Making Dovetail Joints Using Hand Tools at ninety

Last updated: 4 October 2019

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Working at my bench 4 October 2019

I recently undertook to make some small wooden boxes utilizing dovetail joints. I had not made any of these joints using hand tools for many years. I couldn't have used power tools if I had wanted to for we live in a town home retirement community where the units are very close to each other and loud noises of any kind are much frowned upon. A few practice joints brought home to me just how difficult it has become for me to see layout lines very clearly or observe how a saw blade is following them - my eyesight/vision has degenerated considerably and is poor, even when wearing corrective or magnifying glasses. I solved this problem by prominently scoring layout lines using a sharp marking knife then enhancing their visibility using a .5mm mechanical pencil.

Another annoying physical problem that I discovered is having to do just about all my work while seated on my wheeled walker due to severe lower leg edema and diabetic foot neuropathy. This is particularly bothersome for me - especially when using saws - the position I now use while seated is much different from the way I was taught as a young man (standing with left leg forward, relaxed and well balanced) and that I have used for nigh on eighty years, and I think I do not saw quite as straight or as accurately as I did while standing.

I started to use the methodology I was taught as an apprentice to produce my current dovetail joints as illustrated below:
1. Laying out and cutting tails first.
2. Removing waste using a dovetail saw and paring chisels - working half way from one side and then from the other (to avoid tear-out).
3. Using finished tail boards to layout (by transfer) pin boards and cutting out the pins in the same manner as the tails.

I have recently started using a coping saw to remove most of the waste as this seems to be a popular technique these days. Although I am not concerned with making joints quickly these days I do like the ease with which the waste is removed using this methodology. I do not compromise the saw kerf - rather saw diagonally from the top of one saw kerf to the bottom of the other as I illustrate below. I then saw across close to the base line and remove the small amount of remaining waste using a chisel in the customary fashion. Importance of the coping saw blade - Pegas.

I really enjoy sharpening and honing my chisels and plane irons using diamond stones. As a youngster I was taught to grind primary bevels using a foot treadle operated grindstone with a water trough and hone edges free-hand using oil stones. This was my first experience using diamond stones and I was able to produce nice and sharp cutting edges on my chisels using a standard honing guide with them. I like the clean work area their use provides - I use the stones dry and wipe the surfaces clean using a rag soaked in warm water containing a little dishwashing detergent after each use.

Current conventional wisdom seems to be to use a low-angle block plane such as a Stanley No. 9 1/2 or No. 60 1/2 to dress-up assembled dovetail joints. However I mostly use a No. 203 Stanley block plane - it is the model that my boyhood school woodworking teacher (Mr. Lord, 1940) used to teach his students (including me) how to set-up and use metal block planes - besides, I love it's look and feel. I own several of these planes and rotate their use, but my favorite one is an original first issue 1912 model that I use most.

I am now enjoying woodworking more than I ever have.


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Present day bench end addition (now primary work area) with tools
for making dovetail joints - wheeled walker in working position.
I do all my chisel work on the adjacent side bench

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Base line chisel ledge being formed
(no mallet use - palm of left hand used instead).
Diamond stone with sharpening guide to right

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Base line chisel ledge being deepened

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Waste being pared away (no mallet use)
chisel ledge is deepened after each paring
(until approx. half wood thickness)

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Cleaning up assembled dovetail joint using
Stanley No. 203 Block plane (circa. 1912 production)

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Finished and dressed-up dovetail joint (home-made jig used)

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Pedal operated water trough grindstone
(slow, but precluded over heating metal)

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