How to Cut Dovetail Joints

Dovetail JointDovetail joints were probably among the first types of joints ever used by human craftsmen to hold pieces of wood together securely. The use of dovetail joints for furniture making can be dated all the way back to First Dynasty of Ancient Egypt where dovetailed furniture has been found entombed with mummies.

The way a dovetail joint is done is an important determinant in distinguishing the time period in which a wood working piece was made. A dovetail is a joint that is designed for interlocking pieces of wood together. The joint consists of a wedge shape piece cut from the end of one beams at an exact angle so that they fit together forming a tight fit often at the corner of a wooden structure.

How Dovetail Joints are Made

Dovetail joints can be cut by hand or with a machine. Typically routers and jigs are used in woodworking to create a dovetail joint. A good example of commonly seen dovetail joints is at the front of the drawers in a chest of drawers. The boards in the drawers are held together using a series of pins cut into one board to fit into a series of tails cut into the other board. These pins are tails are what the dovetail joint consists of.

Making them by hand probably looks easier than it actually is and today most people make then with a machine. Either by hand or by machine, making a dovetail joint calls for extreme accuracy in order for the pieces to fit together snug like they should be. Dovetails joints have been used for the logs in cabins and ancient buildings as well as all types of furniture and woodworking projects galore.

Types of Dovetail Joints

There are different types of dovetail joints for different situations or applications. We will discuss the typical types of dovetail joints and explain which to use where. The most common of dovetail joints is known as the “Through Dovetail Joint”. The through dovetail is what you would normally see holding a drawer together in a chest of drawers as mentioned above, but probably used more on the rear corners of a drawer.

The “Half Blind Dovetail” is another popular type of dovetail joint. The Half Blind Dovetail is called half blind because you can only see the pins and tails from one side and they are hidden from the other side because they do not go all the way though one of the boards being joined. A half blind dovetail is more likely to get used on the front board when making a drawer for a chest of drawers because you don’t want the joint seen from the front and this joint hides it well on a drawer front.

The third type of dovetail we will introduce you to is called a “Sliding Dovetail”. The Sliding Dovetail is not as commonly known by some wood workers even though it is often said to be the most versatile of the dovetail joints. Using our drawer example from before, a sliding dovetail would consist of only one pin and one tail running the entire length of the boards ends instead of several series of pins and tails as with the other types of dovetails. The sliding dove tail can be used in drawers, tables, cabinets, shelves and much more.

How to Make a Though Dovetail Joint

As we mentioned earlier, a though dovetail can be done by hand or machine. Many skilled craftsmen still make them by hand to this day, but for the person learning to make one, it may be best to use a jig and router because it takes an acquired skill to make them by hand that you can’t master in one day. Not that you can necessarily master the dovetail with a router in a day either, but learning will go faster. Here are the basic steps to making a through dovetail joint though:

1. Square off the ends of two pieces of wood that you want to join, using a planer as needed.

2. Make a line at the edge of each piece of lumber equal to the width of the piece of wood it will be joined to.

3. Mark the ends of the tails using the desired angle and use a dovetail saw to cut them out removing the waste as you do so.

4. After completing the board with the tails, use the board as a guide to mark out your pins on the other board.

5. Cut out the pins in a similar fashion and clean out the waste material.

6. Try to fit the two pieces together and cut any extra off of the pins side as needed to make a snug fit.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Sounds simple huh. You will see however, that it takes some practice to master the through dovetail. Always cut the tails first and not the pins because you can always cut down the pins to fit the tails but it is much harder to cut a tail to fit a pin! If you use a jig, the process is similar. Just set the depth and insert the wood into the jig according to the jig’s instructions and use a router to make your cuts.

Photo by banalities, Creative Commons Attribution License