Fair Woodworking

January 26, 2017

5 Dovetail Techniques and Tools You Don’t Really Need. 

As the Undisputed Dovetail World Champion, I feel that I have a duty to give back of myself to the dovetail world. It’s the least I can do to with the position I now hold.

Ha, ha. Ya right.  Just as soon as I’ve finished getting my nails done.

Really I’m just thinking back to when I first dreamed of the day I’d be a real woodworker that knew the “Dark Art” of dovetails. It’s funny now how mystical they seemed at the time. One of the reasons they seemed unobtainable was that it seemed to require so many tools. I’d attended the demonstrations, watched the videos, and I’d sat through the sales pitches. I did the math on what my first set of dovetails would cost in tools, and at over $800.00, I’d still be without a workbench, a marking knife or even a mallet.

It took a few years to be able to afford all the tools in the “beginner” set, but along the way I managed to find an affordable mallet (no longer available), and a marking knife. $500 later I had a usable workbench as well.

All told, it must have been about 5 years from the day I discovered the idea of dovetails to the day I cut them, and that’s just silly.

It didn’t need to be that complicated.

  1. You do need a workbench, and if you don’t have one, I’d highly recommend downloading The Naked Woodworker video. Had I just had access to this one resource when I first started, I’d be years ahead of where I am now as a woodworker.
  2. You will need a vise, or holdfasts like are shown in Mike’s video above.
  3. You need a Dovetail saw. Duhhh…. You can’t go wrong in product or price with the Veritas Dovetail Saw
  4. You need a Chisel. Ya, just one chisel, if you have a set already, please don’t throw the rest away, but if you don’t, just get one 1/2″ chisel. That’s all you really need to get started. Again, you can’t really go wrong with Narex if money is tight.
  5. I like using a Fret saw to remove the waste. Rob Cosman sells a pretty good one on his web site,  although I’d personally pass on the Hockey tape…
  6. You need a square. Would you believe you can lay out your dovetails with just a square? Ya! I’ll show you how later, but even the angles can be laid out fairly accurately with just the tip of your finger and your average square.
  7. You need a pencil. I like using a mechanical pencil because the mark it leaves is uniform. It never dulls, so it fits everywhere the same, line after line, after line.
  8. You need a mallet. NOT a carvers mallet, and NOT a hammer. I like a larger mallet, or even better, a mini sledge.

Oh and one last thing…. You NEED flat and square material. As a beginner, this should be the most challenging thing to get your hands on, but the flatter and the squarrrr’errr your material, the better off you will be.

That’s it. That’s all you really should need to get started, but there are other tools you will see out there, all of them I use regularly, that you don’t really need to have to get started.

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  1. Dividers – Dividers are great, but they add steps to your layout. If money is tight, you can get by for now without them.
  2. Rebate plane – First introduced to me as the “140 Trick” it’s used to make a shallow rabbet on the back of your tails. This aids in holding them against the pin board so it doesn’t slip while transferring the layout. It’s a really good trick when done properly, but Rebate planes are tricky to set up, and learning to use them well can be a hard learned skill. Again, it’s a great trick, but if done incorrectly will make learning dovetails all the more difficult.
  3. Marking knife – I found using the marking knife the most difficult skill to master with dovetails. It’s a real trick to mark all your lines accurately without accidentally moving the tail board out of alignment, and really that is a big reason people use the 140 trick. If you just want to cut some dovetails, the transfer is way, WAY easier with a pencil. You can learn how to use a marking knife later if you want.
  4. Dovetail marker – Remember how I said you can layout your dovetails with just a square? I’d much prefer to use and Dovetail marker as it is way easier, but if you don’t have one yet, don’t let it stop you.
  5. Marking gauge – You use a marking gauge to create the base line for your dovetails and also your pins. I have a few of them and they are great, but lately, for through dovetails, I’ve just been using my chisel.

Again, they are all great tools to have, they are all very, very useful, but you don’t really need them to learn how to cut your first dovetail.

If you would like to see how you can cut a reasonable dovetail with just 8 simple tools, I made yet another dovetail video.

Enjoy…

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3 Comments

  1. It looks so easy!
    I was wondering about the strange change in grain on the middle pin, but now see that the pin board is two boards edge joined. It looks like you made a mistake and glued a bit in! Wash my mouth out!

    Tony b

    Comment by Tony B. — January 29, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

    • You know what? It is easy, but that’s because easy is a relative term. Unlike the word practice. I use whatever scraps I have on hand (glue-ups or no) to practice, and I find that practice at one skill seems to improve other skills as well.

      Comment by fairwoodworking — January 29, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

  2. Thanks for the article, I want to start learning how to do dovetails, and this will definitely be a reference for me.

    Comment by nickswoodworkingprojects — March 2, 2017 @ 4:56 pm


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