Ultimate Guide To Making Dovetail Joints (Beginner Friendly)

The dovetail joint might be one of the most fascinating techniques in woodworking. People often dread the word dovetail but it is only because people don’t understand how easy it can be to make them. Of course, it does require effort and knowledge on your part if you want to pull them off perfectly. But you need to understand that you can make dovetail joints at home. It is only about following precise measurements and cutting it square. So to help you in that endeavour we made the ultimate guide on how to make dovetail joints.

To make a dovetail joint first you need to measure out the tails. When you are done doing that, using a dovetail saw cut the tails down to length. Afterward using a fretsaw cut them horizontally to remove the pieces from between and using a chisel square them up perfectly. Then using the tail, mark the pins, and using a dovetail guide cut them with a dovetail saw. After which you just need to clean up the pins with the chisel. If they are cut perfectly square they should join perfectly without problems.

Making dovetails is time-consuming, but the satisfaction you get after you make perfectly square ones that fit together nicely is just amazing. Many woodworkers always fail at making dovetails that fit nicely together. It is all about getting the perfect measurements, if you do that you will not have any trouble whatsoever. People also always try to rush the process and end up making mistakes in the sawing process. This ultimately ruins the dovetails and makes them useless.

How to Cut Dovetail Joints by Router (Step by Step Guide)

To make dovetails entirely by a router you will need to buy a router jig for the dovetail. You can make your own dovetail jig but it only allows you to make pins, for the tails you need to cut them out on the scroll saw. So we will not be mentioning that method since it relies on another tool as well. For making dovetails with just the router or router table, you will need something like this Porter-Cable Dovetail Jig that also comes with a mini template.

Step 1 – Measuring the Boards

To measure the board for cutting dovetail joints using a router, just simply take the thickness of the end grain of the board and use it to mark the shoulders. Now take a ruler and just find the center of the board and mark it so it can align with the center of the jig.

Step 2 – Cutting the Tails

If you are using the jig we recommended, you can just clamp it with a table. It has clamping capabilities for the pieces you are going to make dovetails out of. Just use them to fix your piece on the dovetail jig and after fixing the template with the router plate, and attaching a dovetail router bit on the router, start to use the template to cut out dovetails on the wood.

If you are using a router table and a more portable jig, then just clamp the tail board to it. Once you do so, just use a straight bit to just cut the tails using the jig as a guide. Move the jig very carefully and slowly, don’t rush it, let the router do its job.

Step 3 – Cutting the Pins

Once you are done cutting the tails, flip the jig and clamp the pin board to it. Now change the router bit to a straight bit instead of the dovetail bit and start to cut into the wood using the jig as a guide.

If you are using a router table, then just flip the jig and clamp the pin board with the jig, making sure that the centre is aligned. Once that is done, start cutting the pins out using the jig as a guide. Slowly cut out all the pieces, take your time, and don’t rush it.

Step 4 – Cleaning Up

Once you are done, the pieces should fit together perfectly. However, in case they don’t, use your chisel to shave material off from the tail board. If it is very slightly tight then just use a file to sand off some material instead of shaving it with a chisel.

Once that is done then just slide both of them together if required gently tap with a mallet so they sit right. Here is a video demonstrating how it is done using a router table in less than 12 minutes:

How to Make Dovetail Joints by Hand (Step by Step Guide)

If you are a beginner at making dovetails, then buying a dovetail jig will help you in this respect. Something like this Katz-Moses Magnetic Dovetail Jig will be an incredible help for cutting out this joint. Other than that, a dovetail saw, marking gauge, a marking blade, a square, pencil, and chisels of various sizes will be required for perfect dovetails.

Step 1 – Marking the Shoulders

This is one of the most important steps of this whole process because cutting dovetails is all about having perfect measurements. If you have measured wrong then you are most probably going to have gaps in the joint. Take your marking gauge and measure the thickness of your pinboard with it. Now mark the tail board using that measurement that you took of the pin board’s thickness. Just ensure that you don’t mark the face side too deep, but dig deep in the backside of the board. Now do the same process with the tail board by taking its measurement and marking the pin board.

Step 2 – Marking the Tails

Now it is time to move on to measure out the tails and mark them properly. Use a ruler or dividers to measure out tails. To do that, you either use a dovetail template or use a ruler, marking 5mm on both sides. Then take your dividers, and make marks from one 5mm line of the board on the end grain side to the other. Then from the other side of the end grain to the one you started from. Now make lines where the divider holes or marks are and you will have an equal amount of spacing for the tails. Using a dovetail guide or a dovetail gauge, angular bevel gauge, draw out the tails on the face and backside of the board.

Step 3 – Making a Rabbet

On the backside of the tail board, make a rabbet using a rabbeting planer. This will help in supporting the tail board on the pin board and allow us to make marks for the pins on it. The lip on the rabbet will help us hold the board with one hand without movement so the marks for the pins are more accurate.

Step 4 – Cutting the Tails

Using a dovetail saw and a dovetail jig, start cutting the tails vertically. Do this one side at a time, meaning you do one side for the whole board then flip it and another side for the whole board. Now cut out the half tails or corners with the dovetail saw leaving at least 1-2mm space between the shoulder mark. You don’t want to go all the way over the marks to always make sure there is enough space for compensation, you can use a chisel to clean that up later. For the middle pieces use a fret saw to cut the pieces in between. Use a chisel to clean out the curve you cut with the fretsaw when you are done.

Step 5 – Marking the Pins

Once the cleanup process is finished, make sure to use a chisel and a knife to clean any fuzz in the corners. Now place the tail board on the pin board and mark the tails using the tails as a guide with a marking blade. Use your pencil to draw out the lines on the mark and the waste as well.

Step 6 – Cutting the Pins

Use the same method as before, using the dovetail guide or jig, start cutting the pins using a dovetail saw. Using the fret saw as before, cut the waste in between the pins, and afterward, using a chisel clean up between them.

Step 7 – Cleaning Up

Now that both the tail and pin boards are cut, take a chisel and clean up any excess using the shoulder marks and the lines. Once that is done you have a dovetail joint that is ready to be set together. Using your hands slide the tails into the pins, and gently tap the boards with a mallet. Also, don’t forget to make a slight chamfer on the back of the tails where the rabbet is. This will help the tails and pins slide in with much more ease.

If both the pieces aren’t fitting together if it is too tight, take a file, file the tails down gently, and don’t file the pins since they will be thin. Here is a pretty comprehensive video tutorial on how you can make the perfect dovetails by hand:

How to Make a Dovetail Joint Using a Saw

To make a dovetail joint using a table saw, you first need to design a jig for it. This jig will allow you to make cuts that will remove waste from the wood and create perfect dovetail joints that are as good as handmade ones. Designing the jig is pretty easy and you can find out how to make this jig using this video tutorial below:

Using the jig in the video above, it is quite easy to cut the tail and the pins easily. You just need to have a sled or slider on your table saw for this jig and method to work without problems. You can attach the jig to your miter gauge on the table saw and slide the jig along with the board to make cuts on boards with ease.

First, you need to cut using one slope of the angle halfway through the board. To make it easier to recognize where halfway is, use a pencil to mark the waste on the board. Once you reach the halfway point, flip the jig and move it to the other side of the table now using the other slope, cut the other half of the waste and you will get perfect dovetail joints every time.

The jig will have to be flipped depending on what you are going to cut, the tails, or the pins. Once you are done cutting, it is only a matter of cleaning up if there is any tear-out. If there is none, then just try to join the pieces together to see if they fit. As always gently tap with a mallet if necessary and you are done.

Cutting a Dovetail Using a Scroll Saw

Cutting a dovetail on the scroll saw is going to be easy or hard depending on your skills with the tool. A scroll saw allows you to make intricate cuts, make sharp turns while you are cutting, and move around with much freedom thanks to its thin and sharp blade. The thin blade gives you the leverage to turn midway, making cuts in any direction as you please. Try easier projects at first, once you are able to follow lines more easily then you can make dovetail joints on them.

Modern scroll saw tables even give you the ability to turn to an angle to make a cut as well, so cutting dovetails on it is not that difficult. If you are new, doing some practice using the scroll saw is a good idea. To start off, take measurements and mark the boards properly. Taking proper measurements and marking them with a pencil will be the key to cutting dovetails on the scroll saw.

Once you are done marking them, it is all up to your scroll saw skills to make the cuts. First start off by cutting the tails, which will be cut at 90-degrees, so you don’t need to change the angle of the saw yet. Cut the tails slowly, making sure you are undercutting and not overcutting where the markings are. If you undercut a bit you can use a chisel later to clean up and make the tails square. Guide the scroll saw and make all the cuts, making sure you follow the markings and cut inside the lines even if it means leaving some waste for you to clean on the chisel.

Now it is time to cut the pins, which will require you to change the angle of the scroll saw slightly. Check the marking and adjust the angle of the blade accordingly to make the cuts clean for the sides. For the shoulders, it gets a bit complicated since the cut is straight but the sides are at an angle. So to ensure that you don’t cut the slopes you have worked so hard to make, first cut with the blade on the angle of the slope halfway. Switch sides then cut again halfway, you will see that the side where the slope is the closest has been cut but where it expands still needs to be cut off. Just straighten the blade and cut the middle and you will get pins that fit perfectly in your tails.

Types of Dovetail Joints

While a dovetail joint looks good, aesthetics are not the reason people make them. A dovetail joint is pretty sturdy and it does not come apart unless it is torn or split. So there are actually types of dovetails that hide that the pieces of wood are joined using that joint. Along with that kind of dovetail, there are a few others.

Through Dovetail

A through dovetail is the most common type of dovetail joint that you see every woodworker make. All the methods above are used to create a common through dovetail joint. In fact, when you talk about dovetails with anyone, that is the type of dovetail that pops into a person’s mind.

Half-Blind Dovetail

A half-blind dovetail its name suggests is a joint where one part of the dovetail joint is hidden. In a through dovetail, you can see both pieces of wood, pin, and tail sides joining together. It looks like fingers interlocking together, you can see the fingers of both hands. But in a half-blind dovetail, you can only see the joints from the side since the tails are housed in sockets with the front cover. So instead of cutting the pins from the end-grain below, you cut them on a thick board on the surface at the end-grain in-depth.

Mitered or Blind Dovetail

In this kind of dovetail, you basically don’t cut the joint all the way through leaving the backside of the tail and the pins making the joint hidden from sight. So the tails are housed in sockets of the pin hiding the face of the joint while the pins are housed in the sockets of the tails hiding them as well. It is a very difficult dovetail to create and is often not considered when making dovetail joints.

Sliding Dovetail

This type of dovetail joint is quite simple, basically a dovetail on the face grain and the edge-grain or end-grain of the board. It is often used in joinery to connect two pieces of boards perpendicularly. While it can slide in and slide out, it cannot be lifted out unless the boards tear.

Tips and Tricks When Cutting Dovetails

  • When cutting by hand, make sure to rabbet the tail piece on the back side till the shoulders. This will create a lip on which you can hold the tail board and mark the pin board with more stability.
  • Chamfering the tail board from the backside 5mm under the face of the joints will help them slide into place much more easily.
  • When cutting on a table router using a dovetail jig, clamp the pieces tightly to the router since the router bit’s rotation will try to rotate the board as it cuts into it.
  • If you are using a table saw, take your time and patiently cut through the waste one pass at a time.
  • Measurements are everything no matter what route you take to cut dovetails. Whether it is by hand, a router, a scroll saw, or a table saw, if the measurements are wrong the joints won’t sit right.
  • Always make sure that the pieces you are using to make dovetails are square and milled properly. If they aren’t square it will upset all the measurements you take and the joints will not be square.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Can I cut a dovetail joint using a normal handsaw?

While possible, it is often not recommended to use a normal handsaw to cut a dovetail joint. The dovetail saw is very thin in size and while cutting at an angle it does not move or deviate from its path. So once you start cutting at an angle it will cut at that angle while a normal saw is not designed to do so.

Can I cut the dovetail joint without using a template or jig by hand?

Once you cut enough dovetails by hand using a saw, you will not need a jig or template. All you will need is proper measurements and markings, and you can cut without any jigs or templates by hand using a dovetail saw. But, for beginners, it is recommended to either purchase a jig or to use a template made by a professional woodworker to cut the joint.

When using a table router, can you use a straight router bit instead of a dovetail bit?

No. You can use a straight bit to cut the pins but not the tails, you need a dovetail router bit to do that.

What if my dovetail joint is a bit too tight?

If your measurements are accurate, a tight dovetail is not possible. But in case it is, either lightly sand using a filer or sandpaper, or use a chisel to shave off some wood from the tails and pins.

What to do if there are gaps in my dovetail joint?

If there is a gap between a tail or pin, then just use a wood filler to hide it. But if all the joints have gaps, then you might need to make another board but this time with accurate measurements.

Final Thoughts

Cutting dovetails always scares beginner woodworkers, but with our ultimate guide to cutting dovetail joints, we are sure it must have become much easier. Cutting dovetails is all about the measurements and marking, precision, and accuracy. If you follow the measurements properly, you will always be able to make dovetails with ease. Also, it is not cheating to use jigs or templates, because even professional woodworkers use them to avoid errors and save time.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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