Hand Cutting Dovetails with a Handsaw
The layout of dovetails involves cutting the tails (the pink wood on the left) and pins (the beige wood on the right), both cut to match the other. I like hand-cutting dovetails, and I’ve literally cut thousands of them. As a result, I try to execute them in a manner that hearkens back to the day when dovetails were all done by hand, and guys got paid to get them done fast and right.
Before you start on the pieces for a drawer, my advice is to cut some practice dovetails in scrap lumber first.
Start by marking out the pattern for your pins on the wood with a pencil, leaving space for a half-pin on each end of the board. My next rule is to always cut the pins first. I lay out the pin pattern with a half-pin on each end of the board. They add strength and create a pleasing visual balance.
Begin cutting along the lines you marked with a dovetail (or similar) saw, keeping the kerf in the wast area. As you saw the pins, the key is to split the line with the blade, with the kerf to the waste side. The pin cuts need to be made straight and neatly, but the tail cuts are almost more important to how well the joint fits together, because the tails must fit precisely between the pins.
Mark the bottom of the waste area with a knife to help get your chisel started and prevent the cuts from causing tearout. Use your already-cut pins as a template for drawing the tail layout lines on the drawer side.
Take a sharp chisel to the scribe line you cut and use it to start back cutting out the waste. Don’t fight gravity or ergonomics as you make the tail cuts. Align your saw blade to vertical by clamping the tail board in your bench vise at a slight angle. Line up your shoulder and forearm with the cut, and saw straight down.
Complete your chiseling, chopping inward as you go on both faces of the piece to remove the rest of the waste. Finally, always wait to cut the drawer bottom grooves until after cutting and fitting the dovetails, to make sure you don’t nip a corner of the bottom half-pins on the drawer face.