June Sales
Hand vs. Router-Cut Dovetails
posted on by

image of rockler distinctive series dovetail templateBack 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.

posted on August 31, 2007 by Rockler
previous post next post

7 thoughts on “Hand vs. Router-Cut Dovetails”

  • Eric

    It really all depends on what you're building. If you just need something sturdy and functional, go with the machinery and jigs.<br /><br />If, however, you're building something you hope will last a long time over many many generations, it seems like it would be nice to say that in the days of machinery and jigs, this puppy was built solely by hand.

  • ted

    How about some advice ..as far as a good set-up to buy...and at a decent price range....one with variety..but wont break the bank...after all X-mas is coming..and I do have TOYS to get for others also....

  • Blog Editor

    Thanks for the question. As mentioned above, we like the Rockler Dovetail Jig. We think it's an excellent value. Leigh is another highly respected name. They recently came out with a few new dovetail jigs for considerably less money than the D4R. Here's one of the new <a href="http://www.rockler.com/product.cfm?page=18137" rel="nofollow">Leigh Jigs</a>. Either way, you'll get accurate dovetails, a fairly easy learning curve, and a reasonable price.

  • Charles from Missouri January 11, 2008 at 6:29 am

    I make a lot of boxes and by the time I set up a dovetail jig, get the router, and install the router bit, I can complete the dovetails by hand. Plus I think handmade dovetails have character that is not found in the machined dovetails. I guess if I had several hundred cuts for dovetails, then I would consider the dovetail jig.

  • Paul

    I have to go with Eric and Charles -- there really is no one 'right' answer to this.
    I suspect many of our forefathers who did everything by hand would have LOVED to have had a router and a jig and a powered circular saw etc.
    After all -- they are the ones who invented the forerunners of the tools we use today.
    Others then, as now, I am sure worked with wood not just for the functionality of the finished product but for the love of the feel of the wood
    and the relaxation and satisfaction of working with just your hands.
    I tend to fall somewhere in between. I do love to do as much by hand as my skill level and time will allow.
    So far -- I have not taken the time to develop the skill needed to do quality dovetails by hand --
    - so I am glad for jigs and routers.
    At least the people I build for can see that I at least took the time and care to DO the dovetails -- rather than just running a brad or a screw into a butt joint.

  • LC Campbell

    I have found that your DVD instruction clips are FAR too vague. A for instance would be when you talk about through dovetail joints you are not at all clear as to how to protect the metal top from being gouged by the bit if a little too deep. There are other omissions as well. I am having REAL difficulty in finding a good DVD instruction. Is there no well done instructional DVD? LC

  • Rockler Blog Team
    Rockler Blog Team January 9, 2012 at 5:48 am

    LC - Duly noted. Dovetails - especially through dovetails - can be a brain teaser the first time out. The video was intended as more of an overview, and a supplement to our written instructions (http://www.rockler.com/tech/RTD10000332AA.pdf). If you haven't already, read through the instructions on through dovetails. If you're still having trouble, our Tech Department will be happy to help you out (http://www.rockler.com/support.cfm). Please keep us posted.

Leave a comment