On Dovetails and Sizing – Just Some Thoughts I Have


Briefly on dovetails and sizing.

Of course it’s far from ideal to use a machine to cut dovetails, a router, a bandsaw or whatever. We all know that if you do, then it’s the machine that cut them not you and, if it were me, I’d feel like I’d been robbed. I have yet to look at a machine-cut dovetail that didn’t look like a machine-cut dovetail. Sometimes I feel people might take what I say the wrongly; this might help. The reason I say that it’s far from ideal is that the craftsman approaches things very differently than the machining wood mechanic. When I work on joints and such, and especially dovetails, mortise and tenons and such, I’m always looking for any and all areas in need of micro-adjustment to maximise my insights inside those parts never known by my customers. I know by feel and experience exactly how much pressure to build into the dovetails. In other words I don’t merely size them as identically sized opposites but I assess how much ‘spring’ is in the wood so as to take full advantage of the particular wood’s characteristic properties. I adjust sizing according to elasticity in the species and then within the type itself. I also evaluates how much expansion takes place when the parts are mated permanently together, so that the pressure from expansion seats the mating faces against one another and when shrinkage from the added glue moisture takes place there is a permanent bonding of faces. These small decisions set the craftsman apart from the mechanic of the machine. Generally, the machine relies on perfect sizing but takes no consideration for micro adjusting according to material and in fact any machine jig can =not be adjusted for such fine adjusting.


On sizing of tails and pins.
Here again there can often be a certain snobbery surrounding superfine pins between the dovetails. “They look so highly refined they can be no earthly good.”, and whereas that level of refinement shows the distinctive skill of the artisan when made by hand, the pins are quite weak in many woods and it’s not unusual to test a dry fit and pull a pin from its root in the body of the tail piece. As far as toolboxes go it will suit most of my work to marry 3/8” pins to 1” tails. I generally like 3/8” pins. They look neat. Back in the old days of early machined dovetails the tails and pins were equally sized. It was telltale in its day. Today its not so, with tails shaped like little hearts and such.

On machine cut pins and tails; through dovetails of course can have the angular internal corners dovetails rely on for strength even when the slide easily together. On the other hand, half-lap dovetails have rounded internal corners that drastically reduce the efficacy and strength of the joint. For the main part it’s that internal corner that’s the fulcrum of ideality. These corners allow no wiggle room and indeed lock. That’s what’s needed.

This is where I ended up today. Not complicated stuff at all. In fact it’s about the most basic of all boxes really. I hope you choose to make one for the experience and for the tool storage you get.

DSC_0056I am going to paint mine with milk paint I think.


You could also use a box like this for a toy box if you work out the lid safety issues.


I doubt I would ever truly find any real fulfilment from making a machine-cut dovetail. I’m glad I never tried because when someone asked me if they were hand cut I would have to admit that the lie of presentation stood in truths stead. Take the risk. Better to cut the odd gap in your dovetails by saw than use a machine I think. At least it has the character and meaning of human frailty, a little heightened risk, and, more important, it looks real. Give it a go. Build your toolbox with me.


8 thoughts on “On Dovetails and Sizing – Just Some Thoughts I Have”

  1. Hi Paul
    I read with interest your comments on machine cut dovetails vs hand cut. I have used a jig to cut them, and the only rewarding thing is finally setting everything up with any degree of success. The dust, noise, test cuts, wasted wood and mediocre results left me wondering why the heck I bothered! Following your blogs, I started dovetailing by hand and after some practice, I can’t tell you how much pleasure and satisfaction I get. You get to FEEL the wood, smell it and understand its properties, strengths and weaknesses.
    I have learned so much from your blogs and videos – thank you.


  2. Paul just to clarify for me, when you talk about sizing a pin to 3/8″ and a tail to 1″, that is to the narrowest point, correct? I will be trying a houndstooth on a small dovetail box, it looks as easy as varying the length of pin, scaling to the piece.

      1. Toolchest episode 2.. Watched it last night for the dovetail joint and you make note of the sizing there too. Those videos are full of this info and well worth the price of admission. Thank you again!

  3. Paul how is the base board fitted is it nailed or glued?
    I think I read somewhere, in the days gone bye the bases were nailed. Since if the bottom the area most likely to suffer bad storage, so it could be replaced easily. A very practical idea in the days when the box went everywhere and suffered in its journey.
    You box is looking really nice will you introduce some embellishment to personalise or just keep it practical.
    I’m still hunting the material what are your recomendations from experience, something I have none of?

    1. The original is in fact nailed as original but that’s not really enough. It may be a theory about the base board but it’s not the case. Most baseboards were simply nailed because boxes were made fats and put into use as a practical effort. yes they were transported around on carts and such and even shipped out on trains and ships, but if you think about it, glued or not, the parts are easily separated when you use animal glue which was always the case in that era. the theory is nothing more. Now, I did glue mine long grain to long grain and also the dovetails. I felt that was best and it will wear with sweeping for about 150 years before I need to replace it. No embellishments. A vernacular toolbox.

  4. Paul,

    I like the toolbox. I hope to build one soon, after I complete other projects.

    I have some project related questions.
    On the shaker box, I believe you r using 3/8 pins and 1 inch tails: is that correct? What ratio is that? 1:5 1:7 or 1:8? I have a dovetail marker that has 1:5 and 1:8, but I am not sure that I should use it. Would like to, just for the sake of simplicity. If I need to make one, I will.

    I am thinking about building the table project out of walnut. I have never used walnut but love the wood. I can buy the wood from a Kansas mill, either 15 inches wide and 85 inches long, or by 1×5 inches and 1 x 4 inches 8 feet long. Would the table top be stronger with 3 1x 5 inch boards glued, rather than 1 piece? That is what I thought you were saying on the DVD. Please tell me your recommendation on buying the 15 inch wide lumber or the 1x 5″ and 1×4″, which would minimize cutting.

    What vise did you use on your European workbench? I am looking at vises, and liking the Wilton and Rockler vises. Just curious what vises you use and like.

    The workbench will probably be my first project as that is what I need most. I think I want two 12 inch laminated 2×3’s with a 11 and 1/4 tool well, probably just Short of 8 feet long.

    I bought the Narex bench chisels and like them. Getting a few more tools together and then will build the bench. Thanks so much for teaching me to be an artisan woodworker.

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