Dovetails - by machine or by hand?

So I’m intrigued to know how and why you make your dovetails? Is it the satisfaction of doing it by hand or the practicality and precision(?) of by machine? What tools do you use?

  • By Hand
  • By Machine
  • Other

0 voters

Both of course. :slight_smile:

There’s a lot to be said for machine-made DTs if the primary requirement is strength, especially if they aren’t going to show much. They can be made very accurately on the likes of a woodrat with a router and good quality bits, yet still be irregular enough to not look like a robot did them when you open the drawer or door.

On the other hand, some pieces need to look handmade, which requires the DTs to be not just a bit irregular in the spacing but also evidencing a certain degree of “hand of the maker”. As with all such handwork, there’s a fine line between looking handmade well and looking rather bodged.

Good tools do help. I have some Blue Spruce chisels for hand-mad DTs of the smallish ilk and they do help with the precision, largely because they don’t have big fat shoulders as many ordinary chisels do. One can get them right into the tight corners, see?

The trouble with handmade techniques for we amateurs is that we don’t get enough practice - no five year apprenticeship for us as we have to go to work elsewhere or, even if retired, pursue 7 other compulsions & obsessions.

Always by hand; even for all these drawer boxes…and there are a LOT of dovetails there. I’ve never, ever cut a d/t using any sort of machine.

I mainly use machine cut dovetails purely for speed and accuracy. I work full time and make/sell furniture in my spare time so unfortunately time in the workshop is precious and not nearly as much as I’d like it to be.

Having said that, when time allows or for special projects I do like to practice hand cut (a lot more practice is needed I think!). Below is a jewellery box I made as a gift for my girlfriend and was made using only hand tools.

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Practice time for amateurs is the problem when it comes to perfecting hand tool techniques. There is no quick and easy method to make hand tool mortise & tenon joints, for instance. And once got wrong they’re near impossible to put right. One must begin again; and perhaps waste valuable wood.

There is a case for a half-way hoose. To make through wedged tenons as required in many A&C styles, I forego the mortise chisel in favour of downcut spiral router bit or a Domino XL. The tenons are easier to make by hand, with handsaws and a router plane.

Hand cut DTs are satisfying and, once the techniques are learnt, can be made surprisingly quickly. The right tools help - good quality saws and chisels, as well as accurate marking with a fine marking knife. Many chisels are poor at chopping out the waste, especially in small and closely-spaced DTs. A cheap & nasty saw just won’t cut a neat kerf to the marked line; and will leave a rough cut surface.

Nice DTs can be made with a machine. These were made with a woodrat and some of it’s teeny-weeny fine DT HSS cutters.

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What I like about cutting dovetails by hand is that it’s easy to include a some variation in the joint. This is a wall hung, bow fronted cabinet in oak I made a few years ago:

…but the dovetail jointing at the corners is not quite standard:

The pins (not the half-pins) are all the same but the tails become progressively wider as they move towards the middle. This is difficult to set out by hand (careful work was needed on paper prior to marking out) but it’s probably a hell of a lot more difficult to do using a machine and almost impossible using a dovetail jig.

Impossible to make those variations of yours with a standard DT jig, true. However, I will posit that it would have been easier on a woodrat. To get the changed tail widths done symmetrically, the board is merely flipped horizontally in the woodrat jaws as each different-width DT is cut, perhaps with one width-only at the centre, which can be truly centred also by flipping the board and doing a second cut with it in the same position.

The spacing between them can also be varied, symmetrically as above or at random.

Essentially, you can make them just like handmade DTs except that the cutting is done with a sophisticated jig-guided bit rather than a saw and chisels. And you don’t need to mark them out first.

If the muse has gone wild in your bonce, it’s even possible to change the DT bit depth for each pair; or even the bit shape (the slope) by changing the bit! No measurements needed at all, apart from perhaps a simple subdivision to make sure you can get the required number of tails and pins in the available width of the board.

There are many methods to do things in woodworking. Part of the pleasure, for me, is to try them all. It’s woodplaying not woodwork.

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