Making My Toolbox – Coping With Dovetails

Cutting the dovetails and coping saw usage

It’s not the best way, using a coping saw or a fret saw, but it can speed up the operation if you are in a hurry or making a beehive. On finer joinery it’s not really accepted. That said, a tool box of this type would not generally be exemplary of of fine work but more the vernacular toolbox of the carpenter joiner. It was the unpretentious representation of nothing more than the working man providing protection for his future in respect of his valued and hard worked for tools. It was his way of transporting them to and from work places and indeed emigrating with them to other continents and countries. I have cut dovetails with a coping saw for five decades and done that by the multiple thousands. I doubt that many have cut as many dovetails in their lifetime, but that’s more because of demoing my craft to get people off the conveyor belt and out of using mass-making methods that substitute for developing real knowledge and skill in woodworking.

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I decided to do one of the corners if this toolbox with the coping saw, so that I could talk about it and so I can explain what the method offers and what you need to watch for with it. As always, the coping saw blade is used on the push stroke cut not pull, so you will likely need to flip it end for end to maximise effectiveness and push the fibres to the inside as you work. Push pushes the cut fibres into the body of wood so unsupported fibres that might fracture at the edges will be unseen. Simple.

Using the coping saw gives an easy way into the recesses to remove waste. With practice you can become accomplished at it and even cut to a line that needs no trimming. As I said, its not the way for fine work but you may want to use it from time to time for lesser work. The important thing with using a tensioned saw is to cut near to the line without going past or into it. The reasoning here is that if you leave the grain too long then the fibres tend to tear  and compress when you further refine them with a chisel. Cut close means you can pare them better and without damaging the recess.

The following pictures show the steps I take for cutting the first set of tail and pin recesses using the coping saw method for one corner only.

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Having laid out the dovetails as shown in the previous blog, I mark the depth of the recesses with the pencil, to put me in the ballpark for my saw cuts to stop at. The pencil line is a temporary mark used only as a guide.

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In most cases people use marking gauges for this and pass the pin along the whole length of the board. that means that the tails and or pins are also marked permanently. That’s not my preference but in this case I will use it to show how.

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I run the saw down the side of the line just on the waste side as shown.

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If I am going to use  a marking gauge for the depth then I take the depth setting directly from the adjacent board that will form the corner.

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With each dovetail sawn down I use the coping saw to access the lower line of the recess. As i have set the blade to cut on the push stroke, I must make the turn on the push stroke too. As I push forward I start to make the turn with each forward thrust until the corner is turned. Once turned I follow through with steady strokes across from one dovetail to the other just leaving the line in. On wide boards like this I use a backer of stiff wood to stop flex in the board away from the vise.

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Now I chisel to the line if I am using the marking gauge or I can also use the knife wall to establish a pristine cut line for my chisel to follow.

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The outside recess is done with the saw and the chisel. i first further define the knifewall with the chisel to form a recess for the saw and…

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… saw down with the dovetail saw until I meet the previous tail cut.

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I trim off the fuzzy bits with a sharp chisel.

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With all of trimming done I am  ready to trace the tails onto the end of the side piece. I sharpen my pencil so as to get tight into the corners.

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I square the lines down along the outside face of the pin piece.

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I use the marking gauge to mark the depth of the cut for the tail recess.

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I saw down the angle lines on the end grain to the depth of the gauge line.

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Again, I will use the coping saw to cross cut the bottoms of the tail recesses but before i do I make a knifewall on the gauge lines to make certain I cut exactly on the line.

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Now I cut close to my line with coping saw as before.

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I trim out the exact depth with a wider chisel.

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The joint is ready for dry assembly before i cut the others. Keeping the joint together as much as possibly stops the boards from cupping.

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Now I can cut the others. Hang on a minute though. Before you start let’s look at the way I really do them in the everyday of life. This is a craftsman’s way.

12 comments on “Making My Toolbox – Coping With Dovetails

  1. On one of the pictures where you are chiselling the bottom of the pins, it appears as if you have sawn down well inside your pencil lines. I presume this is your experience and judgement based on the softness of the wood to get a tight fit and that you would saw closer to the lines on a harder wood

    • My dovetails here will fit perfectly without pressure beyond the friction of the walls. yes, I do micro adjust size to each pin side too because if a knot is nearby then the wood compresses less and I adjust accordingly. These are the things I want everyone to see and feel. Too many mags fail in these areas and make statements that give the sense that there is no sensing. Mostly because editors are rarely woodworkers or even mediocre woodworkers in reality. They present from lofty heights and rarely meet the real needs of their readers. it’s a good job they have real woodworkers in the background somewhere saving their jobs.

  2. After you sweep around the corner with the coping saw and get the piece to pop out, do you back cut into the corner with the coping saw to make a sharp line (like a relief cut on a bandsaw), or is that chisel work?

    In one photo ( https://paulsellers.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/09/DSC_0152.jpg ) it looks like there is still wood in the corners. Did you clean that out later with a chisel, or is this soft pine and you just pressed the joint together?

  3. Paul – maybe I didn’t read this carefully enough, but are you cutting the sides and bases of the dovetails all with the coping saw, or just using it to remove the bulk of the waste?

    If you’re just using it to remove the bulk of the waste — sawing the sides to the line with a back saw and then using a chisel to hit the baseline — I’m not understanding your rationale for saying this is a lesser way of doing the work. I’m a total amateur, but I’ve been using a fretsaw with s fine blade to remove the waste (strictly to remove the bulk of the waste, not sawing to the line) and it seems to be a good approach for me. In particular for really narrow pin spaces on the tails where it’s tough to chop out the waste without bruising the shoulders.

    Just curious…

  4. Hi Paul –

    Can you elucidate? :

    ‘Hang on a minute though. Before you start let’s look at the way I really do them in the everyday of life. This is a craftsman’s way.’

  5. Hi Paul,
    apart from the questionable design, is it possible to make a big table were the top and short aprons are dovetailed (like the corners of the toolbox), without having top’s torsion problems? Or the dovetails will work for medium pieces ike the toolbox and not for big table tops like that of your wedding table? Little table tops will distortion if attached without allowance of movement?
    I’ ve seen some tables with a laminated softwood top, tick about 1″, screwed from the underside, but without the allowance for the top’s movement, and there aren’t signs of splits or cup, and the wood has no finish at all. Is the orientation of the annual rings in the top’s laminated pieces important? They are all in the same way.

    Thanks very much for your job.

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