Dovetail Fixes (If You Must)


Yes, you can see a shim here if you look really closely…but no one other than you will likely notice (unless, of course, you point it out…as all woodworkers seem compelled to do.)

I’m scheduled to teach myriad classes next year both at Lost Art Press and around the country ( at Port Townsend School of Woodworking, Highland Woodworking, Lie-Nielsen Toolworks – that one will be posted soon). Almost all of them involve dovetails. Plus, I’ve received a couple of questions in the last week or two concerning how to fix “bad” dovetails. And Christopher Schwarz is now in the glue-up stage of a multi-case dovetailed project, and I’ve parts for four dovetailed drawers on my bench at this very moment (which I plan to cut later today and tomorrow…to clear off my bench before this weekend’s class!)


Which is to say I (just about always) have dovetails on the brain.

So, below is my bullet-point list of talking points for dovetails fixes

Baseline Error Fixes
1. Try to clamp it out. Blocks on the tails, squirt a runny glue in there (white glue, Old Brown Glue, West System epoxy) then clamp the snot out of it.
2. Bishoping (if tails/pins are 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, try to break out the fibers when planing…in the correct direction).
4. White glue & sandpaper.
5. For big gaps, shims (in same species and grain direction). Glue them in, them flush when the glue dries.)
6. 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.
2. Kerf through joint for even gap, then wedge.
3. 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. 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.

“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 and everyone else who’s ever talked about the joint

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dovetail Fixes (If You Must)

  1. Duane says:

    Thats for sure, I use a mix of sawdust and glue to fill in any gaps then sand flat or use wedges and live with the results. Anyway once the linseed oil is put on mistakes don’t look so bad, alittle bit of finish hides a myriad of mistakes

  2. hgordon4 says:

    Great summary of fixes for reference. Thanks Megan!

  3. J.C. says:

    Hilarious! Love the Durham’s Water Putty and paint fix. LOL I should send a pic of my worst dovetails. They were committed on my workbench. I “celebrated” them by gluing in wedges all around. One of my friends asked if I used an Incra Jig. Hooha!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s