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I'm really struggling with handcut dovetails. I can do them in the sense that I can get something done that would be okay for lawn furniture, but my attempts at them just don't cut the mustard when it comes to fine woodworking.

I have a book which tries to teach you how to do them, but its grossly oversimplified. Cut tails with a hand saw, cut out excess with coping saw, chisel (perfectly), trace pins, cut out excess with coping saw, chisel (perfectly), slide together.

Unfortunately I just can't get perfect edges and angles with a chisel unguided. So I search the internet and found a tip which helped me out- using a flat piece of wood as a guide when chiseling the bottom edge of the joint. That helped me and my bottom edges are mostly flat now.

The shape of the pins and tails still eludes me though, as its mostly freehand work. I use a dovetail saw, but it is this crappy floppy Shark brand saw and it wobbles around so I've taken to cutting the pins & tails a bit narrow and pairing them down to fit with the chisel. A bit better, but still not perfect.

I really need some help with my technique... can someone explain step by step how to do this right? If I only had some way to guide the chisel to make a perfectly angled tail, and some way to accurately gauge where to cut the pins I'd be set (I use a pencil, but it seems to still be tricky where exactly I cut).

I'm using red oak right now as my material. It chisels great but unfortunately is pretty unforgiving b/c it doesn't squeeze to fit tight spaces like pine or poplar does. It makes my pins even sloppier looking b/c I often over-pair them.
 

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Smell the sawdust!
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You might be like me and prefer videos to books. I found this for you over on Youtube. I want this guys workbench for my shop, but he does give some really great instructions on dovetails.
Hope that helps!
 

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OLD DUDE AT WORK
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some pics

Those joints look great. As long as they're strong enough. Besides, you don't want them to look like factory made. You can stagger DTs any way you like. They don't have to be the same size. Look inside the drawers of antique furniture. :thumbsup:
 

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+1 what H.A.S. said.

I would suggest picking up a dovetail marking gauge, it makes layouts a little easier. Also, I think a sharper chisel is needed. It almost looks like there's a little crushing, rather than cutting.
 

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Really underground garage
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The following is just for consideration........and that,coming from a "box joint" guy.

Part of the problem is your unfamiliar'arity with the tools.To get in the "fast lane" so to speak cutting DT's with a dovetail saw is;Start using your DT(back saw)saw everyday.Start using it for minor chores like cutting off simple stock.Think of the old addage in competitive shooting,"beware of the guy who only has one gun(bow,slingshot,missle launcher,ect),he probably knows how to use it"!

The more you use a backsaw,and it does a really nice job on tennons BTW,the easier it gets!To the point that DT's or any of the "harder" tasks are just another day at the office.Best of luck,BW
 

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Not so new
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badmajon...first off, practice on something softer than oak. Pine or poplar would be a good choice. I would also suggest that you use thin stock, 1/2" or 5/8 is good.

Your dovetail saw needs to be stiff. You cant control a saw thats flops around.

Sharp chisels are a must. You should be able to pare extremely thin slices from end grain.

Mark layout lines with a knife, it helps guide the saw.

You'll need a good, small square and a bevel gage. I normally cut mine at about 20*.

I would also suggest that you start making small boxes and lots of them. Every shop needs more boxes for things like hardware and they're great dovetail practice.

They are'nt hard. Its all about the right tool, the right procedure and practice.

I have well over 100 dovetails in this chest. Once you get the hang of it, its just another day in the shop.
 

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I’d like to add a few pointers that work for me. Don’t get frustrated. Cutting dovetails takes practice. I’d respectfully disagree that you should practice on softwoods. IMO, hardwoods are actually easier to cut dovetails in. Softwoods tend to collapse and don’t cut cleanly unless your tools are very sharp. The big mistake I see is placing the chisel on the line then whacking it with a hammer. The chisel will invariably move inward past the line. I put the chisel about a 32nd in front of the line, then when you hit it, it cuts exactly on the line. I do not use a coping saw to remove the waste. I use a chisel. Also, don’t use a pencil. Use a scribing knife or tool, then split the scribed line to the waste side. There are a thousand ways to cut a dovetail and they are all correct. Use what seem to work for you!
 

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I’d like to add a few pointers that work for me. Don’t get frustrated. Cutting dovetails takes practice. I’d respectfully disagree that you should practice on softwoods. IMO, hardwoods are actually easier to cut dovetails in. Softwoods tend to collapse and don’t cut cleanly unless your tools are very sharp. The big mistake I see is placing the chisel on the line then whacking it with a hammer. The chisel will invariably move inward past the line. I put the chisel about a 32nd in front of the line, then when you hit it, it cuts exactly on the line. I do not use a coping saw to remove the waste. I use a chisel. Also, don’t use a pencil. Use a scribing knife or tool, then split the scribed line to the waste side. There are a thousand ways to cut a dovetail and they are all correct. Use what seem to work for you!
I was taught on soft wood, so I guess thats why I prefer it. You're correct in that chisels must be sharp...maybe thats what my mentor had in mind.

As for the coping saw. I chopped my dovetails up untill a couple months ago. Once you get the hang of it, you shouldnt need a mallet at all. Just pare to the line. I find this technique much faster...at least for me.:smile:
 

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Good point about the coping saw. I’ve not done it enough to master it. One of the reasons I like to chop is because I can undercut the endgrain a bit. It makes a tighter joint - for me anyway. This is a good point for beginners. Do what works. Also, it makes sense to experiment with different techniques. For whatever reason, some people seem to master one tool or another, so until you try different methods, try as many as you can. This goes for other joints and all of woodworking for that matter. One of my pet peeves (a little off topic - sorry) is articles or statements like "the right way to cut…". There seldom is one best way.

12 Penny: You sparked my interest in the coping saw. I think I’ll revisit it next time I need dovetails.
 

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Old School
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Here's a bit of my usual dribble. In looking at your cut lines, they are off to your pencil lines. As mentioned I don't use a pencil. I find an X-Acto knife with a #11 blade works better. A very light line is all that's needed. If you can't get a clean whack with a mallet and chisel, or can't pare to the line, your chisel is too dull.

I agree a good backsaw or a DT saw that doesn't flex, that's sharp and has at least 15 TPI, seems to work best for me. A very good DT saw may have a different tooth arrangement. The first few inches of teeth may be very fine, and the remainder more aggressive. You might also handle prospective saws for the angle and shape of the handle. Some are more comfortable or may put your sawing position in more control.








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I agree with all the recommendations for practice and also add that learning from your practice is the secret sauce. If I haven't cut any dovetails for a while (5-6 months), I use a piece of scrap from the same material in my project and with a square and a very sharp and hard pencil make about 30 straight 90° lines, up and over the edge, close together down to a marking gauge shoulder. I then cut on the first line and evaluate the cut, I then continue making cuts. I stop and examine each cut right after I make it and adjust accordingly. After I can cut 10 or so in a row right on the line (looking close)and stop dead on the shoulder, I figure I'm ready to try a few on the dovetail angle I'm using. I draw another 10-15 angled lines half in each direction, meeting a marking gauge shoulder and start practicing all over again. If I'm doing dovetails more often I still do the practice but I get 10 in a row quickly and skip the 90° practice cuts completely. When you get really good at cutting dead on a sharp line and stopping dead on the shoulder, then you are ready to do the actual job on that expensive material. IMO if you have to do any more than the swipe of a chisel just to remove saw marks on either the pin or tail sides of your cut..... well you just didn't practice enough. Then the coping saw is used to cut close to the shoulder line (about a 32nd)across the bottom of the joint, and here is where the chisel work is done, at the bottom of the joint. Let the chisel tip catch in the scribed line in a natural way and pare to the center of the joint, then flip it over and repeat from the other side. I learned this practice 8-9 years ago and it works like a charm. Good luck.
 

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Cat Herder
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Here is a short video of Frank Klausz cutting a dovetail in three minutes--using a pair of bowsaws that will either inspire and amaze you, or just make you want to give it up entirely.
www.popularwoodworking.com/video/klausz
Do a search for Frank's name on google, and it will lead you to another older video on dovetailing a drawer
Yeah, that's sick. Who needs a fancy DT jig, huh?!
 
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