122 – Hand-Cut Half-Blind Dovetails

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Guild members will remember this small excerpt from the Shaker Table series. Its just a taste of some of the fun we have in the Guild.

Dovetails: very few joints are held in such high regard. Not sure why exactly, but there seems to be a nearly universal love and adoration for this flying vermin-inspired interlocking joint. And I don’t care what anyone says, doves are just dirty pigeons in a lighter-colored outfit. To be fair though, the joint is beautiful, incredibly strong, and requires skill and attention to detail to cut by hand.

One of the most common variations of the dovetail is known as a half-blind dovetail. You’ll find this joint most often on drawer fronts where you don’t necessarily want to see the joint from the front. With a few tools, a little know-how, and a lot of patience, this beloved joint is well within your grasp.

And speaking of patience, what’s the rush people?!?! It seems like some folks feel that if they aren’t cutting their dovetails in three minutes, they aren’t doing it correctly. I say put the brakes on and enjoy the process. After all, isn’t that why you’re cutting them by hand? If I wanted them cut in just a few minutes, I’d keep a dedicated jig set up and knock them out with my router. Take your time…..be one with the wood……

If you want to see how to cut dovetails with a jig, check out When Dovetails Cry.

Here are a few products I use/recommend for hand-cutting dovetails. Your purchase helps support our show.

Category: Techniques

Comments

  1. “Flying vermin”… nice!

  2. Jim Jones July 2, 2010

    Hmmph!! I don’t consider dove to be vermin. Personally, I see them as several notches upscale from common pigeons.

    I love hearing them coo in the trees behind our house. And I enjoyed the pair that built a nest and took up residence in my garage shop a few years ago, giving birth to a pair of babies.

    I also enjoyed the one that made its nest in a geranium on our deck about 8 years ago.

    Some of my best friends are doves. Also, one of my favorite ice cream bars is a Dove.

    ;-)

    • Brian July 3, 2010

      I agree completely with Jim. The vermin are those ugly things people call pigeons. Doves are graceful and beautiful.

  3. When one joins the Guild, are all the prior videos/projects available for viewing?

  4. Bruce Somers July 2, 2010

    Marc,

    Nice little video. I have to admit, I find it easier to cut my pins first and mark my tails off of them. Keep up the good work. Another tip, especially for those of us who are coordination challenged, is to use paring blocks to clean up the waste on the pin and tail shoulders and the square cut on the ends of the tail boards.

    Bruce

  5. Marc, can you give a little info about your coping saw please? Been looking for one like that. Thx

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 2, 2010

      Hey Troy. I added a few links to the writeup for you.

  6. Matthew Egan July 2, 2010

    truly awesome, i went into my shop after reading this and cut my first ever dovetail by hand! (yes i had the tools that i “had to have” sitting there for over a year. the first 3 didn’t fit……….. try number four looked like i was having a heart attack while cutting but it fits =)

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 2, 2010

      Gets easier every time my friend! Congratulations!

    • Don Jamieson May 6, 2012

      You’re not alone Matthew! I’m tagking a woodworking course and am dedicating it to learning dovetails. My instructor gave me a great demo, and then I tried it. Nothing lined up. I used duct tape to link the pieces together. The second try was better. They fit, but still needed duct tape to hold together. Trials 3 through 14 would all hold a drawer together, but looked like they had been assembled by a slightly crazed beaver. Now I seem to be getting the hang of it. They are far from perfect, but videos like these help me with some techniques between classes. Practice makes perfect.

  7. Do you think my mortgage company would understand missing a month for a guild membership? Man, I’ve got to get some extra cash.

    • Matthew Egan July 4, 2010

      iv been stuck on this for a while too! but my mortgage company is my wife and the forcloser would be more bloody.

  8. David Pearce July 5, 2010

    Dear Marc, I haven’t checked in for a while, but I love your site and I’m a big fan of you!

    P.S.: As far as your comment about length of time cutting dovetails, you mean “…put the BRAKES on…” (and that way you won’t risk any BREAKS in the wood.

    [Or did you mean that you should take plenty of BREAKS, for coffee, for IM-ing, so you can stretch the job out to a comfortable time? These words that sound the same are so difficult!]

    Best wishes, and hope you had a happy Forth! Yay United States of Woodworking! Woodworkers of the World, Unite!

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 5, 2010

      Thanks for catching the spelling error! :) And thanks for stopping by again.

      • David Pearce July 5, 2010

        Best wishes to you and your whole family.

        I keep rather exact email archives. Inside my sub-folder “Craft” I have the following sub-sub-folders: Cooking, Electronics, Gardening, Sewing, and Woodworking. [Yes, I sew, and I have an all-metal Singer Slant-O-Matic from 1960 to prove it. So what? Talk about good old “Detroit Iron”…!]

        Within “Woodworking” your emails are alphabetically at the end (even behind the “Windsor Institute”, which I know you know is run by a great guy), but you are first in the hearts of your countrymen.

        My shop is small, rather dirty and home-spun, but maybe one day my “shop will come in”, and I’ll have a shop that is distantly like yours! You and your work are all right. Best wishes!

  9. I just took a class with Roy Underhill, and he also does the tails first. I was amazed how good they turned out when you take your time and use the right tools and techniques. I am up there with the 45 minutes too, and hopefully I can start closing the gap to the 3 minute mark. Another great video!

  10. Paul D'Errico July 8, 2010

    That’s funny you should post this video when you did. I’ve been practicing my through dovetails for months now. And I attempted my first half-blind dovetails about a week ago.

    Now that I’ve watched your video I learned the error of my ways. I can’t wait to attempt this again with some new tricks up my sleeve! Thanks, Marc.

  11. Frank Kovach July 10, 2010

    What kind of wood for the drawer sides? I have only tried hand cutting dovetails once, in some white oak scraps, and it was a disaster. I think because I was using crappy chisels, and was in a hurry as the shop was closing. But one thing I’ve always noticed is that in videos when people cut dovetails they tend to use soft woods. Or softwoods. Anyway, wondering if that is standard practice for furniture parts that aren’t necessarily going to be seen all the time and serve a more functional purpose. Or maybe standard practice isn’t the right word. Maybe I should have said is it a generally accepted practice.

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 10, 2010

      That was just poplar Frank. And yes you will find that most drawers and interior parts are made with a secondary cheaper wood. I think I would call it “standard practice” at this point.

      White oak is pretty hard stuff. If you are going to get some practice, try something like poplar. It saw and chisels well, but its not so soft that the fibers crush like in a true soft wood.

  12. darren July 11, 2010

    Hi Marc

    Funny I was just looking a various methods of joinery for some cabinet drawers. maybe i will attempt the half blind. Just wondering do you think it is worth buying a dovetail jig like the leigh or vs600 to save on time? This project is for myself but there are quite a few joints and im not sure what I would do with the jig when im done?

    Thanks

    Darren

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 11, 2010

      Hey Darren. The time saving aspect of a dovetail jig really only comes into play when you are dealing with multiple drawers. In the time it takes you to properly set up a dovetail jig, run test boards, and get the final boards cut, you could probably have them done by hand in the same time. Now if you have a lot of drawers to do, a jig is an excellent way to get good quality results and repeatability.

      The real question is can you cut them by hand at the quality level you desire. Some folks get it right away, and other take a lot more practice. So if your goal is to get perfect half-blinds and move on, the jig might be the best option since pretty much anyone who can read an instruction manual can make perfect dovetails.

      But, dovetail jigs are expensive. So if you don’t plan to make many drawers, its going to be a hard thing to justify investing in.

      So I am sure its clear as mud now, but its hard for me to say for sure what you should do until you get some practice and see how much you like cutting them by hand.

  13. Love all your videos.You sure know how to bring some style and lots of fun to woodworking.
    You’re like a younger version of Garry M.Katz in finish carpentry.LOL

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 14, 2010

      Thanks Val! Gary’s a great guy. I take that as a major compliment. :)

  14. mike haines July 17, 2010

    so if cutting dovetails is that easy then my dosen’t everyone use them in their furniture. again cool video

    •  
      thewoodwhisperer July 17, 2010

      You thought that looked easy? I must have done something wrong then, lol.

  15. Eddie Hedlund July 23, 2010

    Mark, I have seen many ways to do hand cut dovetails and I just cannot get them to fit without wiggle. I followed your techniques and got them to fit much better. As usual, thanks for the great tip!!!!

  16. Brad Terhune October 11, 2010

    Nice video…one of these days I’ll have the skills to do handcut dovetails. Of course I’m new to woodworking, so there will be many days before that happens.

  17. Simon October 28, 2010

    Hey! dont wait until you have the skills or you’ll never get them! you got to do it to get the skill. SERIOUSLY, my tip (BTW im a beginner woodworker) use a sharp thin kerf saw!

  18. Bas October 29, 2010

    Mark, thanks, very nice video! It gets me all pumped up.

  19. JC McGrath November 4, 2010

    One of my favorites so far – Like with so many, I come back to catch a few parts over and over as needed to dial in a new technique. I and my improved furniture thank you again Marc

  20. Rob November 30, 2010

    Marc, thanks for the instruction. I will be receiving my Lie Nielson dovetail saw today and really look forward to cutting some dovetails. Hand cut ones really represent true craftsmanship and should be used whenever possible. Oh, about the pigeons… they are officially known as Rock Doves.

  21. Matt V January 20, 2011

    Great job Marc. I loved your intro! Great job.

    BTW – I was able to attended Frank Klausz class sponsored by AAFW in Phoenix. Frank demonstrated his 3 minute dovetail which was pretty amazing! I guess all could do it if we grew up in Hungary working our fathers cabinet shop. I pulled this quote off Franks website, “Watching his father work, Frank asked, “How can you do that so fast?” His father replied, “After ten or fifteen years you’re going to be a pretty good beginner yourself.”

    I think a 45 minute or more hand cut dovetail would be a good goal for me and many others.

  22. Gareth April 13, 2011

    Oh NO! I don’t have any doodads!! :-)

  23. Brad L. April 24, 2011

    Marc,

    I ordered my Lie-Nielson saw after watching this. Looking forward to starting my hand cut dovetail journey.

  24. Ross May 18, 2011

    I think in another article, someone had asked whether a pinned rabbet joint would be strong enough for a drawer. I believe the conclusion was that it would be. With that knowledge, it seems that doing a pinned rabbet joint is much easier and just as strong. If that is the case, are half-blind dovetails for drawers really just for aesthetics?

    •  

      Hey Ross. I think it really does come down to aesthetics and personal preference. There are a number of drawer construction variants that are absolutely strong enough for the job. Dovetails are just one of them. So I say do whatever makes you happy.

      But I will add that there is one more aspect to dovetails besides aesthetics and strength, and that’s personal pride. Many woodworkers simply take pride from creating more challenging joints. We are a very sick bunch of people. :) Check out this article I wrote a while back concerning the more difficult path:
      http://www.thewoodwhisperer.co.....cult-path/

  25. Ross Ekberg June 24, 2011

    Whoa, I’m a little late in reviewing this post.

    Odd timing however. I actually just attempted my first hand-cut dovetail joint. I did it on a couple of scrap pieces of wood, merely to see what the process was like. I have learned that the process is both easier and more difficult than imagined. I was able to make a three-pin dovetail joint in relatively little time, proving it is well within my abilities. The joint, however, looked terrible! There was nothing pretty about it. Oddly enough, it looking so bad sort of makes it better. I now have this benchmark to which I will always be able to compare my successive projects (oh yes, I will be keeping this test dovetail joint forever). I learned quite a bit about the process, too. I now know you need a sharp chisel and and a good saw (neither of which I have). I have a birthday present coming my way from my wife. Maybe I will tell her a nice chisel set would be much desired.

    I read your article about “the difficult path.” You really hit the nail on head, so to speak. There are many things that I have done in my life, as I am sure others have done in theirs, that people don’t understand why you do it: “It just seems so hard” they say. There is an absolute satisfaction that comes from knowing you didn’t take the easy way out. This may be some sort of ancient survival instinct that we have retained from our cave-dwelling ancestors; a way of knowing that when the going gets tough, you can say, “been there, done that.”

    I am currently wanting to make a classic toolbox (you know, a box with a handle, essentially). I have been debating whether to just slap something together with screws (for speed and immediate gratification), or actually planning it out, possibly doing all hand-cut dovetails, or doing my first box-joint. I am approaching a “move into a new house” date, so I may hold off a bit and let that date pass first. During that time I will assess my desires.

    Thanks for the response, Marc!

  26. Matt December 21, 2012

    So what are those small hammers you are using in the video? They look nice. I’ve never seen such things, usually just tapping with my mallet.

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