Cutting Dovetails The Traditional

Lap dovetails require more pure handwork than any other joint in woodworking. Although this joint can be cut with a router and special template (as described on page 6), if you're building a piece of furniture that has only one or two drawers, it's probably faster (and a lot more fun) to cut lap dovetails by hand.

considerations. In Woodsmith No. 19 we talked about the tools needed to cut "through" dovetails by hand. The same tools are needed for lap (half-blind) dovetails. Also, all of the considerations mentioned for laying out a through dovetail (as far as spacing of the pins and tails is concerned) apply to lap dovetails.

However, there is one other consideration that applies only to lap dovetails. You can join the drawer's sides to the front so the sides are flush with the ends of the drawer front (a flush drawer). Or, the drawer front can be lipped (rabbeted) so the sides are set in about %". (This second version is shown in the photo above.)

Although the actual cutting of a lap dovetail is the same in both applications, we're showing the step-by-step for a lipped drawer front.

cut pieces to size. The first step is to cut the drawer front to fit the opening in the cabinet. For a lipped drawer front you want to overlap the opening by %", so the drawer front is cut a total of larger in both dimensions. Then cut a Vs'-wide rabbet on all four edges of the drawer front.


For a lap dovetail, the pins must be cut on the drawer front first. This works out fine because the pins require the most handwork (and thus the most chance for error).

bask line. The first step is to mark the base line for the pins. To do this, hold one of the side pieces flush with the rabbet on the drawer front, Fig. 1. Then I use a sharp pencil to mark the base line. Although it's not necessary, I usually go back and eut along this line with an X-Acto knife, Fig. 2. (This knifed line helps to position the chisel later.)

marking the pins. Next I mark the layout of the pins, Fig. 3. First I mark the position of the half-pins on the two outside edges, and follow by marking the position of the full pins, spacing them evenly between the half pins.

marking the angles. If the drawer front is not lipped, the cutting angle can be marked with an adjustable bevel using a 1:5 angle. However, on a lipped drawer front, the adjustable bevel won't fit. So I

use a template cut from a piece of serap, Fig. 4.

To make this template, set the scrap on edge on a table saw and make a l"-deep cut at 11°. Then flip the piece around and make another cut (about 1" away from the first one). Finally, clean out the waste between the two cuts.

the saw cuts. After marking the angled lines, use a small try square to mark vertical lines down to the base line. Then I always mark the waste sections between the pins to avoid confusion.

Now grab the trusty saw (I use a Tysak back saw), and start cutting down the lines, Fig. 5. Be sure to set the saw so you cut on the waste side ("X"-side) of the line. It only takes a few strokes and almost seems like a waste of time because the saw can only make a partial cut. But it does help when the initial chisel-work begins.

cut the base line. After making the saw cuts, the waste sections are chopped out with a sharp chisel. The best way to do this is to use a backing fence (as shown in Woodsmith No. 19). However, we're showing an alternate method this time.

To define the base line of each waste section, drag the point of the chisel until it falls in the knifed line (made in Step 2). Make a light tap straight down, and then carve out a "V" section in front of the base line, Fig. 6. This small V-seetion provides a shoulder for the chisel when the chopping begins and helps prevent undercutting on the initial cuts.

chop out waste. Now the real fun begins. I clamp the drawer front to the edge of the workbench, and start chopping away, Fig, 7. At first, the saw cuts will define the chipped out waste. But as you get deeper, the saw cuts simply aren't there anymore and things start to look a little ragged, Fig. 8.

I just keep chopping until I reach the lip of the drawer front (the rabbet). Then I use the chisel like a small hand plane to carve the bottom level with the lip.

Finally, you have to clean up the ragged sides of the pins, Fig. 9, This is sort of a delicate wood carving operation. Just hold the chisel at an angle and carve in on the sides of the pins (following the pencil lines on the top and end of the board).

The hardest part of this operation is getting the sides of the pins smooth and the corners cleaned out. This can take some time, but it's very pleasant work.


Once the pins are cut and cleaned up, hold the drawer side against the ends of the pins (Fig. 10} and mark the cut lines for the tails with a sharp pencil.

No matter how sharp the pencil is, the pencil line will always be slightly to the inside (on the ''good" side) of where you want to cut. So, when cutting the tails, I start the cuts about W1 away (on the waste or "X" side), Fig. 11.

clean ol't waste. If the pins on the drawer front are narrow? and delicate, the corresponding waste sections between the tails will be narrow and delicate. This causes problems. If this waste is narrower than your smallest chisel, you'll have to turn the chisel at an angle to chip out the waste, Fig. 12.

Only the middle waste sections need be chopped out this way. The outside waste sections (for the half-pins) are cut off with a back saw.

the fit. If all has gone well, the sides (tails) can be tapped onto the drawer front (pins), i usually do this with great care. If the joint is too tight, there is the danger of splitting the drawer front.

After tapping the joint about halfway together, I knock it apart and check for black rub marks. A little careful paring with a sharp chisel should ease the joint so it can be tapped together for a good tight (but not too tight) fit.

DRAWERBOTTOM. One of the advantages of a lap dovetail is that the grooves for the drawer bottom will not show on either the drawer front or the sides. I cut the groove on the drawer front first, so it's positioned just above the half pin. Then cut the grooves in the draw-er sides so they align with the drawer front.


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Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

Woodworking Tools and Installation Tips

There are a lot of things that either needs to be repaired, or put together when youre a homeowner. If youre a new homeowner, and have just gotten out of apartment style living, you might want to take this list with you to the hardware store. From remolding jobs to putting together furniture you can use these 5 power tools to get your stuff together. Dont forget too that youll need a few extra tools for other jobs around the house.

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