Getting The Angle

he best angle for a dovetail is a compromise. It must be steep enough so the tails do not "pull through" the pins but not steep enough to weaken the short grain at the end of the tails. Time has shown 80° to be an excellent compromise. The drawing shows a quick way to lay out an 80° angle to set your sliding bevel. I do it right on the edge of my bench.

Perpendicular Bench

First, draw a 6-in. line perpendicular to the bench edge. Move over an inch and draw a second line angled to meet the end of the 6-in. line. Adjust the sliding bevel to the second line.— WW.

Set the marking gauge to the stock thickness.

Measure and mark the narrow side of each pin.

and the steps are just a map; the real route to cutting dovetails is practice.

You can produce excellent dovetails with just a few basic hand tools. In addition to a bench vise and a clamp, you will need a marking gauge, a small square or try-square, a sliding bevel, a scribcr or scratch awl, a dovetail saw, a wooden mallet and assorted chisels ranging from 1 in. down to Vu in. wide. The marking gauge and the chisels should be sharp to prevent tearing the cross grain.

Practice with a soft wood like pine or basswood. You'll find the cutting easier and the fit more forgiving with a soft wood, which will compress to allow minor misfits to come together. Choose two straight-grained boards at least 3 in. wide x 6 in. long, and planed to a uniform thickness of about in. to 'A in. Make sure that the ends to be joined are perfectly square with the faces and edges, because they will serve as references when laying out the joint.

Laying Out the Joint

The first step in laying out the joint is to scribe the baseline of the pins and tails on the ends of the two boards. OSct the marking gauge at '/j2 in. (or less) over the thickness of the stock. This setting will deter

Saw on the waste side of the vertical lines.

Square down from the pin ends to the basefine.

Cut the baseline deeper along the waste sections.

Saw on the waste side of the vertical lines.

Square down from the pin ends to the basefine.

Cut the baseline deeper along the waste sections.

mine the length of the pins and tails; the extra '/u in. ensures that when the joint is assembled you can sand the ends of the pins and tails flush with the faces of the boards instead of having to sand the faces of the boards down to the ends of the pins and tails. © Holding the fence of the marking gauge tight against the squared ends of the boards, scribe a line across both sides at the end of both pieces.

Next, select one face of each piece as the outside face of the assembled joint and mark it with an X. Choose a piece for the pin piece, and place it in the vise with the end grain up.

A dovetail joint should have a half pin on each end. (Half pins are angled on only one side.) Pins should be centered about 1 ]/i in. to 2xh in. apart on '/j-in. to 3/*-in. thick stock. When first learning to hand cut dovetails the narrow side of the pins should be about Vj in. wide. You can achieve a more delicate look bv making the pins narrower, but it makes cutting the tails more difficult. Always use at least three pins, including the half pins, for a complete joint.

© Lay out the narrow side of each pin on the outside edge of the end grain, spacing the pins equally. ©Use the sliding bevel set at 80° to complete the layout of the pins on the end grain, and © use the square to drop perpendiculars on the faces to the line made earlier with the marking gauge. Mark the portions to be removed with Xs to prevent confusion when cutting them out.

Cutting the Pins

0 With the pin piece still in the vise, make the vertical cuts with the dovetail saw, keeping the saw kerf on the waste side of the line. Guide the saw with your thumb, and use light downward pressure on the saw when starting each cut. Be careful not to saw below the baseline scribed by the marking gauge, because a cut below the line will show when the joint is together.

To prepare for chiseling out the waste, clamp the board flat on the bench with the outside face up and the pins pointing toward you. When using chisels to remove waste, always place the chisel with the bevel side toward the waste. O Begin by using a wide chisel, like a knife to deepen the scribe line along the waste sections. © Then gently push the chisel in from the waste side to remove enough wood to create a shallow V-cut at the back of each dovetail section. This is a critical step in assuring a tight-fitting joint, because any variation from the marking-gauge line will show when the joint is assembled.

O On the next pass, tap lightly on the chisel with a mallet to further deepen the cut along the marking-gauge line. Undercut the back of each waste section by tilting the chisel very slightly toward you to ensure that the joint will close tight to the marking-gauge line when assembled. © Then chip out a thin piece of waste by tapping the chisel in from the end grain.

Continue to remove thin pieces from between all the pins until you are halfway through the board. Turn it over and work from the other side, again undercutting slightly. When removing waste with the narrow side of the waste section facing up, be careful not to damage the sharp edges of the pins by forcing wide chips up through the narrower opening between pins. With a narrow chisel, remove a chip from the center of the waste first, then remove chips from the sides. ©When all the waste has been removed, clean out the corners with a chisel.

Cutting the Tails

Use the completed pins as a pattern for scribing the tails. Though many experts recommend an awl for scribing the tails, I prefer a finely sharpened No. 2 pencil. A pencil has two advantages. First, it creates no pressure on the pins, which must not shift during

the tracing, and second, the resulting lines are dark and easy to see. Just keep the pencil point sharp!

© Put the tail piece on the bench, outside face down, and stand the pin piece on it in the position that the joint will go together. With the widths of the boards aligned and with the wide edge of the pins on the marking-gauge line on the tail piece, you are ready to transfer the profile of the pins onto the tail piece. Trace from the inside corner of the joint rather than the outside so you can see that the face of the pins remains on the scribed line. Then remove the pin piece and mark the waste portions with Xs. ©With a square, draw pencil lines across the end grain from the ends of the traced lines.

Now saw and chisel out the waste between the tails the same way you did the pin piece. Try to split the line with the saw cut, paying attention to which side of the line is waste. Learning where to saw in relation to the line, so the tails fit easily but snugly, comes with practice. It is one key to successful dovetail construction. Undercut the back of the waste section as you did between the pins. An important exception to this undercutting is on the ends where the half pins will be located. This waste should be sawn out with the dovetail saw and pared off flat with a chisel if necessary.

Trace the pins onto the tail piece.

Square across the end grain.

Trace the pins onto the tail piece.

Square across the end grain.

Most of the jig's dimensions are dictated by your bench dog hole dimensions, as shown in the drawing. Since the dog holes are at a slight angle and the jig pins need to be vertical, the dog hole angle determines many of the pin dimensions.

A leather shoe string tethers the wedges to the pins so they don't get lost. Glue a strip of sandpaper to the underside of the bar for a good grip. Now quit fiddling with the jig. and cut some dovetails.

because it will show in the finished joint.

Test the joint for fit by lightly tapping the tails onto the pins to get them started. I usually spank the joint together with the palm of my hand. Use a mallet if you need to. but protect the wood. You should be able to feel if the fit is a good one right away. As you practice cutting dovetails, aim to get a good fit by precisely cutting to accurately laid-out lines. If you try to trim the joint to fit, and pare the wrong side of an interface that is too tight, you will only make matters worse.

The key to successful hand dovetailing is practice, practice, practice, until it becomes second nature. Oncc this occurs, both your speed and the quality of the finished joints will improve dramatically. The lasting reward is the satisfy ing knowledge that you have incorporated the very best of old-world quality into your work. ▲

Walker T. Weed III is a second-generation woodworker and a juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. He designs and produces a wide rattge of furniture from his shop in Vermont.


JIG by david welter

^ r in a joint are about as ugly as woodworking gets. In dovetail joints, gaps happen when your chisel strays from the scribed baseline as you chop out waste. A chopping jig puts the chisel on the line, dead on. every time. And it docs it while clamping the stock to the bench, quickly and securely, saving you from juggling separate clamps.

The jig has two pins that hook to the bench through the bench dog holes. Wedges that pass through the tops of the pins clamp a guide bar down tightly, sandwiching the workpiece and a backup board between the bench and the guide bar. To use the jig, you align the guide bar to the scribe line, tap in the wedges, and chop out the waste with little worry about chisel placement.

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