Narrow Display Cabinet

Try your hand at revered  joinery while creating this distinctive showcase

This display cabinet may be relatively small in stature, but its design incorporates one of the pinnacles of the woodworker’s craft: hand-cut dovetail joints. For many woodworkers, the hand-cut dovetail is seen as a rite of passage, and for good reason. The joint requires a raft of hand skills, including careful layout, accurate sawing, and skillful chisel work. While the joint may seem intimidating at first, with a little practice and the right tools (See page 40), you’ll soon be able to add this feather to your cap. 

To build the cabinet as shown, you’ll need to cut two kinds of dovetails. The corners of the cabinet are joined with through dovetails—those visible on both outside faces of the joint. The drawer front is attached to the drawer sides with half-blind dovetails, which show only on the side of the drawer, not its face. The techniques used for cutting both forms of the joint are similar, but with a few key differences, as I’ll explain.

Order of Work

  • Lay out and cut the pins
  • Lay out and cut the tails
  • Dado for the shelves
  • Assemble case
  • Make the drawer
  • Sand and finish

Straightforward construction with subtle curves

Classic case construction is the name of the game here. Through dovetails at the four corners join the sides to the top and the bottom, while the shelves are housed in stopped dados. A gentle curve softens the front and adds visual interest. The drawer front is also curved to match the shelves, and features a turned pull. The cabinet shown here is made of cherry, finished with wiping varnish.

Don’t take my word...

Ask any twelve woodworks how they cut dovetails and you’re likely to get thirteen or fourteen different answers. And each of those answers will be touted as “the best.” Tails first! No, pins first! Dozuki saw? Pistol grip saw? Gent’s saw? Whatever the answer, it probably is the best way for that particular woodworker. The key is to find what works best for you. Investigate different approaches, try various techniques, and experiment. If you don’t do it the way I do, I won’t be offended. Heck, I may even try your technique to see if it saves me some time. No matter what techniques you use, the real key is to practice. Even after nearly 40 years of woodworking, I still make a few warm up cuts before sawing to my layout lines. 

Lay out the pins

Mill the stock for the top, bottom, and sides to the sizes specified in the drawing on page 33. Lay out the evenly spaced pins on the ends of the top and bottom, remembering to account for the front curves. As you mark the ends of the pieces, offset the pins on one end to the left and on the other end to the right. Note that dovetails should always start and stop with a half-pin. This maximizes the joint’s ability to resist failure due to warpage. For this project, I made the narrow part of the pins 1/4" wide and used 9° for the dovetail angle. For more on dovetail geometry see Dovetail Angles below.

Lay out the angles. Lay out the narrow part of the pins on the upper face of the top and the lower face of the bottom, spacing them as shown on page 32. Set a T-bevel to your dovetail angle and extend lines across the ends of the pieces to lay out the pins. 
Extend the cut lines. Once the angles are drawn, use a square to extend the lines from the board’s end to the shoulder baseline. 

Dovetail Angles

Dovetail angles can be measured in degrees or as a ratio. When expressed in degrees, that number usually states how far off of 90° the angle is. Typical measures range from 5-20° with steeper angles (5-10°) used for hardwoods and shallower angles (9-20°) for softwoods. However, rather than deal with protractors, many woodworkers prefer to set their angles according to a ratio. Typical ratios used are 1:6 for softwoods (about 10°) and 1:8 for hardwoods (about 7°). 

Cut the pins

With all the pins laid out, the next steps are to cut along your layout lines, and then to remove the waste in between them. In many ways, cutting pins is as simple as being able to saw straight. Secure the piece vertically in a vise with the shoulder line no more than an inch above the bench top to minimize vibration from the saw. Feel free to add a few extra lines in the waste areas to get warmed up. Be sure to cut right to (but not past) the shoulder baseline on both sides of the pieces. Then stack the pieces, clamp them to your bench top, and cut away the waste with a 1" chisel. Position them directly above a workbench leg if possible to best back up your mallet blows.

Start chopping out the waste. Locate a 1" chisel vertically about 1⁄16" in front of the shoulder baseline, and rap it with a mallet to drive it in about 1⁄16". Were you to start cutting right at the baseline, the chisel’s bevel would drive the tool backwards past the line. Make this cut between all the pins, shifting the chisel sideways as necessary to cut all the way across the waste areas.

Pop out the chips. To pop the chips free, drive your chisel into the waste areas from the boards’ ends. Alternate vertical and horizontal cuts until you have cleared away about 1⁄8"-3⁄16" of the waste material from each space. 

Now cut the shoulder. With the top layer of waste removed, you should now be able to make vertical cuts right along the shoulder baseline without fear of overcutting. Angle the chisel along the edges to avoid driving it into the pins. Once you have established a clear, flat shoulder, angle the chisel on the vertical cuts to undercut the center part of the tail socket. 
Flip and repeat. Having cut halfway through from the first side, turn the boards over and repeat the process from the other side. Removing the waste in this manner is why you may hear this whole process referred to as “chopping” dovetails. 

Lay out the tails

Start by ensuring the pins are square to the end of the board, paring them if necessary. Scribe shoulder baselines on the sides with your marking gauge, setting the gauge to slightly more than the thickness of the top and bottom pieces. This time, scribe across both edges as well as the faces, and mark the pieces for assembly orientation. Trace the pins onto their mating corners with a marking knife, then extend the knife lines across the ends of the pieces. 

Scribe and mark. After scribing the shoulder baselines, arrange the parts on your bench in their desired assembly orientation, and letter the inside faces of each joint at the back corner for easy identification. 

Set up a back stop. Prepare a 1-1⁄2 × 1-1⁄2" back stop from an 8" dead-straight length of dense hardwood such as ash. Make sure the faces and ends are accurately squared. Clamp each side in turn to your bench with the back stop adjacent to the shoulder baseline.

Trace the pins. Clamp the mating pin board in place with its back edge aligned with the back edge of the tail board and its inside face against the back stop. Trace the pins with a knife. While you can make any thin knife work, a true marking knife is easier to use because you can register its flat face against the pin’s cheek. 

Knife across. Finish the layout by extending the knife lines across the end of the tail board, guiding the cuts with a square. 

Cut the tails

Cutting the tails is a lot like cutting the pins except that, after sawing the joint cheeks, I use a fretsaw to remove most of the waste in between before paring to the baseline. Saw along the waste side of the knife lines until you reach the shoulder baselines, and then cut away the little trapezoid-shaped waste areas, staying 1/16" away from the shoulder baselines. Pare right to the baselines with a narrow chisel. 

Saw first. Instead of chopping out the majority of the waste, I saw across the pin sockets with a fret saw. I don’t take this approach when cutting the pins because the angle at each end of the cut is troublesome to navigate. 
Trim to the shoulders. Lightly chop right to the shoulder scribeline with a narrow chisel. Be careful not to mar the inside corners with the chisel’s sides.

Tap, look, and listen. Gently drive the joint together with a mallet, using a piece of scrap to protect the pieces. Look for gaps, and listen carefully as the pieces slide together. A solid, dull thud indicates a properly seated joint, while a hollow-sounding tap indicates a too-tight fit. A feeling of resistance in a gapped section also means you have some paring to do. 

Add the shelves

Mill the shelves to the size specified on page 33. Bandsaw the curves along the front edges of the top and bottom as well as the shelves, and sand to remove the saw marks and fair the curves. Bevel the front edges of the sides to align with the curves. Also cut a groove for the back along the rear edges of the top, bottom, and sides. The shelves are housed in stopped dados routed across the sides. Rout the dados first, then create the tongues as shown. Finally, notch the front edges of the shelves to fit as shown. 

Create the tongues. Using a 1⁄4" wide dado blade, saw rabbets on the ends of the shelves to create tongues to fit the dados in the sides. Make sure that the rabbet shoulder-to-shoulder distance exactly matches the baseline-to-baseline distance on the case top and bottom. 
Notch the front corners. Tuck each shelf in its dado, sliding it as far forward as possible, and mark for the tongue offset. Then cut away the front end of the tongue at the rabbet shoulder as shown here.

Glue Up

Sand the shelves and the inside surfaces of the cabinet parts through 220 grit. Do a dry-clamp to make sure everything fits as it should. To aid in applying firm clamp pressure to the dovetails, make notched clamp blocks as shown. These have spaces cut to accommodate the slight protrusions of the pins and tails. Apply glue to the mating surfaces and clamp the cabinet together. Once the glue sets, sand the outside of the cabinet and glue the cabinet cleat in place. 

Make the Drawer

The drawer is also dovetailed together. Mill the parts to the sizes specified on page 32. The joints at the back of the drawer are through dovetails. Other than the spacing, they are cut in the same way you cut the joints for the cabinet. The front joints are half-blind dovetails. As shown, cutting the pins for these joints requires a slightly different approach than cutting pins for though dovetails. Cut all the joints, then rout the groove for the bottom in the front and sides. Drill the hole for the pull where shown on page 33 before gluing the drawer together. After the glue dries, fit it to its opening and trace the curves onto the front. Shape the front on the bandsaw and sand away the saw marks. 

Cut to the scribe lines. After laying out the pins with a T-bevel and square, saw along your layout lines until the cuts touch the shoulder baselines on the end and face of the front. 
Chop chop. Clear the waste from between the pins with a chisel. Make the initial vertical cuts just in front of the shoulder baseline. As the sockets deepen, you’ll have to use a chisel to deepen the saw cuts along the sides of the pins as you go. 

Lay out the tails. Carefully hold the front in position along the shoulder baseline on the sides and trace inside the pin sockets to lay out the tails. You won’t be able to use a back stop here as it would block access to the sockets. Cut the tails and fit the joints as you did with the cabinet. 

Make the drawer pull and apply finish

As shown, the drawer pull is turned on a lathe. After the pull is shaped, glue it into its hole. Finish the cabinet as desired. I used several coats of a wiping varnish on all the exposed surfaces, rubbing out the finish with 0000 steel wool between coats. For the inside of the drawer, however, I opted to use shellac. I prefer the sweet smell of shellac to the odor of other finishes for drawer interiors. 

Turn to shape. Turn the pull round between centers. Shape a tenon on one end, then switch to a jam chuck (simply a block of wood with a hole in one face). Press the pull into the hole and finish turning it to shape. (See onlineEXTRAS for full-size pull profile.)
Wipe on, wipe off. With wiped on finishes, the key to getting a smooth, even surface is to wipe on a generous coat to make sure the finish covers all the bare wood and then wipe off the excess before it has a chance to harden. Be sure to dispose of all oily rags properly to avoid the chance of fire. 
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