Learn to Master Dovetail Joints: A Beginners Guide
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke
Humans have been sculpting, carving, and joining wood for millennia. Heck, the oldest example of woodwork we know about dates back a staggering 300,000 years! As you’d expect, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to ‘whittle’ away the good wood practices from the bad in that time.
Case and point? The timeless dovetail joints.
In the wonderful world of woodworking, very few joints are as strong, simple, and effective as this one. Dovetails are renowned as premium joints for chests, drawers, cases, and boxes, and have been used for this very purpose for hundreds of years.
Do you want to learn how to create them with your own two hands so you can experience these attributes for yourself? Well, you’re in the right place. Today we’re going through a beginner’s guide on how to make dovetail joints.
What Is a Dovetail Joint?
Dovetail joints come in an array of different styles (some of which we’ll describe in the coming sections). The basic principle remains the same in each though.
They’re made up of two parts: pins and tails. ‘Pins’ are thin protrusions of wood; ‘tails’ are triangular, tapering protrusions that are cut into the end of the other board. By fitting the ‘pins’ of one board into the ‘tails’ of another, you end up with a tough interlocking joint.
You can cut these joints with a machine or by hand, although hand-crafted dovetails are generally the better option. Regardless of which method you use, the nature of dovetails means they’re much more complicated to make than other woodwork joints.
The good news? What you sacrifice in ease of production, you make up for in quality! Let’s take a closer look at the advantages on offer…
The Benefits of Dovetail Joints
Wondering what makes dovetail joints so special? Want to find out why they’re put on such a pedestal? Here’s some extra detail on their many virtues:
The primary advantage of dovetail joints is their strength and durability. Thanks to the trapezoidal shape of the tails and pins, the two boards are effectively locked in position! There’s also more surface area for any wood glue you use to work its magic.
Those two factors combine to make it all-but-impossible to pull a dovetail joint apart. You don’t even need nails to fix each section of wood in position.
These joints aren’t just functional though. Dovetails of any variety look amazing too (especially when you compare them to something simpler, like a butt joint!). The pattern made by the tail and pin adds an eye-catching, decorative element that showcases the skill of the craftsman.
It’s no wonder they became such popular joints for chests, cabinets, and cases. The combination of strength and beauty makes dovetails a perfect fit for such practical and ornamental pieces.
The Different Types of Dovetail Joints
There are actually 3 main varieties of a dovetail joint. The full (otherwise known as ‘through’) dovetail, the half-blind, and the secret mitered dovetail. Here’s a brief rundown of each one:
The through dovetail joint is the simplest to make, which also makes it the most common! In these joints, both the pins and tails extend to the very end of each piece of wood. The result?
You can see the joint on both outside faces when they’re fitted together. Full dovetails are often used to make everyday frames and cabinets where there’s more emphasis on utility over aesthetics.
Half-blind dovetails get their name because you only see the joint on a single side when the pins and tails are interlocked. In essence, you can hide it from view (from the front) when you’re building something like a set of drawers.
You make half-blind dovetails by cutting ‘sockets’ on one end for the tails to fit into. In other words, the pins don’t extend across the entire thickness of the wood. You might cut them two-thirds of the way through it instead.
Last but not least is the most complicated (and least common) type of dovetail: the secret mitered. This one’s sometimes referred to as a ‘full blind dovetail joint. Why?
Because you can’t see anything of the tails or pins upon construction! Cut at a 45-degree angle, they’re 100% hidden on the inside when they’ve been fitted together. This creates an incredibly strong ‘invisible’ joint.
How to Make Dovetail Joints
As you can tell, some dovetail joints are more complicated than others. But don’t let that stop you! Follow the coming steps for making full-dovetail joints and you’ll master this versatile woodworking task in no time.
Step 1: Assemble the Tools
Start this process by gathering the right woodworking tools together. You’ll need a:
- Marking gauge (ensure the cutter’s nice and sharp!),
- Dovetailing saw,
- Doping saw,
- Set of chisels,
- Dovetail marker,
- Square, and a
- Layout knife.
As for your chisels, you may benefit from using shorter ones, and bevelling their cutting edges if they’re too square. The shortness will help you stay in control when using the mallet; those beveled edges facilitate cutting your tails without damaging the wood.
Top tip: Make sure you hone/tune your tools to a tee! The quality of your finished dovetail depends entirely on how well you measure and cut it. So, if your tools are askew, the joint will be too.
Step 2: Mark Your Baselines
The first part of laying out any dovetail joint involves marking the baselines. Take your marking gauge, set it to the exact thickness of the board to which you’ll be joining it, and then gently make the cuts around each piece of wood. If both boards are of equal thickness, an alternative approach is to use the end of a board to mark your baselines instead.
Lay one piece down flat, stand the second board upright, and align the edges. Then simply use a pencil to mark the line. This method could be a bit quicker and requires fewer tools to complete!
Step 3: Mark Your Half-Pins
Half pins sit on the outer edges of the dovetail joint. Take your marking gauge, set the required length, and cut the line onto the top of both ends of the pin board. The ‘right’ size of your half-pins depends on a) the item you’re making and b) the width of the board.
In general, you’re trying to strike a balance between aesthetics and practicality. Too wide and it’ll look strange. Too thin and it might break when you come to fit the joint together.
Step 4: Mark the Tail Board Spacing
The next step involves marking the position of your tails. Heads up, this may require some basic calculations! Where you mark depends on:
- The width of your board,
- How big you want each pin/tail to be, and
- How many dovetails you want to cut.
Start by measuring the distance between your half-pins. Let’s say you have 450mm to play with and decide your pins should be 10mm wide. Keep in mind that a) you require one more tail than pins and b) each tail’s width should be larger than the pin width!
At 450mm, you could decide to make 9 pins of 10mm width. That’d work out at 36mm per tail, which is great for something like a chest. To be clear, we worked that out by subtracting 90 (the total pin width) from 450, then dividing 360 by 10 (the number of pins, plus one for the extra tail).
You’d then set your divider at the length of one tail plus one pin (in our previous example, that’d be 46mm). From there, walk the divider along the edge, starting at the half-pin mark, pressing down at each point to leave a mark.
Step 5: Mark, Saw, and Pare Tails
Having made those marks, you can now draw lines across the top (using your square) to showcase each pins’ location on the top edge. From there, use the dovetail square (set at the angle you want) to draw down from the top lines to the baseline.
And voila, you’ve officially marked your tails!
Next, clamp the tail board in a vice and use your dovetail saw to cut along the lines to the baseline. Then saw horizontally (with a coping saw) to remove the ‘pin section’ between each tail. Last, clamp the tailboard to the worktop and use the chisel to pare off excess material to the baseline.
Step 6: Create Your Pin Board
With the tails complete, you can now use them to mark the pins on the second board. Begin this process by fitting the pin board into a vice. By resting your tails on the top edge and lining everything up, you can use the gaps as a stencil to demarcate the pins!
From there, you’d use your square to draw down to the baseline. Then take your dovetail saw and cut along the top lines. Once again, a coping saw is a good tool for cutting horizontally and removing the inside sections.
The final step is to clamp the board onto the worktop and use your chisel to pare each section down to the baseline. When that’s done, you’ve officially finished the pins! You can then align both sides of the joint and use your mallet to tap it into position.
If it’s too tight, make minor adjustments with the chisel until it fits together.
Remember the Steps to Making Dovetail Joints
Woodworking has been around forever and a day. And joints as beautiful as the dovetail show how much progress we’ve made in that time! Long-lasting and attractive, it’s in every craftsman’s interest to be able to make one.
With any luck, this guide to making dovetail joints will help you do exactly that. Are you looking for new woodworking projects to get your teeth stuck into? Click here to download 50 free woodworking plans!