Back in the day, cabinetmakers cut all of their dovetails by hand. Of course, they really had no choice. Now, with mechanical means ranging from basic router dovetail jigs on up to sophisticated automated machinery, is there any reason to time carefully lay out each and every pin and tail and make all of the demanding cuts with a hand saw? All practical concerns being equal – except the time investment – the only argument for doing so is this: Making dovetails by hand gives you complete control over the look of the finished product. Rather than being stuck with the monotonous, evenly proportioned pins and tails that scream “dovetail jig”, you have poetic license to arrange the spacing and proportions of the joint to suit your eye.
The aesthetics of hand crafted joinery is not to be taken lightly, of course. Why spend all that time in the shop if you’re not happy with the look of the finished product? But not everyone has the time or inclination to develop the considerable skills necessary to make correctly aligned, tight fitting dovetail joints. Fortunately, there’s a solution for those of us who like the looks of a “custom” dovetail joint, but don’t have the time, patience or perhaps even the skills to cut them by hand.
The best known alternatives include dovetail jigs designed to allow variability of the location and proportions of the pins and tails. The Leigh D4R is a leader in this type of jig. The pin and tail guide fingers are infinitely adjustable, allowing not only ultimate control over the look of the joint, but also the ability to set up a perfect half pin at either end of the joint, regardless of the dimension of the material. Are there any drawbacks? Well, the price might put some woodworkers off. The Leigh jig is a sophisticated piece of equipment, a fact that you’ll find reflected in the price. Still, if versatility in a router cut dovetail is something you highly prize, the D4R is worth serious consideration.
If a $400 dovetail jig isn’t in the picture, you still have options. Rockler recently introduced a series of dovetail jig templates designed to give anyone who owns the current Rockler Dovetail jig more control over the look their router-cut dovetails. At present, the series offers two templates. Template Style A of the “Distinctive Series” cuts what might be best described as the classic look of a hand-cut dovetail joint - wide tails with just a few very slender pins in between. Style B, on the other hand, is designed for versatility, with guide fingers spaced to produce pins in various widths. The Style B template is laid out to produce half pin ends in four common stock widths, or it can be used to create any number of “custom” spacing schemes.
Do the Distinctive Series templates replace variable spacing jigs? No, they’re no match in versatility. But together the two templates do offer the ability to reproduce the most common hand cut dovetail look, along with the option to explore more creative joint proportions, at a fraction of the cost of any variable spacing jig on the market. Even if you start form scratch – buy the Rockler Dovetail Jig, both template styles, and the specially designed Distinctive Series Router Bit Set – you’ll end up with a range of router-cut dovetail options that, for the money, would be pretty tough to beat.