How to Make a Perfect Dovetail Every time
Have you ever wanted to make perfect dovetail joints? The dovetail is a basic type of joint that has been used for centuries. It has been used to join furniture, frames, woodworking projects and even wooden toys. The reason for the daunting popularity of the dovetail is its strength. Wood pieces joined this manner will resist pressure and will surely last for years. Another reason for the dovetail’s popularity is its awesome beauty. The way the joint looks or how the two pieces of wood are connected is nonetheless lovely and could make an impression that anyone who has constructed the joint is an experienced and professional woodworker.
Making perfect dovetail joints take time. You also need to use efficient tools, a good command of basic woodworking techniques and a good working knowledge of the basic tools. There are a number of power tools that can be used to cut dovetail pins however, for this tutorial, basic hand tools will be used. Leaning how to use these tools will give you a good head start in making dovetails as well as other more intricate joints and cuts.
Pieces of wood
Use good quality wood that will work well with the project that you intend to do. For this tutorial you will be using two pieces of scrap wood with the same dimensions and type of wood. Make sure that you only use dry pieces of wood to be able to make the most efficient dovetail and pins.
You need a sliding bevel to measure perfect pins. You will use this measuring tool to mark your wooden pieces and to create knife markings as well.
You need a square to make sure that the two wooden pieces are square or at 90 degrees from each other. You will be using the square very often in checking and making sure that the two pieces remain square over the course of making the dovetail and pins.
Set of chisels
You must have a set of chisels to work with dovetail joints. ½ -inch chisels are needed to create initial chisel marks near the knife wall while smaller chisels will be used to slowly chop off waste wood from inside the dovetail and pins gaps. Chisels are also used for clean-up, to slowly remove wood bits and nicks so that the pins fit perfectly in the dovetail.
Chisel hammer and mallet
A strong, sturdy chisel hammer will drive small to large chisels into the wood to create dovetail and pins. You also need a mallet to drive the pins into the dovetail.
You need a small handsaw which will efficiently cut the pins and dovetail bits. A small handsaw is definitely more efficient and will let you work more intently rather than a regular-sized handsaw. You will also use this saw to make undulations on the wood before you make the actual cuts.
You will use a hand plane to smooth out uneven exposed parts of the dovetail. A simple hand plane would suffice but if you prefer a more professional touch, you can also sand the area with a rotating sander to finish the joint after you have used a hand plane.
Workbench with vise
You need a sturdy workbench with a vise to hold on to the wooden pieces as you work on them. You don’t really need a large workspace to create dovetails however you still need a clean and well-maintained working area as you start to learn how to make this type of joint.
You need a pencil to make markings on the wood for the dovetail and the wood for the pins.
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Step by Step Instructions
These steps will train you how to make dovetail joints with the use of basic tools and simple yet very important woodworking techniques. Yes you can make dovetails and other intricate joints using power tools however basic techniques should be perfected before working with power tools in order to become an experienced woodworker.
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1. Prepare all the materials you need
It’s better working with all the materials you need handy. Have your chisels in one corner of the workbench and your small handsaw, chisel hammer and mallet on the other. The area where the vice is at should be clear and ready; this is where you will work on the dovetail pieces.
2. Lay down your measurements
This is no doubt the most important part of any dovetail joint construction is to make correct and precise measurements. Laying down measurements for the dovetail is tricky. Begin with marking the wood that will be used as the pin.
Measure at least 10 mm from each side to find the center. This will let you make 3 equal sized pins to accommodate a good-sized dovetail. Keep your square handy at all times to check if the two pieces remain square.
3. Set the sliding bevel to the desired pitch to create the dovetail
A sliding bevel will create perfect dovetail edges. Find the middle of the wood and mark it. This will be your point of origin. Trace the sliding bevel from this middle line towards the edge of one pin. This is the mark that you will follow to cut dovetail gaps. Mark the sides and the top part of the pins with a pencil.
Use a knife to make marks on the wood. Create a knife wall from the pins to the main body of the wood/plank. You should also create small nicks on the sides of the pins to mark the edges of the pin. You can make larger marks on the wood; do not worry since these will be hardly noticeable once you have begun cutting the pin with a hand saw.
4. Cut the pins first
Now that you have made suitable and precise markings on the wood that will be the pin, you will now cut it first. Use a small hand saw to remove the edges of the pins. Place the wood on the vise in a vertical manner, exposing the pins. Use a handsaw with great caution, your dominant hand works the handsaw while the other hand holds the head of the pin firmly and at the same time resisting the handsaw movement. Cut vertically and then horizontally to completely cut the edges of the pins.
When you are done removing the two edges, you will be exposing a very rough edge even an uneven edge especially if this is your first time. Clean these edges up with the use of a small chisel. Bevel up; work your way across the surface of the edges to remove all the small imperfections. A smaller chisel ½ -inch would do well.
5. slowly remove the middle gap of the pins
The edges of the pins are done, now you will remove the middle gap. This gap should be removed slowly and carefully to avoid impacting the heads of the pins and affecting the stability of the dovetail joint.
From the knife wall, do not hit the middle gap too hard. Use a ½ - inch chisel to strike an initial cut and then work on the gap slowly from the knife wall. Patience is the key at this moment. It is easy to just make a cut from the top part of the gap of the pin however this will affect the stability of the entire joint.
6. Slowly work on the gap and flip to work on the other side
Understand that there is no need to be urgent at this time. You need to work this way: strike a firm blow at the knife wall using a chisel, remove it and then follow the rake of the wood from the top to remove waste wood. Remove waste wood about a few millimeters and then turn the wood over to work on the other side with the same manner. Moving slowly and meeting at the middle of the gap will reduce any pressure on both sides of the gap which could adversely affect the joint.
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7. Clean the pins with a small chisel
You will eventually move waste wood from each side until there are only a few millimeters of wood left. A few strikes of the chisel from the knife wall would certainly loosen the wood from the gap. When you are done, remove any imperfections along the sides of the gap using a small chisel.
8. Use a square to check for the fit of the two pieces of wood
At all times, check for a perfect square and a possible perfect fit. Use a square to do this.
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9. Mark the wood that will be used as the dovetail
Now that you are done with the pin, the dovetail is next. Take the finished head of the pin and transfer the shape of the pins to the wood which will be used as a dovetail. Use a pencil to make marks on wood.
To make perfect marks, place the dovetail wood in the vise and clamp it well with the head of the dovetail exposed. Take time to create the marks and keep the square on standby to check for the square of the two pieces of wood.
10. Use a knife to create nicks on the wood
Let the dovetail piece stay in the vise; use a knife to make marks and nicks to guide your handsaw and chisel as you remove waste wood from the dovetail piece. The best way to use a knife is to mark it against a square.
11. Use a small chisel to slowly remove the spaces in the dovetail
After making knife marks, its time to chisel away waste wood to make the dovetail. This is a very intricate part of the project since the dovetail has two gaps. You cannot just hastily remove the waste wood from these gaps because you might accidentally make an imprecise which could affect the strength of the dovetail. Do not be in a hurry; again follow a simple yet precise technique: make a sharp blow using the chisel on the knife wall with the bevel opposite the wall.
Follow the knife wall as you chisel downwards from the top of the dovetail to the wall. Repeat this process on the other side of the wood.
12. Work slowly as you completely remove the dovetail gaps
Just like creating the pin for the dovetail, work slowly and surely. Chisel your way towards the knife wall, slowly making good progress as you move on either side to meet in the middle of the gap. You might have known by now that you need to work alternately on either side and as soon as you feel that there is only a few millimeters gap between the two faces, make a sharp blow to completely remove the waste wood gaps.
13. Use a small chisel to clean up the gaps
As you have finally removed the waste wood from the dovetail gaps, feel the area for imperfections. You will surely find irregular gap walls and chisel marks which could affect the way the pins could align in the dovetail. Use a small chisel to remove these imperfections.
Let the dovetail remain in the vise and use a chisel to move along the surface. Move slowly but carefully so as not to affect the dovetail.
14. Fit the dovetail and pin wooden pieces, make necessary adjustments using a chisel
Now that your dovetail and pin are done, it’s time to see if they fit. Place the pin in the vise and then slowly place the pin on top. Use a hammer or a mallet to strike the pin in place. Listen to the strikes: a hollow sound could mean that the pin is fitting easily to the dovetail while a dull sound as you strike could mean that there is something hitting against the pin and affecting its entry to the dovetail.
There are many ways to adjust the pin and the dovetail in case they won’t fit. First determine the pin that won’t fit, use a small chisel to remove a few millimeters from the pin. You may also use sandpaper with a larger grit to remove small imperfections. The pin is usually the part that is adjusted to fit the dovetail. However, you can also adjust the dovetail accordingly.
The dovetail could be trimmed from the gaps or it could be smothered in hot glue or wood glue to firmly grasp the pin in position.
15. Use a plane to shave off excess wood and imperfections from the joint connections.
The dovetail is finished but the surfaces look rough with the head of the pin protruding from the dovetail. You can use a hand plane to shave this off. With a few strikes of the plane, remove excess wood and ugly imperfections to create a seamless dovetail joint. You may also use sandpaper to manually clean the area or you can sand it off using a power sander.
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Other ways to join wood
The dovetail in itself is strong and steady however, you might want to steady the joint more especially when you intend to use the joint for furniture, shelving and support. One way to steady a dovetail joint is by adding wood glue or hot glue to the gaps before placing the pins in the dovetail. Just dab glue inside the gaps and place the pins in. Let the two joined pieces dry for at least a day before use. There are different kinds of glue and wood glue, you must read instructions and package directions before use.
Using a piece of wood to secure the two sections is also advised. A small piece of wood can be used as a brace to counter any movement. This technique is used if you intend to use a dovetail for applications that require strength and stability. Sometimes hot glue or wood glue with a brace is used to ensure that the dovetail joint stays in place.
Using nails, screws and splints can also help secure a dovetail join and these can also be used along with glue and a brace.
The video “How to make a Dovetail Joint – The Three Joints – Paul Sellers “is a YouTube video by Paul Sellers. This video has gathered more than 1, 170,000 views online since it was uploaded in February 2017. Paul Sellers is an expert “master” woodworker that teaches the basics of woodworking. He films his videos from his improvised workstation and uses basic hand tools instead of power tools to complete projects. His YouTube channel is at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc3EpWncNq5QL0QhwUNQb7w .
Paul Sellers described the dovetail joint as a box joint and among the strongest ways to join two pieces of wood together at the corner. There are many ways to create a dovetail joint but Sellers chose to use the simplest way which is nonetheless a very important method. This video “How to make a Dovetail Joint – The Three Joints – Paul Sellers” is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCYjoj6cfno. It is a part of a series of videos about the three most popular and basic joints: the dovetail, the mortise and Tenon joint and the dado joint.
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Making a dovetail joint is not as easy as it looks however with the right technique, the right tools and with the right amount of patience, you will be able to make this kind of joint to be used for many kinds of projects.
The dovetail joint is composed of a dovetail and pins, creating these parts require efficient techniques so as not to damage the actual part of the joint. In the tutorial, care in handling the chisel and hammer is emphasized in great detail. Work has to be done slowly but efficiently with a certain amount of care in each step.
It is also emphasized in the tutorial that the pin and the dovetail have to be slowly joined together. Readjustments may be made to the pin or the dovetail in case these two components are unable to fit. One way to do this is by using a chisel to remove excess wood in the tips of the pins or the gaps. A chisel will carefully remove excess or waste wood however there is a huge risk of damaging the parts of the joint. Therefore care should be emphasized when handling the chisel when making adjustments to a dovetail joint.
Sandpaper can also be used to remove a small portion on the surface of the wood and this allows you to make very minute adjustments. Lastly, the tutorial suggests the use of a hand plane to finish the joined components. This is of course an optional part of making a dovetail but nonetheless important. Aside from using a plane, sanding with a sander or manually by sandpaper
Do you have a few tips on how to create a dovetail joint? Tell us by adding a comment below. Share this article to friends who are also looking for techniques on how to make a dovetail joint.