Dovetailed Drawers: No, I’m not Insane


Several people have called me insane/crazy/foolish and other mild epithets after I posted a picture on Twitter of the first kitchen drawer I completed. Why? Because it’s hand-dovetailed.

Sure, I could simply rabbet and nail the kitchen drawers together, but hey – the math is harder. But one good reason for eschewing that method is that I can’t easily do it at home. No, that’s not true – I could easily do it at home using hand tools. But I don’t imagine I can more quickly plane rabbets than I can cut through-dovetails of just three tails per corner (poplar is awfully forgiving).

So why not use a router dovetail jig? Well, I don’t own a router dovetail jig. Sure, we have one at work…but I spend enough time at work already. Also, the router and I have a love-hate relationship; I recognize the tool’s efficacy in many situations, but I don’t like using it unless it truly is the best tool for the job (say, pattern routing). It’s loud and messy, and I can never find the bit I need. Oh – and there’s the wee issue that I don’t know how to set up a router dovetail jig. For a mere nine drawers, it doesn’t seem worth the trouble to learn (or really, worth the trouble of digging the jig out of our storeroom and finding all the parts).

But here’s the real reason: I need the practice. I’m a competent dovetailer…usually. But a piece of white oak kicked my ass last week and it’s haunting me. Cutting a few good sets of joints in poplar has made me feel (a little) better.

And while my joints are perfectly serviceable, they’re nowhere near perfect. So with these drawers, I’m working on small things including shaving a few minutes off my time, trying to get through the waste with fewer mallet whacks, and doing my best to cut closer to my baseline with the coping saw. A certain someone I know gets so close that he can, after coping out most of the waste, drop his chisel right into the scribeline and finish the cut. Me? I usually have to halve my way back to the baseline in at least two steps. So I can do better.

Also, the bourbon is right downstairs when I’m done – and so is the kitchen, into which I can install each drawer as soon as the glue is dry (which is about how long it takes me to drink a glass of bourbon). Instant gratification on two fronts.


About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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18 Responses to Dovetailed Drawers: No, I’m not Insane

  1. Mark says:

    Good for you. What better way to learn to do, or improve on your dovetail technique? I did the same thing in my kitchen. Hand cut 18 drawers, three to four tails per corner. It’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds and you learn a lot in the process. I still can’t cut them as well as that someone person, but I’m not the least bit ashamed of my dovetails anymore. Dovetails jigs and routers are for wussies anyway.

  2. How do you like your Knew coping saw? Does it help you get closer to the baseline? I bought a really thin blade at Sears for my Kobalt coping saw (kind of ironic huh?) and it has helped a bunch but I’m still nervious to get as close you know who. I have yet to try my tenon cheek float, it might work in some situations.

    • fitz says:

      Well, I love it, because it’s easy to tension perfectly and easy to insert the blade, and it doesn’t flex much at all. But no, it doesn’t help me get any closer to the baseline than when I use any other well-tensioned saw. The only thing holding me back is…fear.

  3. billlattpa says:

    Like you, I do not like dovetailing jigs, though I prefer to chop the waste with a chisel rather than saw it with a coping saw.
    I am of the mind that the dovetail joint should not be used in hardwoods, at least the pins should be a softwood (not necessarily coniferous) and rather, the joint should only be used on a wood that compresses. Maybe a thousand people would disagree, but to each his (or her) own.

    • fitz says:

      Um, why only in softwoods? I’m genuinely curious.

      • billlattpa says:

        I should be clear and say that when I say “softwoods” I mean woods that compress easily, or somewhat easily, and at that my theory only applies to the pinboard and not the tails-such as in a half blind drawer situation. My theory is that the softwood pins should be “forced” to compress into the tails, which is why poplar, pine, aspen, make great pin boards. It’s my idea that woods like poplar and pine, woods that compress nicely, are generally stable, therefore the compressed joints hold together much more tightly with seasonal wood movement.
        I’m hardly an expert on furniture, or wood movement for that matter, but I’ve noticed that dovetail joints in hard maple, oak, etc. seem to open up after time, even if they were together seamlessly when the project was first made.
        Maybe I’m wrong, I’m just using my own personal experience as a guide.

  4. jonathanszczepanski says:

    Go for it Megan! I went through a dovetail torture test myself. I had a ton of dovetails to cut – 160 tails I think – so I used the opportunity to try out different techniques, as well as improve my speed. It helped a lot. Are you at least ganging the tail boards together when you cut them?

    • fitz says:

      Good lord yes! That’s why I cut tails first (well, one of the reasons). But it’s the gang cutting that’s screwing up my coping saw work. I can get gnat’s-ass close on one board, but with two clamped together, I am afeared.

  5. I’m impressed. Keep up the good work

  6. jimendo says:

    Hey that’s cool! But I thought your bench was red?

  7. Kevin says:

    You mean you didn’t watch Glen’s video on cheating at dovetails? Seriously though I cannot agree more with your comments about the router, I commend your efforts. I think when all the drawers are done you need to find a bottle of George T. Stagg, you’ll have earned it.

    • fitz says:

      I know and have used Glen’s method, and it works great. But I don’t have a band saw. And if I did, it would be in the basement…two flights down. I’m pretty fast with the sawing (it’s the chopping where I need to work on speed); going down to the basement and back up would take far longer!

  8. Potomacker says:

    A commercial dovetail is a term makes me think of a term that I picked up from a professional blacksmith: skill saving device.

  9. SteveM says:

    I am facing a similar dilemma of buying a dovetail jig and router bits or a dovetail saw and cutting about 20 kitchen drawers by hand out of maple. It is nice to see that I’m not the only person crazy enough to think about hand cutting so many dovetails.

  10. Mike H. says:

    I am about ten drawers into a twenty drawer kitchen project. Rather than using pine or polar, I wanted something a little nicer looking and decided on soft maple. However, my lumber dealer didn’t have any in stock so I took a quick look around to find an alternative and ended up with birch. As you may know, birch’s place on the Janka hardness scale falls somewhere between granite and woodpecker lips. If you want to challenge yourself to improve your dovetails and tool sharpening skills, this is the stuff. It has almost no compression of the fibers, so the fit has to be dead on for the joints to look tight. On the up side, you won’t have much problem with the chisel compressing the wood past your scribe line. And, as an added bonus, birch gives you plenty of opportunities to learn how to repair a less than perfect fitting joint. Once you get the hang of dovetails in birch, you should be able to get good results in pine or poplar with your eyes closed. Yes, fibers that compress are your friends.

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