Back to Dovetails

Practicing dovetails on scrap pieces

With the monsoons breaking over north India and temperatures plummeting, I have been able to return to woodworking. It feels great to plane, saw and chisel once again. I have been able to spend several quiet evenings chipping away at my workbench.

I want to become good at making two kinds of joints: dovetails and mortise and tenons. I know how to cut them in theory but it is very different in reality. It takes quite a bit of practice to acquire precision.

My friend Zain once told me that I would have to cut at least a hundred dovetails to get adept at them. Well, I hope he is right because I am on that road: about fifty done so far, another fifty to go. And as of now I am nowhere near adept.

I won't get into how to hand cut dovetails because they are a number of great teachers on the web including Paul Sellers ( , Franz Klaus (  and John Bullar ( Watch their videos to get a hang of how it is done; I learnt it from them.

What I will talk about is the difficulties I faced in learning how to cut dovetails.

Getting the Process Right

To get a good joint, the first condition is to have accurately milled pieces of wood. If these pieces are not flat and square nothing is going to work.

Accurate marking is crucial to making accurate joints and for this I feel that a good marking knife is indispensable. Pros can make do with a pencil mark but I find I need a clean well-defined knife line as well as a pencil line, especially when I am working with dark wood species.

Another persistent problem I faced was in transferring the lines for the pins from the tails. Even a slight shift in the pin board would mean badly aligned pins. This problem was largely solved by a simple jig against which the pin and tail boards could be held securely while transferring the lines.

Sawing requires some technique and concentration and so does chopping out the waste with a chisel. I have to be extra careful while chopping to the knife line; one careless mallet stroke and the line can shift or turn.

Lack of the Right Tools

Professional woodworkers can cut dovetails with just a simple saw, one chisel, a pencil for marking and a square for measuring. They make it look dead easy but I found it otherwise.

A Starrett Double square and iGaging single bevel marking knife - good investments

A few appropriate tools can make a lot of difference. First come the measuring and marking tools: an accurate square, a bevel gauge (or better still a dovetail marker), marking gauge and a marking knife.

Japanese ryoba - two-in-one saw

Over the last couple of years I have acquired a set of good marking and measuring tools from abroad. I have a Starrett double square (which is expensive but hopefully once in a lifetime buy), a single bevel marking knife with an extremely sharp point (about $ 12), a Japanese marking gauge (maybe about ` 600) with a knife point that cleanly slices wood fibres rather than scraping them and a relatively cheap dovetail marker (about $ 12).

I have a decent but not very expensive Japan made Ryoba for cutting the dovetails. The double-sided Ryoba with its cross cut and rip pattern is very useful and leaves a thin kerf. I have also begun using a coping saw (standard ones can be had for four or five hundred rupees) to cut out most of the waste between tails and pins.

The skewed tips of these chisels make it easier to clean the insides of dovetails

I have a couple of pretty decent Stanley chisels (yellow and black handles) to chop the waste. The problem is that a very narrow chisel is required to get between thin dovetails. Even a quarter inch chisel does not reach the inside corners always. I bought a couple of Narex skew chisels which makes the job of cleaning the insides of dovetails and pins much easier.

The lighting in my makeshift workshop is a big problem; during the day the light comes in from the east where there is a window and at night the lights on the wall are on the other side. Invariably, only one side of the piece of wood to be sawn is adequately lit. When the light is poor I often cannot see the pencil lines and tend to over or undercut.

Lastly, I realise one needs lots of patience for the job. My dog is old and sleeps a lot these days. He likes to be near me and doesn't mind the hammering and sawdust. I turn on some music and chip away as the evening turns to night. It often feels I have all the time in the world.

Indranil Banerjie
30 June 2015

A stack of dovetailed box sides waiting for finishing touches and glue up


  1. Wonderful piece sir - I am yet to gather expertise or courage to work with real wood. Only working with ply and sal wood as of now, and making plenty of mistakes !

    1. Sid: Keep at it, one day suddenly you will find yourself adept at things. I still make mistakes and will continue to make them I suppose but that does not keep me from trying.

  2. Wonderful article again sir .... its remarkable how you have marked intricate dovetails out on the boxes with a fitted lid (first picture). Most of my work on dovetails has happened while I was teaching so it is pretty well embedded in my mind.

    The Lord never allowed himself to be called a friend and until then he was a teacher to his disciples. Then one day he said, "Think of me as your friend."

    Acquiring tools is one of my favourite hobbies. Today for instance I cut out two recesses for the shooting board using a Stanley clamp, stanley and wolf chisels and a hammer. The finer tuning of the surface was done by a hand router.

  3. Great! What hand router do you have?


Post a Comment

Thanks for your message.