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Monday Woodworking 101 - Hand Cutting Half Blind Dovetails

author-gravatar joelav May 15, 2016

In this 101 I'm going to detail how I hand cut half-blind dovetails. A half blind dovetail means the joint is only visible on one corner. This is used primarily in drawer fronts or when there is a groove that needs to be hidden. 

This was a learning experience for me as well. I have not cut many half-blind dovetails, and when I did, they were just to practice sawing or layout. These are "honest" pictures. There are some little imperfections, but with a little glue and sawdust, these joints would look perfect. 

After planing 

The joint is dead square and the sides are square - that's the important thing here

I've got a piece of walnut and a piece of cherry that I ripped to the same size. The walnut is roughly 1 1/8" thick and the cherry is about 3/8" thick. 

Bonus tip - this is why I generally cut around knots. This knot has so much tension that the board just continues to bow even after jointing. 

Tools used

Not a lot - and I could have gotten away with even less. Dovetails do not require a lot of tools. Having two marking gauges is very helpful.

first I am going to cut these down to smaller sizes using a carcass saw and a bench hook 

It's really important the edges are square, so I take them to the shooting board after cross cutting. Details on the shooting board here

I milled this piece of scrap to about 1/4". I am using this to layout the line for the half blind pins. You will see way I do this in later steps 

I set my gauge to the pencil line and reinforce it and make it permenant

I then use that gauge to mark the baseline for my tails on the cherry - all 4 sides

I take the second gauge and set the pin to the thickness of the tail board 

and transfer that to the face of my pin board. The outside face only 

I then layout my dovetails. I used my typical 14 degree maker and uniform spacing. I walked out the tail locations with a compass. I then cut the tails and remove the waste as detailed in this project

To remove the waste from the edges (where the half-pins will go) I first make a ledge for the saw to ride against with a sharp wide chisel

Then carefully saw right up to the baseline 

Once complete, I reinforce my gauge line with a knife only on the portions I am removing

I start paring the waste from the front and work my way toward the baseline. This prevents the chisel's tendency to act as a wedge and push back the baseline - causing gaps 

Once at the baseline, I chisel half way

Then flip to finish it

Sharp chisels make all the difference. I strop my chisels before getting started and keep stropping them often

Now time to transfer the alignment. I have an alignment board in the vise that helps support the work. 

During this step, I line up the baseline of the tail board (cherry) to the edge of the pin board (walnut), and make sure the edges of the boards line up. 

I use a marking knife to transfer the tails to the walnut pin board

I use my dovetail marker to transfer the vertical lines down the face of the pin board

And I mark the waste

My usual dovetail mantra is "sawn not carved". However this joint is carved. The sawing portion is not even necessary but chiseling would be really difficult without it. Try to stay well inside the waste here

Cut just to the inside of the waste on an angle. I try not to go over either line. I broke one of my own rules here and I used a saw I don't normally use. It actually worked really well, but I did overshoot my baselines

Now for the carving. I have the piece in a bench hook ready to remove the waste with a chisel. You can really see where I overshot my baselines. If this were an actual piece and not practice, I would have scrapped it. 

Like with the tails in the cherry, I reinforced my gauge line with a knife. I chisel into the knife line to remove a bit of material

Then chop straight down a bit

Then I chop into the end grain

The result is this. Chips ready to pry out. I proceed until I get close to the baseline, then move onto the next. Chop down vertically, then chop into the end grain

Be careful when removing the chips. As you can see there, they are the same shape as the dovetail. Levering them out will cause bruising. push them out from the back

Done with the rough removal. Ugly, I know, but I'm away from all my lines and can clean it up now

Remember that scrap I used to layout the baseline? Well this is why I used it. It provides a guide for my chisel. I place the chisel on the scrap piece and pare straight into the socket. Perfectly square and even baselines this way

I learned another trick recently too - the router plane

Used this on the last pin. I like this method a lot and would recommend it if you have a router plane and either a spearpoint cutter or a very narrow one as shown here

Now to clean up the mess on the inside. When sawing on an angle, the saw doesn't get inside the corner. I carefully pare this away with a chisel 

I also make sure the sockets are square

All cleaned up. I did use a set of skew chisels after this to get into the corner. I would definitely recommend a pair for anyone who does a lot of half blind dovetails. 

Good fit! I am pretty happy with this. The pins are just slightly proud, but everything is snug and square

After planing it looks good. There are some gaps where I bruised the walnut a bit with the chisel, but once glued together and sanded while the glue is wet, they would become unnoticeable.

1 comment

Great tutorial! I love the trick with the scrap- that cleanup step is the part that I probably had the most trouble with the one time I ever tried half-blind dovetails. I think I may need to start cutting some more of them when I unpack my shop . . .

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