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Dovetail Joints for Quality Construction

Cabinet, Construction How-To, Finish Carpentry, Trim Carpentry, Woodworking - Directory March 1, 2003 Sonia


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Dovetail Joints Dovetail joints are extremely strong and attractive joints, and are traditionally used on boxes, chests, quality furniture and cabinet drawers. Several types of dovetail joints can be created including: through or open dovetail; lapped or half-blind flush; half-blind rabbeted and secret-miter dovetail. The through dovetail joint exposes the dovetails on both sides of the joint. These are commonly used where the joint is not seen, as on the rear joints of drawers. In some cases, this joint is used to show off the workmanship of the dovetail joints. A lapped dovetail, also called a half-blind dovetail, shows only one side of the dovetail joint, the opposite edge overlapping the dovetail. These can also be cut flush or rabbeted. This joint is quite frequently used to secure drawer fronts on quality construction. A double-lapped dovetail conceals both of the dovetails. A secret-miter dovetail conceals the dovetails in a miter joint.

Regardless of the type of construction, the front and rear pieces are called the pin pieces, and the sides are called the tail pieces. The dovetails in the pin pieces are called pins, and those in the tailpiece are called tails.

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Dovetails can be cut using hand tools or power tools. In either case, cutting dovetails is precision woodworking, and this is especially so when cutting them by hand. Use only top-quality bench tools and make sure they are sharp. For hand tools you1ll need a woodworking vise to hold the stock, a thin bladed dovetail or backed saw, woodworking chisels, a mallet, a marking gauge and a dovetail gauge. The tools shown are high-quality tools available from Woodcraft Supply Company.

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Dovetails With Hand Tools The first step is to mark the thickness of each piece of wood on the other with a marking gauge. Do not cut deeply into the wood with the gauge. This will be the bottom of the dovetail cuts. Then mark the cuts for the dovetails on both sides of the stock and also on the end. This can be done with a straight edge, ruler and pencil, but a dovetail gauge makes the chore easier and more precise. Once the dovetails are marked, mark X’s on the wood portions to be cut away. This prevents confusion when you start removing material between the dovetails.

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Mark the depths of the dovetails using a marking gauge.

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Use a square to mark the outer width of the dovetails on the edge of the board.

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The angle cuts of the dovetail are marked with a dovetail gauge.

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Mark the waste areas to avoid confusion.

Place the work piece in a woodworking vise, angled so the saw can be held upright. Then use the back saw to cut down to the lines marked by the gauge. Cut just on the outside waste side of the lines, and down exactly to the depth marked.

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Use a small back saw or dovetail saw to make the angled cuts.

Then use a very sharp chisel, the exact width of the inner line at the gauge line, to chop the wood away between the cuts (shown at the top of this article). A smaller chisel can also be used for this, by repositioning it to make the cut, but the cut won1t be as clean. Cut from both sides of the stock to prevent splintering.

Position the second piece over the first and mark the locations of the dovetails on it. Then cut in the same manner. Finally, try-fit the joint together and use a very sharp chisel to slice away the sides of the cuts so the joint fits snugly in place. Once the joints fit correctly, repeat the operation for the other corners of the box, drawer or case. Once all joints are cut and you’re sure they fit properly, apply woodworking glue and clamp the assembly together, making sure the assembly is square.

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Half-blind or half-lap dovetails are a bit more complicated. The exposed portion is cut in the same manner as the exposed dovetail joint, except the dovetails are not as deep as the thickness of the piece they are to be joined to. This allows for a lap to cover the ends of the dovetails. Cut the exposed dovetail piece, position it on the non-exposed piece and mark the dovetail locations. The blind dovetails have to be cut entirely with a chisel. The first step is to make the back cuts, then side cuts and finally the end cuts. Try fitting the pieces together and shaving off pieces of wood until you achieve a nice, snug fit. To finish, glue and clamp.