Hand cut dovetails - Pins

Hand cut dovetails are a lot of fun to make.

If you like detailed work, that is.


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This article is about cutting through dovetails, specifically how to cut the pins. It's also possible to cut half blind dovetails, but it's better to wait until you feel confident with through dovetails before you go on to half blind.

If you are new to hand cut dovetails I also have an article on dovetail layout, and dovetail jigs.

Pins first or tails first is a discussion that can entertain people for weeks, but I like to cut the pins first, so that's how I will describe it.

You can reverse the order if you prefer. (The pins are angled on the end of the board and parallel with the face.)

Your first step in prepping for your hand cut dovetails is to use your marking gauge to set the depth of the dovetails.

You want them to be the thickness of the wood you are using plus a hair. Set your marking gauge using the wood itself as a guide. I usually set it so the pin on the gauge just overlaps the board.

Then drag the gauge along the faces of the pin boards and the faces and edges of the tail boards. This line tells you how deep your dovetails should be.

Now you can mark the layout of your dovetails.

You can make your pins and tails the same size, or the pins can be smaller. Of course, they don't all have to be the same size across the board, nor do they have to be evenly spaced. One of the nice things about hand cut dovetails is that you can lay them out any way you like.


It's helpful to use the size of your chisels as a guide. If you have a 1/4 inch chisel and 3/16 pin you're in trouble. Also, note that the last pins on the edges of the boards are called half pins because they have one flat edge. They don't have to be half the size of the others.


Mark your lines where you want your pins and tails. Use your angle gauge to get the correct angle (usually 1:6 or 1:8) and your square to transfer the line down the face. Tip: if you want to find the correct angle, draw a line 6" (or 8") high, then make a mark one inch beside the base. Now you have a triangle with the correct ration Six up, one over = 6:1 (and you thought you'd never use the math you learned in high school).

With layout complete and lines marked on top and face of your board you are ready to cut the pins.

But first: mark each joint so you know which board joins where and make sure and mark "inside/outside" as well. With pins the small end of the angle faces out. Tails are laid out using the finished pins as a guide.

Okay, now you are ready to cut your pins.

Make sure and stay on the waste side of the lines and keep your angle consistent. It's a good idea to put an "x" in the waste spot so you don't accidentally cut out the tails instead of the pins.


Here's another tip. Look at the reflection of the wood in the saw. If the reflection is straight you are cutting in a straight line.

If you want to cut at an angle -as you do when cutting the pin, set your saw on the line then keep the reflection the same angle all the way down the cut (see photo).


The reflection is useful to use as a guideline.

Once you have made your cuts you can chop out the waste.

You want to keep your chisel straight when you do this, so you can clamp a simple stop right on the line you made with your marking gauge to help align the chisel.

Keep an eye on it though, it's easy to knock your straightedge out of alignment.

Once you have made a preliminary cut on one side flip your board and repeat it on the other side. By going at the dovetails from two sides you will eliminate chip out. Once you have nice clean starting cut on each side you continue chopping. At this point angle the chisel slightly into your board. This undercuts the center so your tails won't get hung up.

(At this point I want to encourage you not to give up on hand cut dovetails. It's complicated at first, but stick with it and it gets easier)

Once you are finished chopping clean up any "crumbs" left behind and check that all your pins are the way you want them. Then, take your board and, making sure you have your ins and outs correct, place it on the tails board.

Make sure you have everything properly flush, then trace the pins. You now have your tails properly laid out. Your hand cut dovetails are half done.


Continue on to learn how to cut tails.




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