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Dovetail Hints and Tips

From The Story of Dovetail Joints, originally published in Wood News Issue 21, Summer 1988.
  1. Dovetails are meant for joining the end edges of two boards together, that is, the end grain of boards and not the side (or long) grain. Part of the strength of dovetails is derived from the fact that the grain direction and dovetail direction are more or less parallel to each other.

  2. When laying out the pattern of dovetails note it is the pins that lock up the tails. The pins must end at the board's edge with what are called half pins. Half pins do not have to be exactly have of the with of the other pins; they just aren't symmetrical.

  3. Once the two half pins are determined it isn't too difficult to visually decide how many pins to put in between. One of the advantages of using the Leigh Jig is that the finger guide assembly is ideal as a visual aid for layout work. The shape of the fingers allows you to easily previsualize the basic shape, location and orientation of tails and pins on the end of a board.

  4. Harmony, balance and appropriateness are good words to use when laying out dovetails on wide or narrow boards (and don't forget them on regular work either). For instance, a tight row of numerous thin dovetails might look fussy on a large tool chest. Where as, a similar set up might look perfect for a jewelry box made of ebony and maple.

  5. Make sample pieces of Through Half Blind Dovetails that are approximately 6" wide and have even spacing between pins and tails. These samples will be very helpful for the next time dovetails are made. For example, if Through Dovetails are being considered, simply set the two sample Through Dovetail boards next to your work as a visual guide. The real aid is being able to see the three dimensional nature of the dovetails.

  6. Dovetails are extremely strong because of their interlocking nature and the amount of glue surfaces within the joint. So it's the project is for holding a complete set of steel bench planes or is for displaying dollhouse furniture consider the number of dovetails required to hold it all together.

  7. The width of boards must also be considered, not only as to the number of dovetails and their size but also the gluing up. If the work piece is 24" wide and 50" long and the dovetails are as close together as possible, use the slow setting type of glue and work quickly. Glue waits for no one. And don't think of those hefty bar clamps as the final solution.

  8. Aliphatic resin glues ("yellow" glue) and polyvinyl acetates (PVA or "white" glue) are the most common types of glue used in today's shop. Both of these are excellent glues. But, there are situations in dovetail woodworking when it is possible to take advantage of each glues unique properties. For example, PVA glue generally has a slower initial grab and set up time than does aliphatic resin glue. These factors make PVA well suited for projects with a large number of dovetails. Both blues work well when gluing dovetails because they have molecular bonding across the joint interface. And that means there is no visible glue line. The ideal situation is to have well fitting dovetails with a thin, even distribution of blue. Aliphatic resins and PVA are not meant to be gap filling glues.

  9. If moisture resistance is necessary for dovetails, resorcinol and urea formaldehyde glues can be used. However, these are thick glues and it would be best to glue up trial pieces to determine if the dovetail fit is too tight when these glues are used.

  10. The attractive design of the dovetails leans itself well to being seen. When designing a hanging wall cabinet, for example, allow the side boards to have the tails. If the top and bottom boards have the tails then the cabinet will appear to be assembled with box joints. Also having the tails in the side boards will give the cabinet more structural stability because the downward pull of the side boards will only cause the tails to wedge tighter into the pins.

  11. The different characteristics and physical properties of wood will affect the construction of any project. Hardness (density), grain structure, and imperfections will be the most influencing of how joinery succeeds or fails. Hard woods, such as ash, oak and maple can generally be considered woods that require precise cutting. The joints in these woods do not readily compress themselves when being assembled. Therefore, joints should fit together with minimum resistance. Softer woods, such as pine or mahogany can be slightly compressed when assembled. And old trick used for hand cutting dovetails in softer woods is to cut the dovetails very slightly oversized so that the final effect is one of very tight joints. This isn't necessary when using the Leigh Jig because the jig and router will allow controlled machining of wood. Joinery tolerances will be learned as you work with various types of wood.

Learn more about about Dovetail Joints and Dovetail Design:
The Story of Dovetail Joints originally published in Wood News Issue 21, Summer 1988
Dovetail Design from Mark Dugenske originally published in Wood News Issue 14, Summer 1984

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