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Thread: A Discussion of Hand Cut Dovetails

  1. #1

    A Discussion of Hand Cut Dovetails

    Well, I just completed my first handcut dovetailed drawer and wanted to share my observations and ask for comment.

    I am building a baby dresser changing table under the guidance of a Master Woodworker who takes in students and helps them along 1 on 1. It has been a great learning experience.

    Under his guidance, I am to create four drawers using handcut dovetails....with the reasoning being that hand cut dovetails will not take longer than machine cut (once you fiddle with setup and switching boards, etc), and you have the satisfaction of hand cutting them.

    So, I have practiced on no fewer than seven test boxes, and my technique has gotten better. Today, I cut into the real stuff, and completed a 5 high by 18 x 33 wide drawer box. The thing fit up pretty good and does not need much aesthetic fixes.

    It took me three hours to do the four sides (a total of 12 pins and corresponding tails). While I know I will be able to go faster with more practice, I can not imagine going MUCH faster.

    So, now I am around to the "efficiency" of the operation. I have to believe that machine cut DT, especially if you can cut two sides at once or two ends at once, just has to be quicker.

    What do you say---are machine cut DTs completed faster, even with setup vs hand cut? I also note that my other two drawers are 8" and 11" high, and I will be doing asymetrical DTs, something not that easy to do with a jig.

    Anyway, I would appreciate some points of view on the tradeoffs here.


  2. #2
    Ahhh the long standing argument of woodworkers...

    The ones who use power tools claim they are faster, while the hand cut dovetailers claim they are faster. In my opinion, go with hand cut dovetails. Everyone asks "oh are those hand cut dovetails" and its true pride to show them the over-cut marks (as inevitably they are some) and say yes they are. I also think they are faster and easier to do then fiddling with the machines.

    By the way Ken, have you ever tried Lovetails? I think they are easier to make then dovetails. I am not making that up. They only look hard to make. I also think they look really cool!!

    I have no intention of traveling from birth to the grave in a manicured and well preserved body; but rather I will skid in sideways, totally beat up, completely worn out, utterly exhausted and jump off my tractor and loudly yell, "Wow, this is what it took to feed a nation!"

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Oct 2006
    Central NY State
    Ken, seeing as how you've posted this question in the Neander area, I'll give you the Neander answer. Once you get used to making DTs with hand tools, they do get lots faster.

    Beyond the speed though is something more intangible, and that is the feeling associated with well cut DTs you make without jigs.

    Just my $.02.


  4. #4
    I had to do a doubletake, as first I did not remember posting it in the Neander area, and then could not find it in the Woodworking area.

    So, I suppose that folks who use machines to make DTs might not see it that a fact? Or do most members read all message headers.

    No matter....

    Yes, there is the pride factor, but not having made a single DT with a jig (yet) I do not know how much difference there is and whether the pride is worth it...

    How do you make "LoveTails"...ah, I found the Tauton article on how to make them....and I thought the regular DTs were taking too long.....

    While it may be a long standing debate (machine vs hand cut DTs) what I would appreciate is hearing from someone who has made them BOTH ways, and can comment on the relative tradeoffs.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jan 2007
    Sacramento, CA
    Frank Klauz can slap out hand-cut dovetailed drawers faster than I can measure the stock to be cut and mark my first board.

    I can make 'em reasonably quickly on my Incra-fied router table. Takes me about 20-30 minutes per drawer for half-blind. I don't save much by gang-cutting all the tail boards, maybe 3-4 minutes.

    I'm not good enough at hand-cut dovetails to say they will be faster yet. You hit on a similar concern that I seem to have. WILL it get faster??? It's hard to imagine it would. But ... I do know that people CAN do it faster than _I_ can do it by machine.

    The biggest variable is sawing. Imagine if you could saw well enough NOT to have to pare more than ... say ... a few thousanths of an inch. If I can get to where I can saw straight and true enough that I leave myself almost no paring, I could imagine being dang fast.

    Layout's just muscle memory, really. Set the gauge to thickness, swish swish swish. Set the dividers, step step step step. Grab my marker saddle, swish swish swish ... off to sawing. Eventually the marking process should take about a minute, maybe two.

    Sawing to the line is going to be a huge benefit. Shouldn't take more than 2-3 minutes to saw once you're confident, I suppose. I can imagine that. It's only a few cuts. If you've got a good saw, it shouldn't take more than a few strokes to reach full depth, then you're off to the next one.

    Hogging out the waste with a coping saw should go reasonably quick. It falls into the realm of acquiring dexterity in sawing. Being able to cope out the waste so close to the line that you only have to kiss that shoulder with the chisel will go a long way to saving time. Hogging shouldn't take more than 30 seconds, I suspect. Or ... 3-5 seconds per tail.

    Now for marking the pins, the right knife will help a LOT here. Line it up, swish swish swish and you're done with that. Gauge the depth, of course. I wouldn't think this'd take more than 15-20 seconds to do each time.

    Grab the saw and hoocha hoocha hoocha hoocha ... getting this right is another evolution of practice. Through dovetails will go MUCH faster, of course. Half blind dovetails will always take awhile, even with machines. Nature of the beastie.

    Cope the waste again ... with half-blind, of course, you're chiselling by now.

    Really - if you can rely on your sawing, you're gonna be able to pump out dovetails pretty dang quick. Now that I've stepped through it, I really CAN imagine them being quicker. It's reaching the required sawing proficiency that's the big variable, though. You've just inspired me to go practice my sawing technique now.
    Jason Beam
    Sacramento, CA

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Close View Post
    I found the Tauton article on how to make them....and I thought the regular DTs were taking too long.....
    I've never read that article so I am not sure how they go about making them. Myself the layout is the hardest part as the hearts are not symmetrical. They are left to right, but not top to bottom so that confuses things, but making them is really easy. A drill press, a scrollsaw, a chisel and a pencil is the only thing you need. As I said they only look hard and really don't take long to make.

    Once you learn the technique you can make other shapes other than lovetails and dovetails too like these "Guntails" I made for a gun cabinet for an out door enthusiast.

    As for your original question, I think Jason answered it quite well. Once you get past the "oh my goodness, I am making dovetails I got to do this just right" stage, I think you get a lot faster because you are not holding yourself back mentally. Get your tools and go.

    I have no intention of traveling from birth to the grave in a manicured and well preserved body; but rather I will skid in sideways, totally beat up, completely worn out, utterly exhausted and jump off my tractor and loudly yell, "Wow, this is what it took to feed a nation!"

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Nov 2006
    Smithville, TX
    Hand cutting if it is only one project with 2-4 drawers. A larger production run, the set up time on your favorite router set up might be worth it and makes pretty quick work of things, or for me, I've made some jigs for the bandsaw that make real quick work of and looks more like a handcut. I keep the jig in one place and use spacers to get the consistent spacing.
    Mini Max Tool Acquisition Mediator.
    "An old man to most kids and a young man to those who are dead."

  8. #8
    Here is the process I am using (was taught).

    Ends first, sides second; pins first, mark the tails, cut the tails, fit to pins.

    Jason, as you said, sawing is (was?) the most variable and critical step. I made major progress with a small guide block, with the 6:1 incline on one end, sandpaper all around to keep from slipping.

    I chop out the waste with the chisle, not a coping saw---maybe that is where a big time loss may be. Never tried to saw out the waste. Chop the back line, lift a chip from the end, repeat, flip to finish, dress it up.

    Well, don't want to beat it to death---more practice and more recordkeeping (I'm a retired engineer--got to keep records ) and we'll see how it goes.

    I have an incr jig (old style) but have not tried DTs with it---after I finish these drawers, I will experiment and see.

    Sam's got a good point---depends on how many drawers and how many DTs. My wide (deep) drawers will have fewer and wider DTs but it I wanted many smaller ones, well, that's a lot more chopping.

    Thanks for all the comments.


  9. #9
    Join Date
    Dec 2006
    Herndon VA
    I can only respond from a neander perspective since I've never used a jig.

    From a time factor hand cut does get much faster with practice. I've been able to cut my time in half (no pun intended) over the past year or so. I don't do very many so with more practice I'm sure I can get even faster.

    Lately I've been working on a new bench (a year in the making, that's how much shop time I get in!). The apron has half blind DTs. The stock for the apron is 2 1/2" thick. Cutting DTs on this scale really brings out all of the issues with good layout, sawing, chisling, etc. It took me about 5 test cuts to get to the point where I was able to get a good tight fit that aligned properly. It took me 1 hour to cut and fit the last DT and it fits like a tight glove. I spent over half that time with tweeking the final fit. I tend to under cut my pins and then shave off the excess to get a very close fit.

    One thing I do is cut my tails first. For drawers it lets me gang cut 2 - 3 boards at a time. For me, gang cuts are easier since you have more end stock to reference to get a nice straight cut. For the apron pieces, I used a bandsaw and a jig to cut the tails since the stock was so large. I'll probably resort to that in the future for larger production runs of drawers.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    May 2007
    Orem, Utah
    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Gabbay View Post
    [...] I've never used a jig. [...]
    I used a bandsaw and a jig [...]
    Must be a "right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing" kinda thing. Nawww, I'm just giving you a hard time; I know you were talking about two totally different kinds of jigs.

    Hey, anyone who can create a workbench ... ESPECIALLY a "neander" workbench ... has my utmost admiration. Carry on!

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