Fair Woodworking

March 12, 2012

A simple box with only hand tools. Part 4

EDITORS NOTE *** This post is experiencing 3rd party photo hosting “issues”, that will be addressed as time allows. ***


Click HERE to read the whole story.

Note – If you have not watched the links from the end of Part 3, this next part may not make all that much sense.

Seriously, go back and watch them.

Today I prove that I am smart like tractor… Having successfully completed plowing all the grooves, and it’s time to get into some wood work that is a little sexier than the dimensioning of materials. It’s time to start the layout and cutting of my tails.

You may say that the layout spacing is a little complex, but the extra seconds it took and an extra set of dividers removed at least one or two pins from the layout. It will save time in the end. If you will picture in your minds eye, the tail on the right will be the shallow tail. On the left will be the mitered shoulder.

When I flip the board around you can better see how the tails relate to the grooves. Now the shallow tail is on the left, and the mitered shoulder is… uhhh… Uh, oh… It seems I’ve plowed away the material where my layout line should have been. Oh, this is bad, very bad. Some of you may see the solution, others may not.

Here’s what, at the time seemed like a brilliant solution. I took some green painters tape and taped over the groove, then marked the layout line on it. Lickedy split! Problem solved. The tape was a little sloppy, but it held long enough to make a half decent cut.

It was then that the lights came on. The reason for the mitered shoulder is to hide the groove, so I’d marked the line on the wrong side of the groove! I want to thank those of you that saw this from the beginning, but kept quiet so as to not ruin my story. This may have made a mess of my spacing, but here you go with the tail laid out correctly.

And again with the miter cut out.  That was a bit of a tricky cut, but not too bad.  Before you try this kind of cut, make sure you have a real good handle on the basics of cutting a regular tail.

With that out of the way, I want to share some things that have helped me with cutting dovetails.

The first thing you need is, to be able to cut a straight line. I think that more often than not, bad form with hand/arm movement is to blame, but it is hard to see for yourself if you are doing it wrong while you are sawing, and most of us don’t have a pro to watch our form. I found a trick that is as simple as looking in the mirror to help you out. It’s looking at the reflection in the saw blade. For starters watch this video, note the angle of the camera at the 2:20 mark. It’s very similar to your view when you are sawing. Now don’t look at the saw, or his hands. Watch the reflection. Note how the wood in the reflection does not move. The reflection tells me that this guy knows how to use a saw. Next time you are sawing, have a look at the reflection and see how good your form is.

The key to a good tail, other than a straight cut, is that the cut be has to be square to the board. If you look at the pics above, you will see that I mark the lines with a pen, and you may think that I cut to them. If you do, you are wrong. These lines are strictly for layout, and composition. Who is to say that my square didn’t slip while I marked the lines, or that the pen didn’t write a little fatter on one side than the other? These kind of issues could be big problems once I get to the pins. Once again I rely on the reflection. If my blade is square to the board, the reflection of the wood is in a consistent straight line. If not, you are in for trouble. Once finished the cut, again I don’t reach for my square, instead I press the blade against the cut and look at the reflection. You don’t need a square to see that the cut below is not square, the reflection very clearly angles off to the left.  Yuck!

So how do I fix this? In the past I would leave it and try to pare it later after I’d cut out the waste, but it never really worked very well, especially when the pins were narrow, and it was really  hard to tell if I’d pared enough. Now what I do is I re-cut the curf with the saw. Essentially, I hold the saw against the offending area of the tail, and I use the set in the teeth to trim back the excess until the reflection tells me I’m done.










In many ways I don’t feel that cutting dovetails is so much an art as much as it is a strict adherence to a basic set of rules.

When cutting tails first

  1. Keep your tail cuts square.                                Check
  2. Cut straight                                                      Check
  3. Pare precisely to the baseline                            Check
  4. Transfer from the tails to the pins accurately        Check
  5. Split the knife line on the pins                             Check
  6. Cut straight                                                       Check

Oh, and one more thing….

7. Cut on the waste side…                                         Ah, crap!

Wait, wait!!!  One last rule

8. Have some left over material to replace the un-repairable mistakes.                         Thank goodness!

If you recall from the beginning, I had to rip about a 4” strip off the board? Well that is my backup wood. Cut it in half, and glue it together. Shown above in the clamps overnight.This may not seem like that big a deal, but this is a huge blow to the project. Now I’m at a complete standstill until I get this piece dimensioned and caught up to the rest of the project. Flattened, thicknessed, sized, and squared up. Man, I’m bummed!



  1. Thank you for posting your mistakes! I really love this backwater of woodblogging. Not just to make myself feel better, but I think we all can learn from the mistakes of others (if our stubborn minds allow us). My most recent one was to prepare a strip of molding, overlong so that I had a section to spare. However, I somehow cut the lengths somewhat radically wrong, so that one piece had a very huge piece of excess, but the leftover “scrap” was too short to be useful. So its either painstakingly fabricate a new short piece to exactly match the other good ones, or just start over with another long length.

    Comment by rob campbell — March 12, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

  2. Mistakes
    made a few
    but then again
    too many to mention….

    ha, ha.

    Ya, I’ll leave the perfect builds to the superstars of woodworking.

    On that note, it happens to superstars too. I once witnessed Rob Cosman blow out a dovetail.

    There’s hope for all of us!

    Comment by fairwoodworking — March 12, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: