How to Cut Dovetails: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Introducing the dovetail joint, the woodworking world’s dynamic duo, where two pieces of wood join forces to create a bond stronger than your last gym buddy commitment! These classic joints not only add charm to your projects but also pack a punch in strength and durability. Learn how to cut dovetails with this guide.

Now, you might be thinking that hand-cutting dovetails is a skill reserved for those with superhero-like woodworking abilities, but hold on to your sawdust, my friend! With the right tools and techniques, you, too, can become a master of the hand-cut dovetail.

Overview of Dovetails

Dovetail Marker – Wood Dovetail Tool

This section will provide an overview of dovetails, including what they are and why they are used.

What are Dovetails?

Dovetails are a joint used to connect two pieces of wood together. This is done by cutting angled pins and tails, which fit together firmly. The pins are cut on one piece of wood and the tails on the other. Once joined together, they interlock, creating a sturdy and long-lasting connection.

There are two ways to cut dovetails: by hand or with a dovetail jig. Hand-cutting requires practice and skill but allows for customization. Dovetail jigs are simpler and quicker but offer less customization.

Why Use Dovetails?

Dovetails are a popular choice for furniture making and cabinetry due to their strength and durability. They can withstand the weight and stress of daily use. Also, dovetails have an appealing visual pattern created by their interlocking pins and tails.

In addition to looking good, they also have practical uses. Their self-locking feature eliminates the need for additional hardware, making them a budget-friendly option for woodworking projects.

Dovetail joints are a reliable and versatile option for woodworking projects. Regardless of skill level, mastering the art of dovetail joinery can enhance your projects.

Tools for Cutting Dovetails

Cutting dovetails requires the use of specific tools. In this section, we will discuss the tools needed to cut dovetails.

Marking Tools

Clarke Brothers Marking Knife and Real Leather sheath
clarke Brothers Wheel Marking Gauge

Marking tools are essential for accurately marking out the tails and pins of a dovetail joint. The following marking tools are commonly used for dovetailing:

  • Marking knife: A marking knife scores the wood fibers, creating a precise and crisp line that helps guide the saw and chisel.
  • Marking gauge: A marking gauge marks the depth of the dovetail joint on the wood. It helps ensure that the pins and tails are cut to the same depth, resulting in a tight-fitting joint.


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A dovetail saw is a specialized saw used for cutting the tails and pins of a dovetail joint. The following are some of the features of a good dovetail saw:

  • Thin blade: A thin blade allows for greater precision and control when cutting the tails and pins.
  • Crosscut teeth: Crosscut teeth are designed to cut across the grain, making them ideal for cutting dovetails.
  • Rip teeth: Rip teeth are designed to cut with the grain, making them ideal for sawing the waste between the tails and pins.


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Chisels are used to remove the waste between the tails and pins of a dovetail joint. The following are some of the features of a good dovetail chisel:

  • Beveled edge: A beveled edge allows the chisel to get into tight corners and remove the waste cleanly.
  • Thin blade: A thin blade allows for greater precision and control when removing the waste.
  • Sharp edge: A sharp edge is essential for cleanly removing the waste without damaging the surrounding wood.


Wooden Mallet 4 ½” Bora 540049,

A mallet strikes the chisel, driving it into the wood to remove the waste. The following are some of the features of a good dovetail mallet:

  • Weight: A heavier mallet allows for greater force to be applied to the chisel, making it easier to remove the waste.
  • Balance: A well-balanced mallet helps ensure the force is evenly distributed, reducing the risk of damaging the chisel or the surrounding wood.

Preparing the Wood

Before cutting dovetails, it is important to prepare the wood properly. This involves marking the wood, cutting the tail board, and cutting the pin board. Here are the steps to follow:

Marking the Wood

First, square off the wood, ensuring the ends are straight and even. Next, mark the outline of the tails and pins on the wood. You can use a square to ensure the lines are perpendicular to the wood’s edges.

Cutting the Tail Board

Once the wood has been marked, the tail board can be cut. The tailboard is the board that will have the tails cut into it, which will fit into the pins on the pinboard. A dovetail saw can be used to cut along the lines that were marked on the wood. Then, a chisel can be used to remove the waste wood between the tails.

Cutting the Pin Board

To cut dovetails properly, first cut the tail board and then cut the pin board. The pin board is the one where the pins will be cut, and they must match the tails on the tail board.

Mark the pin board just like you did for the tail board and use a dovetail saw to cut it. Remove the excess wood between the pins using a chisel. Remember, if you prepare the wood carefully and cut it accurately, the dovetails will fit together securely.

Hand-Cut Dovetails

Hand-cut dovetails are a hallmark of fine woodworking. Although it requires some patience and practice, cutting dovetails by hand is a satisfying experience that allows the craftsman to achieve a level of precision and beauty that is hard to match with power tools. Here are the steps to follow to cut dovetails by hand.

Marking the Dovetails

When hand-cutting dovetails, the first step is to mark the tails and pins on the two pieces of wood that will be together. You can use a marking gauge, a sliding bevel, and a dovetail template to do this. The dovetail template is useful in making sure that the tails and pins are cut accurately at the correct angle and spacing.

To mark the tails, the craftsman places the template on the end of the board and uses the marking gauge to score the wood along the template’s edges. The same procedure is followed to mark the pins on the other board. Once the tails and pins are marked, the craftsman can proceed to cut the waste.

Cutting the Waste

The waste wood that needs to be removed to make the dovetail joint is cut using a saw and a chisel. The saw used is a special type called a dovetail saw, which has a thin blade and a fine set. The craftsman follows the marked lines on the wood with the saw, holding it at a 45-degree angle and taking care not to cut beyond the lines. The chisel is then used to remove the cut waste wood.

Chiseling the Joint

To create a tight joint, the craftsman should chisel the tails and pins carefully. The process involves using a sharp chisel and a mallet to pare away the wood. You can achieve a tight joint by chiseling in several steps, starting with removing most of the waste wood and progressing to finer cuts. It is crucial to check the fit frequently using a square to ensure it is straight and true.

Using a Dovetail Jig

When it comes to cutting dovetails, using a dovetail jig can make the process quicker and easier. A dovetail jig is a tool that helps woodworkers create precise dovetail joints. In this section, we will discuss how to use a dovetail jig to cut dovetails.

Setting up the Jig

To properly use a dovetail jig, it’s important to set it up correctly. The setup procedure may differ depending on the specific jig you have, so it’s crucial to adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions. Here are some general steps to follow:

  1. Attach the jig to your workbench or a piece of wood.
  2. Adjust the template guide bushing to the correct size for your router bit.
  3. Install the router bit into your router.
  4. Adjust the depth of cut on your router to match the thickness of your wood.

Cutting the Dovetails

After setting up the jig, it’s time to start cutting the dovetails. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Clamp the wood to the jig.
  2. Cut the tails first by following the template with the router.
  3. Remove the wood from the jig and cut the pins by following the template again.
  4. Test the joint by fitting the tails and pins together. Adjust the jig or router as needed to achieve a tight fit.

Assembling the Joint

After cutting the dovetails, it’s time to assemble the joint. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Apply glue to the joint.
  2. Fit the tails and pins together.
  3. Clamp the joint until the glue dries.

Using a dovetail jig can be an efficient and precise way to cut dovetails. With the right setup and technique, you can create beautiful and strong dovetail joints.

Other Methods for Cutting Dovetails

Using a Router

Using a router to cut dovetails is a fast and efficient method that can produce accurate results. It is especially useful when working with a large number of dovetails. Here are the steps to follow when using a router:

  1. Set up your router with a dovetail bit that matches the size and spacing of the dovetails you want to cut.
  2. Clamp the boards together and mark the location of the dovetails on both boards.
  3. Use a straight edge to guide your router along the marked lines, cutting the dovetails into the board.
  4. Clean up the edges of the dovetails with a chisel or sandpaper.

While using a router can be a quick and efficient method, it does require some specialized equipment and can be noisy and messy.

Using a Coping Saw

You can cut dovetails using a coping saw with basic tools manually, which is the traditional method. Here are the steps to follow when using a coping saw:

  1. Mark out the location of the dovetails on both boards.
  2. Use a coping saw to cut along the marked lines, removing the waste material between the dovetails.
  3. Use a chisel to clean up the edges of the dovetails.

Using a coping saw can be a slower method than using a router, but it is a good option for those who prefer to work by hand or who do not have access to specialized equipment.

Gluing and Finishing the Joint

Applying Wood Glue

After cutting and dry-fitting the dovetail joint, the next step is to apply glue. Apply a thin, even layer of wood glue to the pins and tails of the joint. Be careful not to add too much glue, as excess glue can cause a mess and weaken the joint.

Clamping the Joint

After applying glue, carefully fit the joint together and clamp it firmly. Use a clamp on each corner of the joint to ensure even pressure. Be sure to wipe away any excess glue that squeezes out of the joint with a damp cloth.

Finishing the Joint

After the glue has dried, you can remove the clamps and smooth out the joint by sanding it. If you want to, you can add a finish to the joint to protect the wood and make it look better. You can either apply a coat of clear varnish or use a matching stain to blend it in with the surrounding wood.

Additionally, make sure you choose the correct type of wood glue when gluing and finishing a dovetail joint. Although a waterproof PVA glue is acceptable for most woodworking projects, some craftsmen prefer to hide glue because it provides more time to work and has a more traditional feel.

Also Read: 14 Types of Wood Joints and How To Build Them


To become skilled at cutting dovetails, practice and patience are necessary. There are multiple ways to cut dovetails, including using a coping saw, router, or hand cutting with a saw and chisel. You must use appropriate tools and take sufficient time to ensure a properly fitting joint. Ensure you apply glue and finish the joint correctly to achieve an expert appearance. With the correct technique, your dovetail joints will look beautiful and robust for an extended period.

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