out using chisels and a mallet.

If you’re not quite clear on this technique, below is a short video. You tell me, is this still a hand-cut dovetail joint, or is this a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Leave a comment below.

Build Something Great!

Glen

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16 thoughts on “Dovetail Evolution

  1. Very interesting!

    What do you do for the tails? The same thing, only you have further to cut with the hacksaw blade? What about half-blinds?

    Cheers,
    Brian

    1. Brian, I work on the waste between tails just as I have in the past. Once the pins are transferred to my tail board, I cut at the lines – I have begun to make these cuts with my dovetail saw instead of at my band saw – then chop my waste using chisels. Or you can spend extra time at your band saw to trim the waste completely before testing your pins and tails fit.
      Glen

  2. It looks like you could cut out the waste first and the use a chisel to create the sides, It would eliminate the sawing altogether!

    1. Tom G, In my opinion, guiding the router, although easy enough to accomplish as I demonstrate, would be more difficult if you had to hit the marks exactly. Also, paring with your chisel is too much work when compared to sawing to your lines. And sawing is way quicker. If you give your technique a try, please let us know how it works.
      Glen

  3. The flat hack saw blade is a nice trick.

  4. Glen – I really don’t consider your approach to be a “true” hand-cut dovetailed joint. If you want to, call them “hand-crafted” for your marketing literature. After hanging around marketing & advertising types for too many years, you learn to appreciate a little “wiggle room”. (My background is in multivariate statistics & psychometrics, I provide the research to leverage information for profit.)

    Although I’m a hobbist, I appreciate you need for productivity in relation to profitability. I see no mechanical difference in your technique, either approach would effectively join the wood.

    If you have a customer that is insistent on period-style hand-cut dovetails, why not demonstrate their identical nature with a pair of “knock-together” samples that you could stand on to demonstrate you point. Then share the time & material based up-charge that would be required for “true” hand-cut dovetailed joints.

  5. Hey, Glen- I figure that I may as well throw in my two cents, now that I have a whole year and a half of experience making dovetails. (Thanks to you and Mario Rodriquez at Connecticut Valley WS.) I have recently been practicing “condor tails” ala Jameel Abraham in his PW/August 2011 article. Since these are half-blinds, the tails are made first, using a band saw for the cuts. I know, having watched you in action, that you can cut a tail with a dovetail saw far better, faster and cleaner than can I with a band saw. I prefer using a fret saw for waste removal, but you seem to prefer banging away on your mallet and chisels. Okay, so I’m a wimp. Jameel has us doing waste removal on the pin board sockets with the router, except he has us using a top-bearing router bit. A 1/4″ deep recess is hand chiseled to the scribe lines to provide a wall for the bearing, then most of the waste is removed by the bit, with corner cleaning via chisels, right down to the bottom of the socket. I will vouch for its speed and cleanliness. You kept telling me in class that the craters I was making in the socket walls was because my chisels weren’t sharp enough, but it seems that you get them periodically, too. (Well, my chisels really weren’t sharp enough, but that’s another story.) I really like the way the sockets come out with this technique and appreciate your affinity for them. But I am in agreement with Ron Dennis. These are not truly hand-cut dovetails. I like his terminology of “hand-crafted”. I also appreciate your need for efficiency in productivity. I think Ron’s solution is most precise, but it is a fine line. Your method, and Jameel’s, is still jig work with a router. There is a time and place for everything.

  6. Glen. First of all I don’t agree with those who say that you can’t call them hand cut dovetails just because you remove the waste with a router. The word cut refers to sawing, not hogging; and how one removes the waste has nothing to do with anything that’s relevant. It’s like the rabbet you first cut before doing mouldings by hand. That part is only meant to save time and difficult-to-sharpen moulding plane blades. You will know more than me how many instances in woodworking exist where rough tools are used to do the rough cuts in order to save both time as well as the delicate fine cutting tools. I just hope that you keep sharing you valuable skills despite the ungrateful & snide comments you receive. Secondly, I tried the method last night after watching your video. It worked like a bomb! Thank you. I actually cut the tails by hand 1st. Then did the unthinkable with the router. I then transferred the pin lines and cut them by hand. And finally I removed the waste from the pins with the router. I don’t have a small router, but the regular one worked fine. And I could get very close by eye. very easy, very fast, very neat. I wish you all the best Glen. Paul

  7. I think it is a matter of hair splitting semantics…”hand crafted”, “hand cut”, etc. Does it really matter? You are achieving the end goal of a nicely fitted dovetail joint. Technology has evolved. Why should you not take advantage of that evolution and use the most effective, efficient, method that you can? If it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck, and waddles like a duck; it’s probably a duck…….

    Keep it up and thanks for educating us!
    Buddy

    1. Buddy-I think that you are missing the point. You’re not bothered by the router technique, nor am I (see above) nor, I dare say, are most of Glen’s online support group. The problem has to do with his persnickety customers. Glen has to please them, appease them and give them what they want and/or expect. Therein lies the proverbial dilemma.

      1. Glen’s customers have seen his work, his books, his blog & some have even seen his DVD’s. In addition they’ve spoken with him.

        It’s safe to say they know what he’s doing/delivering to them.

  8. Glen:

    You wanted to get away from hand-cutting to be more productive, but you still have hand work and you are spending more time than necessary.

    There is a way to get a hand-cut look faster and without any hand work at all. Plus you can use your personal computer or tablet to layout a symmetrical pattern that eliminates any measuring or marking of either the pin or tail board. You can choose the size and spacing of your pins. All your pins will exactly fit your tail sockets and if you are cutting multiple boards any pin board will fit any tail board. We call them EZ PZ dovetails.

    All you need is a narrow neck HSS dovetail bit from Craftsman Gallery or WoodRat, a straight bit, a Router Boss with digital option, and a PC, laptop or tablet. Take a look at this web page: http://www.chipsfly.com/calculators/dovetail.html.

    We also have another online calculator for half-blind dovetails where you can use any dovetail bit on the planet to make all the cuts, use any size boards, cut the joint at whatever depth you want, space the pins however you like, no angles to set or cut, no templates or guide bushing, complete freedom.

    You can see a demo at WIA in Cincinnati.

    Lewis Stepp, Craftsman Gallery, chipsfly.com

  9. […] as waste is removed from the drawer front. Just as demonstrated back in August of last year in “Dovetail Evolution”, you freehand guide the router to remove waste. The work is easy as long as you stay clear of your […]

  10. […] Fooling around with structural dovetails is also when I began using my router to waste away tail socket waste. If you haven’t s seen this technique as of yet, you owe to yourself to take a look. The results are dead-flat bottoms that dam near guarantee square boxes when you’re done with assembly. (Watch a short video here.) […]

  11. Very good procedure & technique…

    Thank you!

  12. Dear Glen,

    As a dinosaur piano craftsman who still tunes by ear while 90 % of the profession uses machines, the
    “electrified dovetail “, in my opinion, destroys the soul of the effort. I’ve spent the month of March finding
    a way that in some ways, simulates cutting piano bridges with a saw and chisel, to make the bottom of
    the sockets as smooth as a routerl cut. All things said, I still prefer your hybrid approach which is why
    I subscribed. So in the the interest of my own personal hypocrisy, I find squaring lumber without a planer
    and longbed jointer an exercise in futility. Like refinishing the bottom of a Steinway.

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