How to Cut Better Dovetails with Shopmade Tools
Use a layout guide and small chisels for improved accuracy and refined looks
Synopsis: “One size fits all” hand tools didn’t offer the precision and control Clark Kellogg needed to lay out and cut dovetails to his own satisfaction, so he made a set of chisels and a dovetail marker of his own. The dovetail marker enables him to lay out angled and straight lines without moving it, and there are five chisels in his dovetail kit, a 1/16-in.-wide chisel to remove waste between tails, a 3/4-in.-wide chisel for paring pins and tails, a pair of skew chisels, and a detail chisel that’s triangular in cross-section. Learn how to make each of these tools and bring your dovetails to a new level.
From Fine Woodworking #220
For years, I cut dovetails using common layout tools and chisels, usually with what could generously be called lackluster results. Eventually, I figured out that I had two problems. First, I was not able to scribe and transfer layout lines accurately. Second, the chisels I was using, although great for chopping mortises and paring big joints, were too cumbersome for cutting delicate dovetails.
I didn’t find a solution until I was a student at the College of the Redwoods, where I learned that the best tool for a task is often one made specifically for it. So, I made a set of chisels and a dovetail marker that enable me to achieve a level of precision and control nearly impossible with “one size fits all” tools.
The dovetail marker lets me lay out both angled and straight lines without moving it. And there are five chisels in my dovetail kit: a 1⁄16-in.-wide chisel used to remove waste between tails, a 3⁄4-in.-wide chisel for paring pins and tails, a pair of skew chisels, and a detail chisel that’s triangular in cross-section to get into tight corners. All but one of the chisels are made from Hock marking knives, so you won’t need to do any heat treating. You can make the entire kit in about one day with a bench grinder, a rotary tool like a Dremel, and a hacksaw.
Start with a tool for efficient and accurate layout Regardless of whether you cut your dovetails the right way (pins first!) or some “other” way, laying out dovetails requires marking a line down the face of the board and then extending that line across the end grain. It’s common to use two tools to do this: a bevel gauge and a square. But switching layout tools is inefficient and opens the door to error. Instead, I use a dovetail marker that allows me to mark both the face and end grain in one shot, which improves accuracy and saves time.
The gauge is made from a piece of 1⁄8-in.-thick brass angle bar (see Sources of Supply, facing page) that has 1-in.- wide legs. I buy a piece long enough to make several markers—hardwoods and softwoods require different slopes (1:6 is typical for softwoods, while 1:8 is common for hardwoods). I work primarily in hardwoods and use a 1:10 slope because I think it looks even better.
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