Hand-Cut Dovetails General Woodworking

Occasionally I get comments on my videos that typically go like this: “Wish I had a shop full of tools like that, then I could do those things” or “Real craftsman can do that using hand tools only”. Often, the implication is that the ability to build the projects comes with the machines. Granted, most of these comments are from people that don’t know any better, but a few come from the hand tool snob set. These are guys that have found religion in what they believe to be the purest form of woodworking: using hand tools only. That’s not to say that they actually do (or have done) anything with hand tool, just that they believe there is no real talent required to use power tools.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against hand tools or using them exclusively, but I do find the attitude it fosters in some people to be somewhat annoying. Along with that, there is an ever growing snobbery about the tools themselves, and how the best results are only achievable with the best, most expensive equipment. Of course, this applies to both hand and power tools.
Having some fairly extensive experience with the pursuit of high quality audio, I can draw a parallel to that worlds “audiophile”. The true “toolphile” may not get a lot done, but has a pristine collection of the finest tools to do the project, and is quick to point out the shortcomings of the lower cost alternatives.

More or less on a whim, I thought it would be interesting to do what many consider a difficult joint using just a hacksaw and 1/4″ chisel. This started as one of my one day per week in the workshop idea, but turned into a project when I decided that I might as well document it with pictures and video.

Let me say this up front: I didn’t do this to show off what a great woodworker I am. This is, believe it or not, my first ever hand-cut dovetail joint. Basically, I’ve never had a reason to waste my time doing one before. I’ve made plenty of dovetails, but did them the easy way, with a router.
No, this is more about showing that what most people don’t have to get things done is not that shop full of tools, it’s desire and determination. Anyone that truly wants to do something will find a way, work with what’s available, and not fall back on excuses. It’s also about how the magic of woodworking is not in the tool, it’s in the hands of whoever uses them, whether it’s the most expensive table saw, or just a lowly hacksaw.

My tool selection for the project:

tools needed to hand-cut a dovetail joint - hacksaw, square, chisel, pencil
board for cutting dovetail joint

The material. Actually, just a board that was removed from the wall in my house reno. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s balsam fir.

Carefully cutting to the line with the hacksaw:

hand-cutting a board with a hacksaw
checking the end of a board for square

Checking the cut to make sure it’s square.

Freehand layout of the dovetails:

layout of dovetails with a pencil
dovetail layout on board

I didn’t bother to use an angle gauge or anything fancy.

Cutting the tails:

hand cut of dovetail joint with hacksaw

The blade is a 24 tpi, about $4. The key is to get enough tension, and the frame is good quality and I’ve had it for several years. Pretty sure I paid $15 for it at the time.

All the cutting done, the “x” marks the areas than needs to be removed:

dovetail joint marked for chisel
dovetail joint cut with chisel

Starting from one side with the chisel ($10, a few years ago) and working my way down to about the halfway point.

I then flip the piece over and continue on the other side:

dovetail joint cut with chisel
half a complete dovetail joint

Eventually, all of the material is removed.

With the tails cut, I can use that to lay out the pins:

marking a dovetail joint
dovetail pins

Basically the same procedure here: cut and chip out the waste.

After some fine tuning and a dry fit, I can get the joint glued up:

glue dowvtail joint
clamping a dovetail joint

And clamped.

After the glue had a few hours to dry, I removed the clamp to reveal a tight fitting joint:

unsanded dovetail joint
sanded dovetail joint

Some work with the block plane to flush it up, and hand sanding with my sanding block to smooth it out.

The finished joint with a coat of linseed oil to bring out the natural beauty of the wood:

dovetail joint finished