Hand Cut Through Dovetails


Arthur cut half-blind dovetails for his table drawer, but its quite acceptable to use through dovetails with an applied front. This makes it easier to center the drawer front in the opening. The drawer sides, box front, and back are made of white pine; the false front is cherry. You’ll build the drawer box to fit its opening exactly, then plane it to the final fit after assembly. 

Dimensioning the parts 

1. Thickness plane enough white pine to 1/2 in. to make the drawer sides, box front, and back. 

2. Thickness plane stock for the false front to 3/4 in. Make sure that all of the pieces are wider than the height of the drawer opening. 

3. Rip the sides, drawer box front, and false front to width. To eliminate possible errors, mark the width of all of the pieces (which represents the drawer height) directly from the case. Rest one of the drawer sides on the bottom rail and mark where it meets the top of the drawer opening. Set your table saw fence to this distance. 

4. Mark the length of the box front and back pieces. Cut one end of each piece square, then place it against the leg at one side of the drawer opening. Make a mark on each piece at the other end of the drawer opening and crosscut the pieces to length. 

5. Mark the length of the false front directly from the drawer opening, subtract 1/16 in. from the length, and crosscut it to that dimension. Cut the drawer sides squarely to length. 

6. Saw or rout a 1/4-in, by 1/4-in, groove into the drawer sides and front to accept the plywood bottom. Then rip the drawer back to width, which is the distance from the top of a drawer side to the top of the bottom groove. 

This article is excerpted from Tables; Outstanding Projects from America’s Best Craftsmen 

Cutting the dovetail joints 

Hand cutting dovetails imparts a look that’s impossible to duplicate with a router jig. It’s also faster than setting up a jig if you have only one or two drawers to make. The following technique, which I learned from Frank Klausz, is a particularly efficient way to work. The front piece gets three tails; the narrow back needs only one. There’s no need to space the tails evenly; just make sure that the groove in the front piece runs through a tail, not a pin. Cut the pins first, then the tails. 

1. Mark the top edges of all of your drawer parts to identify the front, back, and left and right sides. Also be sure to mark the inside face of each piece. 

2. Set a cutting gauge to the thickness of your drawer stock plus 1/32 in. That builds in a total of 1/16 in. clearance for the drawer fit after you plane the projecting pins when the drawer assembly is complete. 

3. Mark a line completely around the ends of each side piece, registering the gauge fence against the end. 

4. Mark a gauge line across the faces of the front and back pieces, but don’t bother to mark across the edges. The gauge lines will serve as baselines when you cut the pins and tails. 

This article is excerpted from Tables; Outstanding Projects from America’s Best Craftsmen 5. Clamp the box front in your bench vise with the inside of the drawer facing you. Follow the steps in “Cutting the Pins,” sawing down to the gauge line. There’s no need to mark the angles, just saw by eye, cutting the angles somewhere between 8 and 12 degrees. It’s important to hold the saw vertically for these cuts. When you’re done, cut the pins on each end of the drawer back. 

6. Chisel out the waste between the pins. Clamp the boards together on the bench with the narrow end of the pins facing up. Standing behind the work, place the chisel— with its back toward you—about 1/32 in. away from the gauge line in the waste area. Holding the chisel vertical and gripping it near the cut ting edge, give it a couple of smart smacks with a mallet (see “Removing the Pin Waste”) This beginning cut should drive the chisel backward to the gauge line. Make these initial cuts on all of the pin waste shoulders.

Angle the chisel away from you, holding it by its handle. Place the cutting edge on the waste area about halfway between the gauge line and the end of the workpiece. With one tap of the mallet, slice down at an angle toward the end grain. Complete the motion by flicking the waste away with the chisel. Do this for all the pin waste areas. 

8. Deepen the waste cuts by repeating the previous two steps—chopping downward at the gauge line, then making the backward angle cut. When making the gauge line cut, angle the chisel to follow the slope of the pins. When you’re about halfway through both workpieces, flip them over, clamp them, and repeat the process until the waste pieces have totally broken free. 

9. Unclamp the work and dean up any fiber residue in the interior corners. Cut the pins on the other ends of the drawer front and back in the same fashion. 

10. Lay the drawer sides on your bench with their insides facing up and their bottom edges next to each other. Stand the drawer front on end on top of its corresponding drawer side corner, aligning the edges, as shown in “Marking the Tails.” 

This article is excerpted from Tables; Outstanding Projects from America’s Best Craftsmen Marking The Tails 

Stand the pin board on the tail board, aligning mating corners, and trace the outline of the pins onto the tail board with a sharp pencil.

11. With a sharp pencil, transfer the shape of the pins onto the drawer side. Repeat for all corners of the drawer; mark the waste areas. 

12. Clamp the drawer side upright in the vice with the pin outlines facing you. You may want to mark square lines across the end of the workpiece until you get the hang of cut ting squarely by eye. Using a backsaw or bowsaw, cut down to the gauge line on the waste side of your pencil lines. When you’ve sawed all the tails, chisel out the waste just like you did between the pins. 

Assembling the drawer 

1. Dry-fit the drawer, tapping the joints together, then measure for a snug-fitting drawer bottom. Make the bottom, ensuring that its corners are square; then set it aside. 

2. Assemble the drawer box, spreading plenty of glue on all of the mating joint surfaces. A white polyvinyl acetate glue (like Elmer’s) is a better choice than yellow glue for dovetails, because it’s slower setting, allowing you more time to work. Tap the tails firmly into their pin sockets. A hardwood wedge placed on top of a tail between the pins makes a great hammer-tapping block. If your dovetails are snug, there’s no need to clamp the drawer. 

3. Stand the drawer on its front, and slip the drawer bottom into the side grooves, tapping it firmly into the groove in the drawer front. This should square up the drawer, hut check the diagonals just to make sure. If the drawer is out of square, it won’t fit properly. Nail the drawer bottom into the bottom edge of the drawer back.

4. Plane the pins flush to the drawer sides and the tails flush to the drawer front. 

5. Plane the top and bottom edges of the drawer. To avoid tearout, plane around each corner in one smooth motion. 

This article is excerpted from Tables; Outstanding Projects from America’s Best Craftsmen Fitting the drawer 

1. With the rear end of the drawer runners still clamped to the case side, fit the drawer into its opening, planing it a bit if necessary. Ensure that the drawer rides level on both runners, adjusting them up or down, as needed. When the drawer operates smoothly, screw the rear of the runners to the case side. 

2. Turn the drawer pull and screw it to the false drawer front from the inside face. 

3. Next attach the false drawer front by first pushing the drawer box in 3/4 in. from the front of the rails. 

4. Center the box between the runners, shimming if necessary, then clamp the drawer sides to the case sides from above, making sure that the drawer is sitting solidly on its runners. 

5. Test-fit the false front into the drawer opening. You should have about a 1/32 in, gap on each side. Plane the top and bottom edges to achieve the same gap. 

6. Center the false front in its opening using shims and clamp it to the drawer box front. Attach it with screws from inside the drawer. 

7. Install the drawer stops, which are simply screws driven into the hack apron. 

8. Adjust the screws in or out to align the false front flush to the rails. 


1. Attach the top to the carcass, running screws through the cleats and drawer kickers. 

2. Apply your favorite finish. I suggest a couple of coats of linseed oil, waxing it afterward if you want a glossier finish. But under no conditions stain the cherry. You do that and you’re gonna have to answer to Arthur.... 

Planing The Drawer-Box Edges Flush 

The edges of a glued-up drawer-box may not be all flush. To avoid tearout when planing them, turn the plane around the corners in one smooth motion.

This article is excerpted from Tables; Outstanding Projects from America’s Best Craftsmen projects.

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