Let's talk about dovetails

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OK, I have decided to try my hand at dovetails for a jewelry box I am making for my wife. For some reason I would like to learn to do it by hand. I have an appropriate saw, but I wanted to use a marking knife to make the lines. They have one at Lee Valley for $22. Of course, while on their site, I looked around. Why do I do this???? Anyway, they have a dovetail cutting aid that sells for about $50, or they have marking guides for $20 (2, one for hardwood, one for soft), or another set of guides for $10, not sure yet of the benefits of the more expensive ones, have to look at that.
My point is, am I silly to be spending money on this stuff? I mean, for a few dollars more I could get the dovetail jig on sale at Rockler for $59. I don't do things at a production level though, so do I really need something like this. Is it really that hard to manually cut dovetails? From reading it sounds like the holy grail of joinery.
Thanks, -Jim
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OK, I have decided to try my hand at dovetails for a jewelry box I am making for my wife. For some reason I would like to learn to do it by hand. I have an appropriate saw, but I wanted to use a marking knife to make the lines. They have one at Lee Valley for $22. Of course, while on their site, I looked around. Why do I do this???? Anyway, they have a dovetail cutting aid that sells for about $50, or they have marking guides for $20 (2, one for hardwood, one for soft), or another set of guides for $10, not sure yet of the benefits of the more expensive ones, have to look at that.
My point is, am I silly to be spending money on this stuff? I mean, for a few dollars more I could get the dovetail jig on sale at Rockler for $59. I don't do things at a production level though, so do I really need something like this. Is it really that hard to manually cut dovetails? From reading it sounds like the holy grail of joinery.
Thanks, -Jim
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jtpr wrote...

Ah, Grasshopper. Who among us is without flaw?         -- Master Po

At this point, you shouldn't. You want to learn to hand-cut dovetails. That's a worthwhile ambition. But don't let anxiety over how they'll come out push you into buying high-priced tools, or lead you into a search of tricks or gimmicks for success. High priced tools aren't needed and the gimmicky stuff plays to your anxiety, but not to the job. What you really need is practice.
Any straight sharp saw will do. A high-quality dovetail saw can be easier to use and as your skill progresses it would give you better results than, say, a drywall saw, but wait until you understand why the saw you have isn't achieving the results you want before you buy a better one.
If you really want a marking guide (you don't need one), you should make it from scrap.
Good marking knives are handy, but an X-acto blade works fine.

You need a saw, a sharp chisel, a marking knife or pencil (!), and practice. Just get started. Practice on scrap. I bet that after you make two or three drawers worth of dovetails (may as well get some use out of your practice!), you'll have developed the confidence and skill to do the jewelry box. You may still be dissatisfied with them, but no one else will be.
Cheers!
Jim
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"jtpr"

I've cut many a dovetail by hand. However, now the only time I cut them by hand is to show someone how or when I want a very special sized (usually vary large), a one off box or unusual shape dovetail. I would not dream of making a set of drawers without my Liegh and router.
Dave
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Jim, You don't need a lot of things to handcut dovetails, just some time. I don't use a template at all. Here's what I use:
Bevel gauge Marking gauge Various chisels, skewed chisel for half blind dovetails Small knife Dovetail saw Small mirror on adjustable stand (use this to check the opposite side as you cut) Pencil and pencil sharpener Good lighting
The money spent on these items is not wasted at all, as you'll use these tools for other operations. Handcut dovetails are easy to do after several quiet hours of practice. A bandsaw could be used to cut the tails.
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It's not that hard, it jsut takes lots of practice to get the idea...if you can saw to line you can cut dovetails...
There is a pretty good web site with many links about handcut dovtails.. its here: http://home.nj.rr.com/afoust/dovetails.html
or you could just search google for hand cut dovetails...They are nice joints...but I wouldn't call them the holy grail of joinery...now Twisted Dovetails...thats a horse of another color.....
Regards
DCH
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jtpr wrote: Is it really that hard to manually

You'll be suprised at how well your joints will look with just a little practice. Give it a go.
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No you are not being silly. While I have never done DT's with out a router, the big advantage to not using a router and jig is that you are not limited in length and the cheaper jigs typically only do Blind DT's. Most hand cut are through DT's.
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jtpr wrote:

Yes. IMO _____________

No _______________
No. You need...
1. Some way of laying out the cuts. A cheap bevel works for the angles, a square for the depth line. You can use any protector to set the bevel if you are fussy about precise angles.
2. Some way of marking the lines from the bevel and square. You can get a paring knife and grind it down so the edge is only on one side.
3. You need a decent handsaw. The dozukis are nice
4. Some sharp chisels.
5. Time & patience
dadiOH
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Personally, I don't think these single purpose tools are needed. A saw, square, marking gauge, bevel gauge, chisel or two, and pencil or marking knife are all that are needed. A scale (ruler, framing square, tape measure, etc.) is useful for setting the bevel gauge and/or laying out pin spacing. A set of dividers is useful for laying out the pin spacing and may be preferable to the scale for that purpose.
A bevel gauge is a multi-use tool whereas the specialty layout gauges and cutting aids are single purpose... more bang for the buck with the bevel gauge.
Also, with a lot of experience you wouldn't need the square, bevel gauge, scale or dividers... as demonstrated on film by Frank Klaus and Roy Underhill. Pin layout and sawing would be done by eye!
I put pictures up on ABPW of my tools and sample dovetail joints. The joints include through, half-blind, full-blind, hounds-tooth, and compound-miter dovetails. All the joints were laid out and cut using the tools shown. The sample full-blind, hounds-tooth, and compound-miter dovetails are the first ones of each type I ever cut. Once you learn to saw straight and saw to a line (or split a line), and chop out waste, it's simply a matter of figuring out how to lay the complex types of dovetails out!
John
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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com says...

You will get an immense satisfaction out of cutting them by hand, although it won't be free of immense frustration as well. The tool issue has been pretty well covered, but here's a suggestion nobody mentioned yet: Frank Klauz and Rob Cosman have dvd's on hand cut dovetails that despite the confusion arising from two different points of view, will go a long way to lighting your way.
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jtpr wrote:

It's a technique that serves a purpose... like any other technique that serves a purpose. Nothing holy about it ;-)
Joe Barta
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This jig only cuts half blind dovetails which are great for drawerfronts. Jewelry boxes use through dovetails. The Porter-Cable 4212 comes ready to cut halfblind, through, and sliding dovetails for about $150. But they are half inch which may be a bit big for your boxes. Get Frank Klaus's video, a decent saw, marking gauge, chisel and go to it.
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Look for "Dovetail a Drawer, with Frank Klausz". I found it at my local library.
Mike
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You've got some really good advice here, I'd just like to add my .02 about Lee Valley's dovetail jig. I learned to hand cut them with a minimal amount of tools, but decided to try the jig just to speed the process of hand cutting up a bit. I will say it works extremely well. Small learning curve, and the cuts fit nicely. I thought it was well worth the investment and eliminates most of the time spent laying out the cut lines and fitting the cuts. You basically make a few marks across the endgrain of both boards, and butt one board into the other to mark the depth of the cut, clamp on the jig and cut to your depth. Then the jig is flipped over, put on the endgrain mark again, and cut to depth. Finally, the waste is chiseled out. I do use a router jig in cases where I need to produce many drawers, but I reach for the LV jig for just a couple of drawers, or in cases where I want a particular spacing for the DT's. Whatever method you choose, plan on spending some time and materials practicing! --dave

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upand_at snipped-for-privacy@yahoo.com wrote:

That's a VHS video tape. Very well done by the master of hand cut dovetails - Frank Klausz. The tape covers a lot of ground, multiple times and when it's done you're sure you've "got it" - until you go out to the shop and try it. That's when "now what am I supposed to do next?" will happen.
So, after I'd gone through the tape three or four times with in between attempts at doing what I think I saw, I started making my own notes to take with me to the bench. Four or five more viewings of the tape, refining my notes and I had a usable set of instructions. Thought they might be useful to others so I put them up on the web - each page a GIF file you can download and print at your leisure. Do what you see on each page and in no time you've got a handcut dovetail drawer. The dovetails probably won't be perfect initially but practice will take care of that.
http://home.comcast.net/~charliebcz/DovetailDrawer0.html
charlie b
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charlie b wrote:

Wow, that's nice! Thanks much for writing that up, and for posting the link. I think I'm going to have to give that a try....
(You do seem to have pages 13 and 14 out of order in the PDF, by the way. Not a problem, but I was confused for a moment about how you got the waste out from between the tails.)
- Brooks
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The "bmoses-nospam" address is valid; no unmunging needed.

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"Dovetail a Drawer" is also on DVD, which my library had. I've been thinking about getting one of those portable DVD players to watch instructional videos while I'm doing the thing.
Thanks for the notes.
Mike
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Hey, Charlie, where were you when I needed you? Not just Klausz's tape but Cosman's as well, playing them over and over again. My wife thought I had cracked up, and I'm not yet sure she's wrong--or maybe in another life I was a Japanese student of Kabuki dance. Anyway, what you did is a truly great contribution, although you have to go up and down the curve to appreciate it. Larry
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wrote:

I'd add Tage Frid's video to the list too for yet another take on things... and then take pieces from each and do what works for you. For example, in most cases I cut pins first but found cutting the tails first was easier for hounds-tooth dovetails... cannot saw why exactly!
John
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