Correa Wood Works
Craftsman furniture featuring full integral mortise and tenon joinery. 100% solar powered!

Hand Cut Dovetails

One of the main aspects of my furniture designs involves the use of hand cut joinery. When I finish a piece of furniture, I want all of the visual surfaces to be shaped by hand in order to give it a look which can only be achieved through the use of hand tools. When it comes to drawer boxes I prefer the use of the through dovetail joint. There are a number of ways to accomplish this joint. I have tried many and found a nice balance of processes to yield accurate joinery.

The most important item for joining a solid drawer with dovetail joints involves proper stock preparation. everything must be flat and square in most cases. Arrange your drawer as it will be when assembled and label the faces and intersecting corners. I typically use letters or numbers to keep track of the joints in each corner. Each joint will be slightly different than the next so we need to make sure we do not loose track of the layout half way through cutting the drawer box. In addition to having solid well labeled stock there are a few tools which will make the process much easier. I use a dovetail specific 15tpi back-saw from Lie Nielsen, Tite-mark marking gauge, 4″ square, coping saw, quality bevel edge chisel, mallet, marking knife, pencil and a dovetail marker.

The first step is the layout. The benefit of hand cut joints is the infinite options for spacing. I like to make the tails on the sides of my drawer boxes (tail boards) set proud of the drawer front (pin board). This gives a similar appearance to some of the early hall brothers furniture while maintaining the superior function of the dovetail.

Using my Tite-mark marking gauge, I set the thickness of the drawer front plus the desired tail protrusion and mark the drawer sides (tail boards).

I prefer a tails first approach to cutting the joint. Using a small square and a dovetail guide, I layout the joint on the endgrain and pencil a line up to the marking gauge line on the face grain. It is critical to keep the saw cut square across the end grain. the bevel angle across the face of the board is less critical as it will ultimately dictate the dependent cuts I make on the pin board.

After carefully cutting to the line I use a coping saw to remove the majority of the waste.

Using a chisel I carefully remove the remaining waste in small slices. I like to chisel a light back bevel about half way through the thickness of the board and flip the board to finish.

After the tail board is finished you can move on to the pin board by transferring the shoulder of the tails to the end grain of the pin board. One thing to note is the setting of the marking gauge. In order for the pin board to fit flush with the drawer side the gauge is set to the thickness of the side board.

At this point you simply repeat the steps as listed above with a slight adjustment to the marking and sawing technique. It is absolutely critical to focus when sawing the pins. the marking gauge lines are much more accurate than a pencil line. Once the shoulder has been marked on the endgrain, carefully align a square and mark the face of the board up to the line from the marking gauge.

Align the saw to the marking gauge line and cut dead on the waste side of the line while taking the line with the kerf of the saw. Leaving any gap, often in an effort not to take “too much”, will require a large amount of chisel work and typically results in a lot of wasted time. If all goes according to planned you should have a completed drawer box that sits flat and square without the aid of clamps and glue.

After the drawer bottom is fit and the interior surfaces are finished with shellac a little glue in the joints will lock the drawer together for good.




2 Responses to “Hand Cut Dovetails”

  1. Great step-by-step.

    My preference is not to put any finish on the insides of drawers. Over the years (And this one should last a few!) Finish tends to go ‘sour’, and an unpleasant odour builds up. Just my personal preference of course.

    • Hi John.

      The issue of off-gassing odor inside of cabinets and drawers is typically a result of using varnish and certain oils. The benefit of shellac is the absence of odor and off gassing. You can certainly leave the surface un-finished but the shellac provides protection and seals the wood. Once the alcohol evaporates the finish should never go sour.


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