Woodworking 101 - Hand Cut Dovetails 101 - Practice
Hand cut dovetails can be hard. Here are some things that helped me along the way. No actual dovetails will be cut in this 101. I'll just talk about some of the tips I found out too late in my journey that would have really helped up front.
In this 101 I am going to focus on sawing. I have tried many dovetail tutorials and am a firm believer in "off the saw" dovetails. whenever I have to pare a dovetail I end up creating unevenness which translates to gaps come assembly time. Not to mention time spent paring
Getting a perfect fit off the saw is possible with some practice
Lets talk about saws. When cutting dovetails, I am sawing down into the end grain. This is a rip cut. I'd recommend either a saw with rip teeth or hybrid teeth.
A saw with teeth filed specifically for rip cutting will be the most efficient. "Hybrid" saws are becoming popular now too. It has a combination of rip and cross cut teeth on the same saw. It's much easier to start the cut, but some efficiency is sacrificed.
. There are tons of options from cheap to expensive, western push saws and Japanese pull saws. Here are two budget friendly options. On the left is the Veritas Dovetail saw. On the right is a 20.00 gents saw I made a new handle for. Both perform well
Then there are Japanese saws. Here are some types you'll likely run across in Woodworking stores and online. All of these are capable of cutting dovetails - some better than others
The Dozuki - my personal preference for cutting dovetails. The stiff backs give the thin blades a lot of rigidity. Here is a Z saw and Gyokucho Dozuki. The Z-Saw is an excellent value, the Gyokucho 311 is my personal favorite dovetail saw.
These two saws are Katabas. Unlike the dozuki these have no backs. These are better for cross cutting than ripping, and the kerf is a bit on the large side. However that Gyokucho S-400 on the left will cut dovetails pretty well
The Ryoba is the most commonly available stlye Japanese saws sold in the US. It has finer (cross cut) teeth on one side, and coarser (rip cut) teeth on the other. While not ideal, these will cut acceptable dovetails. The one one the left is from Harbor Freight. It is very crude compared to the other two. If I had to use a Ryoba, the smaller (right) Gyokucho 605 would be my preference
There are a lot of ways to remove waste after sawing. I like to saw most of it out. It makes chiseling a lot more accurate and a lot easier. My preference here is the gramercy tools turning saw, but a coping saw will also do the trick. A lot of people hate on coping saws, but before you ditch yours, try a quality blade. I like the Olson skip tooth.
Chisels. I use a variety of sizes, but you can layout your dovetails you accommodate your chisel size. These are all 1/2" chisels and range from re-handled chisels I bought at a grocery store, moderately priced beginner chisels, vintage British steel, and new British steel. The name of the game is SHARP. The super fine diamond stone and strop never leave the bench
This image is taken from the Lee Valley website and demonstrates a major difference between generally inexpensive and moderately priced chisels - the tapers on the sides. The thinner the taper, the finer work you can do. This is extremely important in dovetails. The thicker sides can bruise the walls of dovetails when removing waste. this will create visual gaps when the joint is assembled. A lot of people start with Narex chisels. If you do, be sure to get the "Classic" (only sold at Lee Valley) or the "Premium".
Here is a real world example. On the left is a Woodriver chisel. It's an excellent chisel overall - especially with sharpness and edge retention. But you can see the sides are very square. On the right is a vintage Marples chisel. The sides taper down to almost nothing.
Layout. You'll need a marking gauge of some sort, a square of some sort. and either a dovetail marker or sliding bevel. You'll also need a marking knife - be it a nice exotic wood handled one like on the bottom or a shop made one using an old bandsaw blade on the top.
Work holding. I like a twin screw (moxon) appliance on top of my bench. This raises the work to make it easier. I also have a bench hook for chiseling, and holdfasts to keep everything where I need it to be
Practice time! Dovetails is simply sawing and chisiling lines. I recommend getting good at sawing lines before beginning to cut dovetails. Here I am setting my marking gauge to the thickness of the stock to establish the baseline
Then I draw some lines across the top of the board. Spacing is not important, just give yourself enough room to clear the angle
Use the dovetail marker to draw the angled lines down to the baseline. Use a pencil and a knife
You'll have a board that looks like this. Now get sawing! Try to stay right on your pencil line. Some words of caution:
This is not a race. Take it slow. Accuracy counts.
Even though this is practice in scrap, treat it as if it were fine dovetails in exotic wood. You are building muscle memory here -don't commit bad technique to memory by going quickly
Stick with one saw. Get good at it before moving to another
When you are done, cut it square and try again from the other direction
Do the same for the pins. This time the angle goes across the piece instead of down.
The practice pin board looks like this
I used my small ryoba here demonstrating that it could be done. I was pretty surprised at how easy this was. I my try cutting some dovetails with this saw
The rest was done with the Dozuki. Much thinner kerf (less than half) and easier to start
Keep going! after a few hours of practice it will feel automatic. That's the goal here. Even though I can cut pretty good dovetails now, I still do this exercise once or twice a week - as well as sawing vertically and cross cutting at a bench hook.