Practicing Hand Cut Dovetails for Woodworking in America

I know, it’s hard to believe, you haven’t seen a new post since spring. For the few of you that were concerned, thanks for your concern and encouragement, but I’m just fine. Things have just been very busy (in a good way) this summer. My wife and I purchased a vacation place in Crescent Bar and have enjoyed many family-focused weekends there in the sunshine. Our four-year old is becoming quite a swimmer, and I’ve been fishing the lakes nearby quite a lot. I expect that next summer will be a slow woodworking and blogging time for me as well. I do most of my work in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. Thank goodness my shop is well lit and heated.

The Hand Tool Olympics

If you haven’t heard of Woodworking in America, then you must be living under a rock. All the cool woodworking kids are going and we’ll be participating in the Hand Tool Olympics either as teams or individuals. I don’t think we have it figured out yet – we’re slackers that way. There are six events:

  1. One Meter Dash: rip a 1” x 12” x 36” using a hand saw.
  2. Shooting Sports: use a jointer plane to square the edge from the One Meter Dash.
  3. Crosscut Extravaganza: crosscut that same board with a hand saw.
  4. Brace Yourself for a hole in One: bore a 3/4” hole in a plank straight and square to the surface.
  5. Pins First or Tails First: hand cut dovetails.
  6. Greco-Roman Tenons: cut a 3” long 3/4” inch thick tenon on the end of a 2” x 4”

The Dovetail Rules

I’m practicing my hand cut dovetails first, so I went straight to Mike Siemsen from the Society of American Period Furniture Makers and the School of Wood to get the details.

  1. Materials: 3/4” x 3” pine
  2. Tools: 1/2” chisel, mallet, layout gauge, dovetail saw, pencil or marking knife, coping saw, marking gauge, and square
  3. Objective: 2 full tails, 1 full pin, 2 half pins or 2 full pins, 1 full tail, 2 half tails

The tools I’m using and a test joint in some hemlock.

The tools I’m using and a test joint in some hemlock.

Stock Preparation

I had a lot of 3/4” pine on my lumber rack, so I milled it down today and prepared some test pieces. It’s not 3/4” thick per Olympic rules, but it’s fine for practice and I don’t expect any sanctions.

8” long, 3” wide, 9/16” thick pine boards ready to be hacked up and then burned unless they look good.

8” long, 3” wide, 9/16” thick pine boards ready to be hacked up and then burned unless they look good.

Rhythm and Quality

Today while cutting dovetails I had my little girl in the shop. It is very nice to have your kids in the shop with you during hand work. There is no noise, and you can carry on a conversation while you work. She’s only four, but really enjoys the time in there with me. Anyway, today I was working on developing a repeatable rhythm for quickly cutting dovetails. Here’s the steps I went through.

Tails first

  1. Mark the inside face and bottom edge of both boards
  2. Using the marking gauge set to the thickness of the stock, scratch a mark along both ends and faces of the tail board and both faces of the pin board
  3. By eye, mark the half pins on the tail board
  4. With the small square, find the center of the tail board, and mark the center pin (it’s about 1/2” wide)
  5. With the layout gauge, mark the tails on the face of the board
  6. Tilt the board in the vise to cut the left side of the tails, tilt it the other way to cut the right side
  7. Using a coping saw, remove the center pin as close to the line as possible
  8. Put the board in the vise right side down, remove the half pin
  9. Put the board in the vise left side down, remove the half pin
  10. I’m now done cutting the tails; clean up all cuts with the chisel

Pins next

  1. Put the pin board in the vise. Orient the boards so that the inside faces and bottom edges are correct, and the edges are flush.
  2. Trace the edges of the tails onto the pin board.
  3. Cut the tails away on the pin board, leaving the pencil line.
  4. Using a coping saw, remove the tails as close to the line as possible
  5. I’m now done cutting the pins; clean up all cuts with a chisel

Test the joint

Assemble the joint with the inside faces and bottom edges correctly oriented. After three practice joints today, you should get something as good or better than this.

My four year-old Hayden with dovetail joint #3.

My four year-old Hayden with dovetail joint #3.

Key Takeaways

This is the “what I learned today” section.

  1. Handwork is quieter and therefore lends itself to having your kids in the shop with you. Hayden is building a playground for her dolls with the offcuts.
  2. Handcut dovetails are not that hard. A little practice goes a long way.
  3. The coping saw may be the unsung hero of the dovetail. The better you are with the coping saw, the less chiseling you’ll need to do. I’ll be picking up a nice one at WIA this year.
  4. Hold-downs for chisel clean up are key. Too bad I don’t have a hold-down for my Sjoberg’s bench. If anyone can point me to a hold down that will work, I’d appreciate it.

More Information

Shannon Rogers, the Renaissance Woodworker, just posted an interview with Mike Siemsen the originator of the Hand Tool Olympics. He also has some great videos about the events and a Hand Tool School.

Next Steps

I’m going to watch some of Shannon’s videos and other woodworking videos to refine my technique and improve my time. Today I didn’t actually time myself because Hayden was in the shop but I will do that when I am practicing in the shop alone. It felt great to get some shop time today, and I’m glad I’ve been able to keep up (for the most part) with everyone on twitter. See you all at Woodworking in America!

3 thoughts on “Practicing Hand Cut Dovetails for Woodworking in America

  1. Tumblewood

    I’m still not sure I’ll compete, but I am definitely looking forward to learning a few things from some hands on coaching. I’ve only yet cut one atrocious DT. Unfortunately, no time to prepare before WIA. So, DO NOT end up with me. I can’t afford all the beers it would take to pay off everyone for losing so bad.

  2. Torch02

    I think you may have inspired me to do some actual practicing for the Olympics as well. I think you have a solid approach for cutting the dovetails – repeatability is the key here.

  3. Mike Siemsen

    You sure have a cute shop helper!
    A couple of things to keep in mind. Racing dovetails and furniture dovetails are not the same thing. Practice lends to excellence in both. To be really fast you have to trust the layout to your eyes, scribe the base line and layout the rest of the joint with your saw.
    If you have no experience stop by the HTO and get some lessons before you compete. We do a lot of teaching during the show. Some pretty good prizes are awarded to competitors just for trying.
    See you soon!!

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