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How to Cut a Tight Dovetail Joint

Crafting Strong Corners on Drawers using a Jig, Router, or Saw

© 2008 by all rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission

Dovetail Joint Illustration

A carpentry dovetail joint illustration

This article was updated on 08/31/20.

Dovetail joints are one of the strongest corner joints used in woodworking. Why? The strength of any wood joint depends on the amount of open surface area of the two pieces being joined. The more glued woodworking surface area, the stronger the joint.

While a box joint (also called a finger joint) is strong, the dovetail has it beat hands down. This article explains wood joinery with a dovetail joint.

How the Dovetail Joint Maximizes End Grain for Strength

The name “dovetail” derives from the shape of the mating surfaces. On the socket piece of wood, tail-shaped sockets are cut out. The narrow pieces of wood remaining between sockets are called pins.

The tail piece of wood is cut in the opposite fashion; the tails are left while small sockets corresponding to the pins are removed. On either piece, the joint at the top or bottom, once the joint is assembled, is called the shoulder.

So, tails mate with sockets and pins mate between tails. Once glued up, the incredible strength of the dovetail joint makes it a favorite for drawer construction.

It also explains its popularity in antique furniture. Glue used in those days (hide glue) was not as strong as the ones today, such as Gorilla Glue or Titebond III. When restoring antique furniture hide glue must be used in order to retain the antique value. Picky? Perhaps, but that’s the way it is.

How are Dovetail Joints cut?

There are three basic methods to cutting dovetail joints. The most precise method is with a jig. Cable Porter defined that market early although many innovators have come up with their own designs. In fact, Rockler dovetail jigs are some of the best on the market today. Homemade jigs are also popular.

Cutting dovetail joints using a router and a dovetail template is also very precise. This method is useful in a heavy production environment because it allows the socket piece and the tail piece to be cut at the same time.

A Dovetail SawBut any cabinet maker or DIY carpenter worth his salt will be quick to point out that the only true bragging rights are hard won by hand-cut dovetail joints! This is done by precise layout and careful cutting using a dovetail saw, coping saw, and a chisel and mallet.

Tools for Hand-Cutting a Dovetail Joint

  • Tape measure
  • Marking gauge
  • T bevel
  • Dovetail saw
  • Coping saw
  • Hammer
  • Chisel
  • Coping saw
  • Try (or tri) square
  • Work bench-mounted wood vice

Layout and Hand-Cutting a Dovetail Joint

  1. Mark the depth of the cut on the tail piece and the socket piece. Use a marking gauge to scribe around all four sides of the tail piece. The distance from the end of the board to the scribe mark is the thickness of the board.
  2. Lay out the tails using a T bevel set at the chosen angle. Make them equal in size. Allow for cutting both ends for the shoulders and a minimum of one quarter inch between tails to receive pins.
  3. Clamp the tail piece in a woodworking vise. Use a dovetail saw to cut the shoulders and between tails. A coping saw is handy to get into the tight corners and cut the piece out.
  4. Use a hammer and chisel to finish the job.
  5. Now, put the socket piece vertically in the vice. Hold the tail piece horizontally at the end to allow tracing out the areas between the tails that were just cut.
  6. Use a try square and pencil to continue the lines on the socket piece.
  7. Cut the sockets out.
  8. Dry fit the dovetail joint and make any adjustments.
  9. Glue it up, clamp it (usually in a 45 degree clamp such as a picture clamp), and let the glue dry.
  10. A final sanding and it’s done!

Learning how to cut a tight dovetail joint is one more way to build sturdier and more individualized woodworking projects. Whether you cut them by hand or use a jug, take your time on your layout.

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© 2008 all rights reserved; content may not be copied, rewritten, or republished without author’s written permission.