Hand Cutting Dovetails
Dovetail joints are the most prevalent and useful joints in modern woodworking and should be a part of every woodworker's arsenal. As strong as they are beautiful, dovetails are popular in part because of how useful they are for building a wide range of projects. Even the layout of the joint’s basic components can add a stylish decorative element to practically any project.
The classic method for hand-cutting dovetails starts with laying out and marking the pins and tails on your piece. Dovetail joints come in several flavors:
Through dovetails - This is the classic joint. Both pins and tails show through on the adjacent surfaces of the joined parts. These are the easiest to cut and are the most useful for a variety of carcass and frame joining applications.
Half-blind dovetails - Half-blind dovetails feature pins that are not cut all the way through the stock, so they don’t show on one side of the joined assembly. Half blinds are great for drawers and sliding trays, where you want the strength of a dovetail, but you don’t want joinery to show on the front of the piece.
Full-blind dovetails - as their name implies, are cut so that the joint is completely hidden. Difficult to cut, these joints are most often used for high-style period furniture.
Continuing with the old-fashioned method of cutting dovetails, the tails and pins are hand sawed out along the markings. Cutting clean, accurately fitting dovetails with hand tools is a cabinetmaker’s rite of passage. Although not easy to accomplish, it’s a joint that most any woodworker can create, given sharp tools and lots of practice.
More modern dovetail cutting is done through dedicated dovetail jigs and cut out with routers. Fortunately, hand-cutting isn’t the only way to make dovetails — a number of commercially made jigs are designed for creating through and half-blind dovetail joints with a router.