Dovetail Class Kit to the Baking Rescue

toothpicksYesterday, I reached into the cabinet for toothpicks so I could test the cake doneness for my annual Thanksgiving dinner dessert, a raspberry and marsala trifle. But I was out of toothpicks. Eek! Then I remembered I have some in my tool chest – they’re part of my “dovetail fixes kit” for a class I give on the subject, coupled with a bunch of pictures of period dovetails that look like crap but have held a joint together for 100+ years. In short, my primary message is that if your dovetails aren’t altogether Krenovian: Live with it; the build will (likely) stay together.

But if you simply must fix an “error,” read on.

“Cabinetmakers have been hiding dovetail mistakes from rich people for centuries.”
— the guy who taught Schwarz to cut dovetails

“Everyone who has ever cut a dovetail has &*%^ed up a dovetail.”
— Me & everyone else who’s ever talked about the joint

Baseline “Error” Fixes
1. Try to clamp it out. Put blocks on the tails, squirt a runny glue in there (white glue, West System epoxy) then clamp the snot out of it.
2. Bishoping (works only if the tails/pins are a bit proud). Wet the tail/pin, then tap gently with ball-peen hammer to mushroom it a little. Don’t peen below carcase surface.
3. Controlled spelching. That is, use a block plane to plane toward the baseline to consciously break out a bit of the grain to fill the gap(s).
4. White glue & sandpaper (while the glue is wet).
5. For big gaps, glue in shims, then flush after glue is dry.
6. Fix with Durham’s Water Putty, then paint.
7. Live with it; the build will (likely) stay together.

Splay “Error” Fixes
1. Kerf through middle of tail/pin then wedge it in the kerf. (Use contrasting wood and call it a design feature.)
2. Wedge the gaps.
3. Fix with Durham’s Water Putty, then paint.
4. Live with it; the build will (likely) stay together.

(Other) Errant Sawing Fixes
1. Cross the baseline? Glue in a flat or round toothpick. Flush. Color w/Sharpie.
2. Bite into a pin or tail while coping? See above.
3. Saw on the wrong side of your line? Squeeze yellow glue into the joint (floss can help) and tape it tightly to the adjacent wood. Let it dry, re-mark the cut, then cut again…on the correct side of the line.
4. Live with it; the build will (likely) stay together.

Assembly “Error” Fix
1. Crushed tail corner? Glue in a flat or round toothpick. Flush. Color w/Sharpie.
3. Live with it; the build will stay (likely) together.


Note: Ignore what the recipe says about one cake; always make two … you’ll need at least three more slices than can reasonably had from but one. And the extra makes a delightful Thanksgiving day breakfast.




About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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9 Responses to Dovetail Class Kit to the Baking Rescue

  1. John says:

    Dovetails? What dovetails? I’ll take dessert, please!

  2. claydeforge says:

    I always enjoy your onsite and writing. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving!

    Peace and Harmony,

    Clay DeForge

  3. Are you sending out invitations?

  4. J.C. says:

    The dovetails on my bench are squarely in the splay area fixes. I used end-grain wedges to fill the gaps and voila, the designer’s touch. LOL Hope your holiday was wonderful. Cheers, Fitz!

  5. Ed Clarke says:

    I hate to ask this as it’s not exactly a dovetail question but… in my tool chest I made a drawer almost exactly like the one in the first picture above (with the toothpicks). The damned thing persists in jamming (left back, right front or right back, left front) into the side of the chest unless I pull the drawer exactly evenly. How the heck do I fix this? Slather on wax/slippit/etc. and hope for the best? Replace the drawer and make it long enough to barely fit a business card in there?

    • fitz says:

      Assuming the case and the drawer are square, yep – you probably have too much wiggle room. I’d try waxing the sides first…but when that doesn’t work… I don’t think you have to remake the tray for a tool chest. Were it me, I’d just glue on a thin piece (i.e. basically, a strip of veneer) at the bottom side (or on both sides if you’re a balanced sort) that’s just thick enough for a snug fit. Or glue strips to the runners.

      Or, if the bottoms are nailed on, simply take them off and replace the bottoms, allowing them to hang out on either side just enough (that’s how mine are built).

      • Ed Clarke says:

        So I found a very thin (0.048 inch x 3/4 inch x 30 inch) scrap on the floor behind my table saw. I cut it to length with a jack knife and slipped it between my drawer and the side of the chest. The drawer now slides perfectly. The scrap isn’t glued as it’s soft pine and needs to be replaced. I’ll probably go with a thin piece of oak that’s cut on purpose.

        Who would have thought that a twentieth of an inch would make such a difference?

  6. I can generally “fix” dovetails by taking my glasses off. They look just fine that way.

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