A Dovetailing Confession

A recent visitor was examining some dovetails I had made in the back of a small mahogany drawer and (knowing I don’t possess a great variety of saws) asked which saw I had employed to make the dovetails. I replied I had not used a saw at all.

Years ago, as a financially embarrassed and naïve, would-be woodworker growing up in rural Northern Ireland, I didn’t believe a saw was essential for cutting dovetails (a view I still hold today). At the time, I wanted to make a dovetailed blanket box which obviously necessitated forming some interlocking trapezoidal slots in adjoining pieces of wood and the blade of one of the chisels I had to hand was approximately trapezoidal; nothing could be simpler!

I had previously purchased a 1/4″ sash mortise chisel from the local newsagent-cum-hardware shop (it was the only wood chisel in their tool display) and I borrowed my mother’s 1/2″ bevel-edged can-opening-chisel from the odds-and-ends drawer in the kitchen.

After meticulously marking out the dovetail angles in pencil, I chopped out the centre of the waste between the dovetails with the sash mortise chisel and that done; I cleaned up the internal corners with the bevel-edged chisel – ditto with the sockets on the other boards. I became quite adept at it and could knock them out fairly quickly; eventually using only the sash mortise chisel.

Despite having owned a couple of dovetail saws for some years now, I still, on occasion, chop drawer-back dovetails using just a mortise chisel.

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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9 Responses to A Dovetailing Confession

  1. Do you have any pictures of the dovetailing by chisels? I would be interested in seeing what something like that looks like completed.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Unfortunately I can’t post any images of the chiselled dovetails as everything is now packed for our move on Wednesday. The dovetails look perfectly normal in every respect, though minus the over-shot saw cuts.

      JP

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  2. Kees says:

    I like that! Never thought about that possibility.

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  3. Eric Rusch says:

    For a young Jack Plane, necessity truly was the mother of invention.
    Good luck with the move.

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  4. D.B. Laney says:

    It seems that many of today’s woodworkers associate craftsmanship with tool ownership. My Grandfather was always fond of telling me that “it’s a poor workman that blames his tools” (a favorite “old saw” from his Belfast family origins).

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  5. david says:

    wow….did you ever make any in white oak?

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  6. VALERIO D'ANGELO says:

    HI JACK, I CAN’T FIGURE OUT THE TECHNIQUE THAT YOU DESCRIBE FOR CHOPPING DOVETAILS.
    CAN YOU EXPLAIN IT BETTER?
    IS IT POSSIBLE FOR BOTH THE TAIL AND THE PIN?
    THE JOINT WILL MATCH PERFECTLY?
    ALSO, WHEN YOU GLUE DOVETAILS WITH ANIMAL GLUE, DO YOU USE CLAMPS OR SIMPLY LET THE GLUE DRY?
    THANKS,
    VALERIO.

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    • Jack Plane says:

      I’m not sure I can explain the process any clearer. When using the sash mortise chisel, I keep the cutting edge parallel with the dovetail/socket base line, obviously, but the chisel is canted slightly towards the waste when cutting to avoid the body of the chisel from damaging the dovetail/socket walls.

      The joints match as perfectly as if sawn.

      I cut all joints to be a hammer fit, so clamps are unnecessary when gluing.

      JP

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