Don’t Fear the Hand-Cut Dovetail (Part 1)
For the first time, a modern master reveals every step of his system
Synopsis: If you’re looking for expert advice on dovetails, you can’t go wrong by turning to Christian Becksvoort. This Shaker furniture master has been cutting dovetails by hand for more than 40 years, and if there is a method out there, he has probably tried it. Here, in the first of two articles, he spills his secrets—starting with the tails. Learn how he lays them out, figures out the best spacing, marks them, saws exactly to the line and chops them accurately. When you’re done, you’ll have a set of perfect tail boards.
I ’ve been working wood for more than four decades now, and I’ve always considered hand-cut dovetails the bedrock of my furniture. Nothing else so clearly indicates strength, quality, and craftsmanship. Starting out, I tried making dovetails in a variety of ways—cutting the pins first, or the tails first; chopping out the waste between kerfs with a chisel, or sawing it away with a coping saw; using a Western saw or a Japanese one. Gradually, I developed a system that gave me strong, well-fitting, aesthetically pleasing joints at a very good clip. Over the years, I’ve continued to refine my method in subtle ways. Mine isn’t the only approach to dovetails, but I think you’ll find it straightforward, efficient, and relatively easy to master. I’m going to cover every last tip and trick in a way I haven’t done before, so this will be a two-part article.
Pins vs. tails
The first book I consulted on dovetails recommended cutting the pins first. So did my father, a European-trained cabinetmaker. So I did. But I soon tried cutting the tails first, and I found it both faster and more accurate. Cutting tails first, you can clamp the…