My current project is a Tall Shaker Wall Clock. It is a gift for my daughter upon her graduation from law school. She graduated a year ago and this gift is a little late. But hey, I’m not getting paid to do this ya know! Anyway, I just stared by preparing stock for the sides, top and bottom. I cut all pieces to final overall dimensions including thickness. When building a carcass using hand cut dovetail joinery it is especially important that all mirrored pieces (right and left side for example) are precisely the same size and perfectly square. Next I carefully choose the surfaces I want exposed and then mark the material to be sure they go together correctly. Carpenter’s Crayon is perfect for this purpose.
A hand cut dovetail joint requires quality hand tools. Like all woodworkers who work with hand tools I have my favorites and will stack them up against anyone else’s favorites. It’s kind of a religious thing. My choices appear in the picture at left. The dovetail saw, chisel and dovetail marker are all Lie-Nielsen. The dovetail saw is the progressive pitch model; it has fine teeth in the front for easy starting and more aggressive teeth in the back for rapid cutting. The dovetail marker has a 7:1 pitch (or approximately 8 degrees) which I use for hardwoods, and also serves as a square to mark vertical line for half pins. The chisels are just the right length and well balanced. Their weight is on the light side so that your fingers do not tire after hours of dovetailing and unlike Japanese chisels whose triangular top edge cuts into your fingers, the flat top edge of the Lie-Nielsen does not.
I like a light, hard rock maple wooden mallet. This one was recommended by and purchased from Nora Hall’s website. Nora Hall, if you don’t know, is an expert on carving. A small engineer’s square is ideal for marking the top edge with tail and half-pin spacing. I cut tails first and cutting perpendicular to the board face is critical for good fitting dovetails. The dividers are Groz with sharp points and are used to layout the pin and tail spacing by setting them to the width of one tail plus one pin and stepping the divider across the ends. Setting the dividers and marking other critical dimensions is accomplished with an accurate scale. I use the Incra Tiny T Rule which marks to 1/64″. The Lee Valley Veritas marking gauge makes quick and accurate work of scribing the pin and tail depth across the grain. And finally a well sharpened pencil with lead on the soft side for marking completes the tool set.
The sides of this clock are 51″ long. Cutting tails on this length piece can be quite a challenge. In the past I would have used my adjustable height bench raised to its maximum height to secure the board to eliminate chatter while sawing. With my new Lie-Nielsen bench I find the face vice holds the piece securely and its size and mass all but eliminate chatter making tail sawing easy. I still needed to stand on something for elevation. One of the stools I wrote about crafting as Christmas gifts for our grandchildren came in handy for this purpose. I reposition it frequently so that my stance and arm are appropriately aligned to make the cuts. I use this stool again when removing the waste between the tails with the fret saw as shown at left.
There are two aspects of cutting tails that is critical to good joinery. The first I mentioned earlier is cutting perpendicular to the face of the board. Failing to do so will leave unsightly gaps, poor glue joints and weak mechanical joints. The second aspect is to stop the cut at the scribe line. Going past this point will show and leave a sloppy appearance, not one a craftsman wants to project.
There are a few aspects of tail cuts that are not critical. The angle of the cut is nominally 8 degrees from vertical, but this is not critical. Neither is the width of the gap (pin width). Machine cut dovetails would all be perfectly angled and spaced, but then they would look machine cut. The human is not a machine. Hand cut dovetails are beautiful precisely because they don’t look machine cut; they are all slightly different, adding to the beauty of the piece.
The pins are a little more difficult. First, the pins are traced from the tails by laying the tail board on the pin board, aligning them perfectly perpendicular and at the correct depth and tracing the pins from the tails with a sharp pencil or knife. I prefer a pencil because I want to saw on the waste side of the pencil marks, that is, leaving the pencil mark which is actually part of the pin. This I can see clearly with pencil marks. However, a knife mark tends to draw the saw blade into its kerf leaving me less control. I complete the layout using the dovetail marker being sure to mark the waste area with Xs as shown at right.
There are critical aspects of pin cuts that must be adhered to. Cut on the waste side of the pencil mark, but aligned as closely to it, and along it as possible. Cut straight down using the vertical lines as a guide. Stop at the scribe line on both sides of the board. Paying close attention to these will assure snug fitting joinery – assuming you also cut the tails correctly. The trick to hand cut dovetails is being able to cut vertically and to follow a line. Once those two skills are mastered you can hand cut dovetails that go together the first time, every time.
It helps to cut vertically if your piece is mounted in the vice plumb. The shoulder vise on my Lie-Nielsen lets me quickly accomplish this by holding the piece flush against the vice as I tighten it.
After making all the vertical cuts I am ready to remove the waste. This is done in two steps. First, clear the majority of the waste from the pins by cutting it away with a fret (or coping) saw. I twist the blade in my fret saw to about forty five degrees with pliers. This allows the saws frame to clear the board as I cut. Turning it ninety degrees to the frame would make starting the cut near impossible. When sawing I try to stay as close as I dear to the scribe line leaving just enough to support the chisel cleanup that will follow. How much you leave depends on your experience and courage. If you are just starting out stay at least an eighth of an inch from the scribe line. Be sure you cut evenly front to back. You don’t want to cut close to the scribe line in front and below the scribe line in back. Judge this carefully. After a while it becomes natural and requires no special attention.
The second step in clearing the waste is to clean up the material left by the fret saw. I perform this step with a very sharp chisel. Depending on how close I cut to the scribe line will determine how many cuts along the scribe line I will need to take. If you are doing this and you leave a quarter of an inch for example, you will want to make at least three passes as you approach the scribe line. The last pass should be no more than one eighth inch. Less is better. I hold the chisel slightly passed vertical such that the waste is cut angled into the board. The end grain serves no purpose in the joinery; only the faces of the pins and tails are used to form both the mechanical and glue joint. I check with a small engineer’s square that the material is removed such that the scribe line on each face is unimpeded by material that might project passed them.
The final joinery set is shown at right. Note that you can still see the pencil marks on the pins. As mentioned above they are part of the pin material since the tail was used as the mask to form the pins. Also note that the tails are cut perpendicular to the face of the tail board and the pins are cut straight down – that is vertical to the board. These pins will go together for the first time during glue-up with no dry fit required.
I have a confession to make. You can see that some of the end grain in the pin boards was chipped out. If my chisel were as sharp as it should have been this would not have happened. My chisel was sharp when I started out on the tail boards and I should have stopped to sharpen it for the pin boards. However it was close to dinner time and I was almost done so I plugged along. The small white sin here is that the end grain does not play a part in the joinery and will not be seen. So I can be forgiven, though it is not my usual practice. There, I feel so much better now that I got that off my chest.
If you are just starting out with hand cut dovetails, or haven’t yet started but would like to, I would highly recommend purchasing Rob Cosman’s series of video tutorials. I have been cutting hand dovetails for ten years now and consider myself experienced. But I still purchase nearly every tutorial I can to see how the masters do it so that I can learn and improve. Frank Klausz is probably the dovetail king with Rob Cosman a very close second, but Rob’s videos I find to be the best tutorials on the market. Don’t shy away from hand cut dovetails. Innate skill is not required. Anyone willing to practice sawing vertically and to a line can master them.
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