Full Chisel Blog

April 24, 2008

Dovetailing Drawers

Filed under: Dovetails,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 2:53 pm

The Dovetail Joint Half Blind Dovetail

We have a different view of the dovetail joint than they had in the nineteenth century, and I am pretty sure in the eighteenth century and before as well.  Today we revere and honor the almighty dovetail as the end all of craftsmanship.  When in fact in the nineteenth century it was just a good joint and its application was for specific purposes.

In fact I would guess better than 90% of the dovetail joints were not seen until the drawers are opened.  Probably the second most common joint after a chair socket, the dovetail provided a self clamping and self squaring joint, all things being equal.  Ideally suited for box construction, its most common application was for making drawers.  This accounts for the bureau or chest of drawers being the most expensive item for sale in a Cabinet Shop in the nineteenth century.  A fancy chair would sell for $6.00; a common Windsor Sheraton would sell for $4.00, a rocking chair for $8.00 and a bureau for $26.00 to 31.00.  A farmer or labor could make $0.35 to .50 per day, a skilled craftsman $1.75 to $2.50 per day, so the chest of drawers would have been a major expense during the 1850’s.

People are intimidated by dovetail joints because they want to make them show, while most dovetails as in drawers are hidden.  Practice on drawers before going on to class 1 joints that show.  People are intimidated by chairs as well; I will deal with that later.

Dovetailed drawers are wonderful things to practice on as they hardly ever show.  Drawers are good practice for dovetailing and there is no better way of learning than by having to repeat the task over and over again until it is second nature.

There are a lot of jigs, guides and fancy tools to help in the dovetailing process.  I will not mention them as I don’t use them but they might be of benefit to beginners and anything to make it easier for those just starting out is a good thing.  I don’t even use an angle jig anymore as I am only concerned about the square cut (the most important cut), the angle will take care of itself.

Because I always gang saw, in other words I clamp both sides (and pairs of sides) together and cut them all at once, so I cut tails first.  I know some people cut pins first, but doing a lot of half blind dovetails on drawer fronts, I find this cumbersome.  Tails first for me is the way I learned, the way I do it and that is what I will be talking about.

Once the pieces for the drawer are made up, I use ¾” to 1 inch fronts, with ½” thick sides and back and a ¼” bottom.  Sometimes I use a thicker bottom and feather three edges to fit the plough (plow) {groove} on the drawer front and sides.  The back has no groove and is not as wide as the sides to allow for the bottom to slide in from the back and secured only with a single nail, so it floats free in the grooves.  In most cases the grain of the bottom is from front to back, but on wider drawers the grain can go from side to side.

I then set a marking gauge to the thickness of the sides (half inch) and mark both ends of the sides and back.  I also mark the back of the drawer front on each end gauged from the sides and the side of the drawer front with the fence on the back side.  I know that the plow or groove will be near the bottom within 3/8” or ¼”, so I make sure the bottom dovetail on the side of the drawer front will cover the groove. 

I then space the dovetails by eye make a few pencil marks on the drawer side.  I clamp up the sides (up to 8 half inch boards), usually two so that everything is square.  Then with a square I mark out the lines over the end grain of the boards as these are what are important.  I place a mirror on the opposite side of my vise so I can see the back side allowing me to saw to the score lines without stopping and looking on the other side to see if I am close.  With a rip saw, I cut the dovetails, using the nicker nib if necessary to get the cut started.  I also lift the handsaw on the pull stroke to avoid premature dulling of the teeth.

I will remove the waste with a chisel or sometimes a coping saw, the former is easier, the latter is faster but subject to needing paring, which I avoid.  Because I use a marking gauge for the layout, I cut to the line in both cases, and if I have to pare the joint I have words with myself.  About 85% to 90% of my joints (dovetails, I have better percentages with Mortise and Tenons) go together on the first try.  I am not bragging, no I guess I am, but I have had a lot of experience.

When I chisel, I use the score line to orient the chisel and go from there.  Using a wooden mallet I strike the chisel straight down then split off a bit of wood then strike again.  I reverse the board and repeat.  With the little piece left a light blow and it is clean and on to the next.  With sawing I insert a narrow coping saw blade in the rip kerf and begin cutting near the bottom then to the line, again using the mirror to see I am sawing to the line.  This is the hard part, the money side which is where all of the cuts are made from is easy it is the off side that can be off, and the mirror helps.  I reverse it and finish off the little bit I couldn’t get at the start and the joint is clean.

I then use the tails to lay out the pins on the drawer front and drawer back board.  The groove should already have been ploughed and the bottom side tail should cover the groove if everything is right.  With the side square and positioned I use a striking knife to make the transfer marks.  This avoids the vagaries of a wide pencil line.  The score line also gives a positive starting place for both chisel and saw.

I lay the drawer front flat with the edge towards me and secured to the bench and using my rip dovetail saw I make the cuts for the tails.  I have in the past scribed the square lines, as they are more important, the angles already established with the pins, but in most cases I don’t.  I also do not stop at the thickness gauge mark on the back of the drawer front.  I go beyond the score mark to make the chisel work easier.  I do stop at the mark on the side of the drawer front to make for a better looking joint.

I then use a chisel and remove the waste.  I have a quarter inch wide chisel that has heavy bevels on the side for dovetails and use to remove the waste material.  The saw kerf helps locate the angle on the inside back edge and the heavily beveled chisel gets into those tight corners.

The drawer back is positioned just flush with the top of the groove to allow the bottom to be inserted, removed and repaired or repositioned if it dries out.  I then cut the pins after marking them from the drawer sides.  These dovetails are usually a bit smaller and are almost never seen as drawers are seldom pulled all the way out.

With proper layout and cutting everything should be flush on dry fit up.  I also make sure that it fits into its opening and make any adjustments before gluing up the drawer box.  I then take the drawer apart, apply glue and reassemble.  I wipe off all excess glue with a wet rag at this point as I don’t want to glue the drawer into the cabinet.   I check for square, insert the drawer bottom loose and place the drawer into the opening where it will go to dry.  Dovetail drawers are self clamping and it helps for the drawer box to dry in situ.  If the opening is slightly out of square, the drawer can be wracked a bit to fit.

I usually make my drawers square (they can be rectangular but they are still square), because they tend to be square anyway and make any adjustments by planing off the drawer front.  Also adding cock bead to a drawer front will make any irregularities go away.

Some drawers have lips and overhang the cabinet, so it is important that they fit up good and the drawer can be racked to work and allowed to dry.  I make sure the drawer runners are on the drawer guides and there is no twist, paying attention to detail now helps make good working drawers.

When the glue is dry and being one would only use hide glue, that would be the next day, I remove the drawers, run a scraper or if necessary plane to smooth off any raised grain and then nail in the bottom.




  1. My my. So you make one row of dovetails, then you match the second set to the first set? I know antique furniture has uneven dovetails, so I gather they measured nothing. Did the old men use saws or only chisels? I’m just getting into this. A certain type of man becomes a snob about old-fashioned methods and tools, and that type is both of us. I sell old optics and I can hear a German organ when I pick up an old pair of Leitz Mardocit 12×60 binoculars. You probably don’t even have an electric drill on you premises. I respect that. I bought a huge antique wooden screw to make a vise with. Thanks a lot!

    Comment by James Denison — August 18, 2008 @ 7:09 am

  2. James,

    Welcome and yes I guess I am a snob about traditional woodworking and I don’t own any power tools. From what I have seen they used both, almost all the ripping is done with saws, the waste can be removed by sawing or most often by chisels. When you mount your wooden screw for the vise, make sure the nut is free and not fixed to the bench.

    Good Luck and thanks.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 18, 2008 @ 7:52 am

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