Dovetail Layout Part 6: Moving Into Variety

I have been using my virtual soapbox exploring the methods I use to layout dovetails. I have two strong opinions when it comes to dovetail layouts: One, it's important they're simple and straightforward to carry out, something repeatable and consistent enough to be easily repeated. And two, there is no "Unifying Theory of The Dovetail Continuum," no "One" way to do it right. As a designer and builder of fine furniture you should be versed and flexible in using several different layouts so you can use choose the right look for the right circumstance. Don't ever make the mistake of locking yourself down into one pragmatic view of your pins and tails.

If you're just joining the conversation or want a refresher of where we've been already you can find all the dovetail layout posts collected together HERE.

I believe yet one more Dovetail Maxim: Dovetail joints are meant to be created with a hand powered saw. Remove the waste however you want, but there is no replacement for the simple, straight-forward hand saw to create the lines that define the joint. I do not care if you have a whole chest of drawers in a dovetailed carcass on your plate, do it the right way. The only time you could convince me a router is the way to go is if you have to build more than fifty or so drawers in a weekend. Short of that, a Leigh Jig or other random  router dovetail template is a waste of your hard earned money.

So since we are doing the right thing and cutting our dovetails by hand, then why wouldn't you use that fact to your advantage. You are not a machine so you do not have to cut your dovetails like one either. Unless the design calls for subtle even dovetails that blend in to the background, why not add some pop with some staggered pacings and varied sizings. After all dovetails are the showoff of the joint world. They like to scream "Hey! Look at me!" So changing up the game a little can lead to some nice results that don't have to be distracting, but can instead showcase your artistry.

The key is to remember the eye likes symmetry and grouping. I repeat my sizing from the right side of the layout to the left side to keep that symmetry. I will also group two or three smaller pins together with wider spaces between them. Groupings of more than three tend to begin to look busy and too many varied widths can look amateurish. I rarely do more than two or three different sized spacings in a design. Well executed simplicity will be more dazzling than complexity.

Here's one way of accomplishing the type of layout I'm talking about.
As we have gone over before, you can use dividers to help size the layouts, but I often find it faster to just use my chisels as sizing blocks. With the stock in the vise I mark my half pins on either side with a 3/8" chisel.
With that done I measure to find the center of my stock and mark it.
Shifting the rule over I then mark out for a 1" wide space. If I were to expand this across a wider section of stock I have the decision between widening this center area or adding a second area and spacing the board out in thirds instead of halves. Wider stock yet? I add more of the same spacing and judge the right amount needed by eye.
Then I grab the 1/4" chisel and eyeball the placement in the center of the remaining space. What no measurement? That's right, you can measure if you want, but I think you should be able to trust your eyes to tell you what looks right. If it looks right now, why should it look wrong later? I just make a small mark on either side of the chisel.
 And complete the lines with a small tri-square
I make sure to "X" out the areas to be cut away . . .
. . . and mark the angles on the face of the stock. I only bother to mark my end grain and the face of my stock. Marking the angles on the backside is unnecessary, and this way makes sure I don't get turned around and put the face of the stock away from me. I want any tear out from the saw blade to be on the backside of the stock and the inside of the joint.
Ready to start sawing with all the waste marked.
Transfer your pins, mark, and cut them. Often these days I will only mark the end grain on tails, but when I was starting to learn I would transfer my lines square down the face of the stock to help guide me.
After the joint is put together and cleaned up you can see how the paired grouping and slight variety in widths gives an interesting and appealing look.

You can play around a lot with groupings and an asymmetrical / symmetrical look. Here's a quick second take with a different result.
 This time I chose to start with very wide half pins, so I used my 1" chisel as a marker.
And I repeated it on both sides. Remember, use symmetrical placement of asymmetrical sizes and you can achieve good looking results.
Everything marked out and ready to cut.
 And the finished product, a similar paired grouping to the previous set but with an altogether different appearance and feel. Consider the effect you're reaching for as you head into these layouts.

And one more off the deep end just to prove a point.
With this joint I did zero layout at all beyond marking the appropriate depth of cut with a marking gauge. I didn't mark my angles or my spacing, and I actually tried to make it very random. While this is the ugly stepsister of the whole series, it does prove a couple points. One, is it proves how simple layout can be if you are practiced at cutting these joints. If I had put effort into symmetry over randomness I have no doubt I could have turned out a workable joint with no substantial layout at all. Just my eyes, my mind, and my hands working together in a practiced way.

The other point is that from a design stand point, I can actually conceive of using this random joint as a design feature. Say I was making a box based on The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, or representing a twisted ideal in some other fashion. This joint would be perfectly at home in those instances. So understand the look you're going for and don't be afraid to make mistakes getting there. After all, those aren't mistakes, they are lessons learned. The most important thing to remember is to relax, do NOT put this joint up on a pedestal, just have fun and go for it.

I'm pretty sure this should wrap up my side of this discussion. Thanks for lending me your ears while I rode the soapbox for a while.



  1. I know some out there will disagree with me and what I have to say about router made dovetail joints, that's OK, you can be wrong. Coincidentally I feel somewhat the same about using the Festool Domino to replace actually cutting and fitting of a mortise and tenon joint. I do use biscuits for panel glue ups from time to time and I think I would use the Domino for that and be happy, but I'm just not sold on replacing M&T joints with it. I have never used biscuits to replace those joints either

    I do know that Glen Huey from Popular Woodworking has devised a way to cut dovetails using a bandsaw, and I have to admit I'm not completely familiar with the method but from what I understand it may be the best argument to eliminate the router from the dovetail joinery discussion completely.

    Sliding dovetails may be the only exception to that rule I can think of,


  2. Nice job on your reflections for this joint.

  3. The things I would add to the discussion would be that there are three considerations:

    Structural strength of the joint
    Aesthetics of the joint as a visual design element
    The enjoyment of the process

    If you are just wanting to mechanically interlock two pieces of wood at 90 degrees, there is nothing wrong with the dovetail jigs. You can just set an unskilled worker in front of one and after a bit of training and adjustment, they can make them all day long with repeatable results. Just the ticket if you are setting up a furniture factory. When you are building one off pieces, the economy falls apart. The investment of buying or building and setting up the jig does not pay off soon enough to outweigh just doing it by hand. Look at the half lap dovetail joints on old furniture. Very few small pins. Whack down the tails board with a rebate plane or saw it off to thickness with a tenon saw, two or three broad tails, outline them with the chisel or marking knife on the pin board and a bit of paring and you are done. No muss, no fuss. You are done in less time that it would take to go set up in a jig.

    Without going into all the aspects of design, you have two main choices: hide the construction details from the viewer or let them show. If you let them show as part of the design, you can either make them mechanically functional or play with them to create new design elements. As a design element, you can vary the details to create interest. Change the spacing. Change the size. Change the shape. Change the regularity. This involves knowing the techniques and the materials. If you just change them without knowing the materials, you will have the potential for structural failure.

    The last part of this is the enjoyment of the process. If you are making something and you don't enjoy the process and challenges it presents, maybe you should be doing something else. If you are doing it for a living, why would you want to spend the majority of your day doing something you don't like? If you are doing it as an avocation, why would you want to spend your spare time making yourself do things you dislike?

  4. David, my friend. I always look forward to seeing what you have to say, your thoughtful insight and comments always add another level to the conversation.

    You are, of course, right on all three accounts, I believe especially in your last paragraph.

    Cutting dovetails by hand does take some practice and skill, but it is not a insanely unattainable skill, I would venture to say in the lexicon of skills I have picked up, both with power and hand tools, there are many things more technically difficult than dovetailing by hand. I think it was my early frustrations in laying it out and understanding how to use it that lead me to putting it on a pedestal and making it so much more than it was, and I now realize how stupid that reaction was.

    Now if only I could conquer the biggest technical challenge in my shop to this day, Changing a bandsaw blade in less than an 30 minutes with a maximum of 2 curse words. When I get that down I'll be ready for the big time!



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