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    Basics of Dovetail Joinery

    The dovetail is symbolic of fine woodworking. There is simply no stronger or prettier way to join the sides of a solid-wood box, whether it is for a big chest or one of the drawers inside it, which might be pulled in and out thousands of times in its life. I say solid wood, because a dovetail doesn’t look good or hold glue well in plywood, so it’s not used for that.

    There are two parts to a dovetail joint, pins and tails. The tails look like the tails of doves (hence the name), and the pins are on the opposite board and fit in between the tails to create a joint that is impossible to pull apart in at least one direction. Add some glue, clamp the joint together well, and it will be impossible to pull apart in the other direction, too.

    And there are two main kinds of dovetails: through and half-blind (see photos above). You can see through-dovetails on both side of the joint. Half-blinds don’t show on one of the faces; that’s why they are used at the front of drawers.

    Drawer Parts

    Traditional drawers have half-blind dovetails at the front, and through-dovetails at the back. Photo: Kelly J. Dunton

    The traditional way to cut dovetails is by hand, using a saw and chisels, and that yields the prettiest joint with very narrow pins.

    The traditional method for cutting dovetails is to use a handsaw and chisels. Photo: Steve Scott

    That’s because a handsaw lets you cut very narrow spaces between the tails.

    The other way is with a router jig, and that is much easier and faster. The downside is that you’ll have to get a router bit between the tails, and that means fatter pins. But only hardcore woodworkers will know the difference. You’ll also need a pricey jig to make nice dovetails, while hand tools are cheaper, and can be used for many more tasks.

    Dovetail Jig

    A good dovetail jig will cost you $100 or more, and you’ll need a router, too, but it makes short work of these fancy joints. Asa Christiana

    Most beginners start out with a jig before they are ready to make the leap to the hand-cut look.

    Better yet, avoid dovetails for a while when you are starting out. There are other great ways to join wood pieces. Get used to the basics, and take on dovetails when you feel ready.



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