Dovetail joints are one of the most common joinery techniques in woodworking, and they’re a staple for many furniture-makers. They can be used on any type of material, but dovetail jigs are designed to make them easier on hardwoods.
If you’re new to woodworking or have never tried making dovetails before, this beginner’s guide is for you!
What is a Dovetail?
Dovetails are one of the most basic woodworking joints, but they’re also among the strongest and most beautiful. The joint takes its name from its resemblance to the tail feathers on a dove’s back, which form an elongated V shape as they taper to a point at each end.
In effect, it looks like two dovetails joined together with their points meeting in the middle: hence “dovetail.”
When you create this joint by hand using traditional tools such as saws and chisels, it requires patience and precision workmanship because each individual part must fit perfectly into place before being secured with glue or clamps.
However, modern power tools make cutting out these complex-looking joints an easy and stress-free process.
Why is Dovetail Joinery so Admired?
As a popular choice for woodworkers, dovetails have traditionally been used for drawer construction because they’re aesthetically pleasing and extremely strong. They offer a lot of design flexibility, making it easy to create boxes with straight sides or curved inner corners that are ideal for round objects like bottles and vases.
The unique appearance of dovetails is what draws many craftspeople towards them, but there are other reasons as well. They’re easier to make than other joints like finger joints or box joints.
They’re stronger than more recent inventions, such as the biscuit joiner. They are a fairly affordable way to make drawers that will last for generations.
If you have always admired the quality of handmade drawer boxes but don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on custom furniture, consider creating your own instead.
When Do You Use Dovetails?
Dovetails are commonly used to join together drawers and doors because their unique shape allows them to fit into various sizes without making adjustments.
Their best use is when joining multiple pieces at once instead of just two – even if there seems to be plenty of space between pieces of wood, they may not be aligned properly.
When Do You Not Use Dovetails?
Dovetails are perfect for joining larger projects together since they don’t leave a large gap in between the items that will be secured by them.
They’re less commonly used for small projects where you need to make lots of contact points with surfaces – instead, try using screws or nails to secure your project.
How to Use a Dovetail Jig?
When getting started in woodworking dovetail jigs are the best jigs one can get. They’re a good design, very simple to set up and use, and they’re about as foolproof as you’re going to find on the market. If you haven’t purchased a dovetail jig yet, be sure to read our reviews of the best dovetail jigs.
So let’s look at how to use a dovetail jig step-by-step. Most dovetail joints need two tails (pins), one face pin, and one half-blind pin per joint.
- Determine which way your stock will go into your dovetail jig.
- Flip the workpiece upside down and cut off about 3/16″ all the way around each end of the board (wood goes in flat face up). Flip the workpiece upside down and cut off about 3/16″ all the way around each end of the board (wood goes in flat face up).
- Measure roughly a third of an inch on either side of the line you’re going to use as your stop, and draw two lines across with a marker. This is where you’ll place your fingers when pushing against them to hold pieces firmly in place during assembly so that they don’t move around or fall out. Measure roughly a third of an inch on either side of the line you’re going to use as your stop, and draw two lines across with a marker. This is where you’ll place your fingers when pushing against them to hold pieces firmly in place during assembly so that they don’t move around or fall out.
- Place the dovetail jig’s template onto your workpiece so that it rests about 3/16″ above the edge of the board, or wherever you plan to drill your first hole. It’s best to leave a little extra space between your layout lines and this projection because it makes it difficult for the saw kerf made by the router bit to catch on anything once cutting begins. For instance, if you’re using a handheld router rather than a router table. Placing the jig template far enough above your layout lines will also make it a lot easier to see what you’re doing, as well as allow for any adjustments.
- Move the layout lines down to where the template would screw onto the jig’s base plate. In effect, move your workpiece down on top of the dovetail jig so that each line is just above one of its screws. Don’t worry too much about how exactly they’re positioned over their respective screws – there’s plenty of time left to take care of fine-tuning. Do make sure that no part of them hangs over or outside where it should.
- Put a small amount of finish, glue or wax in the area surrounding each layout line if you want your joints to look smooth and polished. These areas will be visible from the back side when completed.
- Take each piece and use a marking gauge to make two or three tiny marks along your layout line. One option is to use a dovetail marker, which can mark out both sides of the joint at the same time. This tool is the most accurate way to do that. If you don’t have one of those, don’t worry: you’ll still get nice joints without it.
- Lay the template’s base plate on top of your workpiece and align it so that each layout line is perfectly straight and runs right through a marking gauge mark. Once everything looks good, use a pencil to trace along the edge of the jig’s base plate. Don’t press too hard or else you risk scratching your work. If there are any problems with your layout lines, for instance, if they intersect or run past an end grain area, adjust them accordingly before marking out the joint again.
- With each piece still clamped in position on top of its respective side of the dovetail jig, take a 1/8″ chisel and begin to score along each line. You should be able to feel when it’s about to cut into one of your layout marks. That’s how you’ll know exactly where to stop. Make sure that this cut matches the thickness of your chisel’s blade.
- Once both pieces have been marked out with cuts, use a block plane or scraper to remove any remaining pencil lines so as not to get confused during shaping. If you have end grain areas on either part or along both sides, then place a piece of scrap wood between the two pieces and clamp them together tight.
- With each part within reach, take your chisel again and begin removing material from it by curving the blade around your layout marks in a downward motion towards yourself. This action will follow the fingers on your hands which makes it easier to visualize, being sure to strike only when necessary since your goal is to remove as little material as you can. This part of the process is essentially free-handing it, but remember to always move in a counterclockwise direction when looking directly down onto your work. If you’re not sure if what you just did will end up being the right amount of wood removed from that spot then trace over your layout lines again and check for accuracy.
- Follow the same method as above with both pieces until they’ve been shaped perfectly and all remaining pencil lines have been scraped away or marked out with cuts. Make sure to keep every edge flush on both parts so as not to leave any gaps between them during glueup.
- Sand the tenons with a block plane or belt sander until perfectly flat and true. Make sure that they have all been sanded equally along their widths, but be careful when doing this because you may alter your previously-created layout lines . If that should happen, then carefully retrace the original cuts with either a marking gauge or pencil.
- Use a triangular file to true up both ends of each tenon so that they’re perfectly perpendicular from one side to the other, then mark out the widths of both parts on their edges. This is where your mortises will be cut.
- Cut out these lines using either a chisel and hammer (more work-intensive) or just another router (much easier). You can use the final glue-up as a guide for this, just lock down your fence so that its edge is against the side of each tenon on both parts.
- Now comes an arduous process in which you must make sure to do everything exactly right. We’re going to prepare our mortises with through cuts then divide them up into individual compartments which contain only half of their total depth. To begin this, lock down a triangular router base plate to your workbench fence as shown and make sure that its face is flush with the top of your bench.
- Place one of the bottom rails onto this face and carefully move it towards yourself until its tenon is situated along the edge pointed toward you (the edge is necessary), then slightly apply downward pressure on the rail with your left hand and plunge the router bit down into its tenon. Be careful not to move it in any way, as the only thing that should be changing is bits of wood being removed from the mortise’s width.
- Once it has completed a full revolution through its cut then stop, lock down its depth setting so that it cannot cut deeper in the mortise, and re-align your hands so that you’re placing pressure on both the left and right sides of the rail.
- Repeat this same procedure for each section of all tenons (this process produces six cuts total), then clean out whatever waste wood is between them with a chisel. One helpful trick here is to place wax paper pieces onto their bottoms before doing this whole thing as they’ll pick up any debris which may fall from above.
What Can You Make With These Types of Joints?
The historical uses of dovetail joints as decorative elements and as functional components in furniture pieces have made them very popular among woodworkers today.
Their distinct shape is also visually appealing, which is why it’s common to find dovetails being used on frames and cabinet doors alongside other types of joinery.
Does Dovetail Joinery Have a Place in Modern Construction?
Yes, dovetail joinery can still have a place in modern construction. It is useful for joining materials of the same type together that simply need to be held together tightly.
You will probably not use dovetail joints when constructing things as it is difficult and time-consuming. Instead, you would opt for nails or screws.
Using dovetails also increases the visibility of your work products, which may or may not be what you want. We recommend dovetail joints for large woodworking projects where visual appeal is more important than simple functionality because they are an attractive alternative to other joint types.
What Are the Different Types of Joints Used in Woodworking?
When most people think about wood joints, they envision four basic types: nails and screws, glue, dowels, and mechanical connections like dovetails or mortise-and-tenon. However, this isn’t a comprehensive list of all the ways to join two pieces together.
In fact, there are approximately 70 different types of joints to choose from.
Anatomically speaking, a joint is simply where two pieces meet and hold together with no other external support. What makes them so fascinating is the unique way in which each one holds fast to another piece by interlocking or overlapping some part of its structure with something else.
The joints created in this manner are only as strong as the materials they’re made of, so it’s important to choose carefully.
Good-Quality Lumber = Good Joints!
Very often, woodworkers focus too much on the tools and machinery available to them instead of paying equal attention to the quality of their lumber. Most home workshops aren’t large enough to accommodate a planer, so it’s important to buy your wood as close to its finished thickness as possible.
If you’re purchasing lumber from the big-box store for your project, take the time to rip or plane each piece down on one of these machines before bringing them home. In this way, you can ensure that each member of your finished project will be as strong and beautiful as possible.
What Kind of Lumber Should You Use?
When selecting wood for the dovetails in your drawer box, use hardwood with a uniform grain pattern and color. Oak is an excellent choice because its tight twists and turns produce well-defined joints; the harder the wood, the better.
But be sure that you’re buying American white oak because it has a tighter grain pattern and is stronger than European hardwoods like beech.
How Do You Cut Dovetails?
From a design perspective, dovetails aren’t difficult to make – but they’re certainly time-consuming. That’s why they’ve been relegated to specialty woodworking shops instead of being found in the mainstream.
The cutting process is intricate because dovetails require two series of cuts on the inside corner of each piece involved. In addition, both sides must be perfectly flush before you move onto another cut. If there are any inconsistencies in your work, you’ll have a very difficult time trying to insert the joint, and it will certainly show in the finished product.
You can also create dovetails by hand using chisels or specialized dovetail saws that cut on the outside corner of your pieces. Again, these types of saws are very expensive and not well suited for general woodworking.
If you’ve decided on using a jigsaw to cut your dovetails, spend the extra money and purchase one that’s capable of making angled cuts.
How Do You Join the Box Together?
Regardless of whether you use nails, glue, or screws to secure the corners of your box together, make sure to pre-drill all holes before inserting anything into them. You don’t want any corners coming apart after it’s in place!
If you’re working with multiple pieces of wood at once, drill pilot holes completely through each piece along the joint line so that they’re aligned correctly while you secure them together.
Don’t try to force two pieces into alignment against each other. Instead, measure their existing alignment before adding anything new into the equation.
If you’re using nails or glue, take care to distribute adhesive evenly across every surface of your joint. This will ensure that screws won’t be necessary to keep everything in place, and it will allow for easy repair later on if necessary.
Make sure that every nail or screw is flush with the surface of your project before moving onto another one — this ensures that they’ll be invisible once the box is complete.
How Do You Finish Your Project?
To get dovetails looking their best, spray them with clear lacquer after each stage of assembly has finished; don’t wait until all steps have been completed!
The longer you let the paint sit on wood’s surface, especially unfinished wood, the more likely it is that you’ll end up with a mottled, patchy finish in the final product.
After you’ve put on one coat of finish, sand down any rough edges or imperfections in your wood’s surface so that they’re flush with the rest of your project. Again, this should be done for every step along the way to ensure that you have a fully finished piece once it’s complete!
As you have seen, there are many different ways to make a dovetail joint. Be sure to understand the principles before beginning so that your jigs and tools will help you finish with ease.
If this article has piqued your interest in learning more about dovetails or other types of joinery techniques, we encourage you to check out our full line of woodworking articles on our website!