Traditional Dovetailed Drawer: Hand Tool Tutorial

It’s not too uncommon for someone to ask me about dovetails and the process it takes to cut them.  I thought this would be a good time to document the steps I use, these are the same whether they’re for a small drawer or box or for a large piece of furniture like my armoire.  Before I start though there’s something Jamie from Wooditis said a long time ago that stuck with me, she said: “Ask 10 woodworkers the same question and you’ll get 12 different answers”!  That is so true, this method works for me and I’m open to any comments or questions you may have.

This drawer is about 2/34″ tall by 7 1/2″ wide and 6 3/4″ deep and will go into a small box.   The side and back are 5/16″ Cherry, the front is 1/2″ Australian Lacewood, and the bottom is 1/8″ Birch plywood.  My habit is to cut the pieces longer than needed, insurance in case things go bad!  Once the joinery is cut then I’ll cut to exact size.  I begin by cutting grooves in the sides and front with a small plow plane for the bottom.

Doing the groove first helps you identify the inside bottom of each piece and also helps when laying out your dovetails so the tail conceals the groove.  The Stanley 140 trick helps give the inside of the drawer a finished appearance.  In the past I would cut this with a rip blade on the table saw by holding the side vertically against the rip fence, the skewed rabbet plane makes this operation much safer!  Remember to do a left and right side.

I’m a “tails first” dovetailer and my preference is to cut both sides at the same time.  I clamp them together so they stay in the same position when I flip the boards around.  These are drawn on with pencil, it’s a good idea to flip the boards around so you can see the line when sawing.  After they’re cut I cut the outside shoulders first, just my habit.

Before making the cut for the shoulder a chisel is used to create a small notch directly on the scribed line, you’ll see that this makes it easier to start your saw.  When removing waste between the tails I  begin with a chiseled  notch right on the scribed line.  I only use chisels, no coping saw.  This notch removes some wood in the waste area.  Picture the bevel on the chisel — as the cut gets deeper the chisel will be pushed back by the wood in front of it.  My first cuts will be 90° and then it’s okay to slightly undercut which will make it easier to fit the joint.  Experiment with that and you’ll see what I mean.

Holding Fixture for transferring tail layout

Now comes the pin board or drawer front in this case.  I choose Australian Lacewood for this and honestly, it’s like cutting concrete!  The time proven method is to support the board on your plane, line up the pieces and scribe the lines.  It’s essentially an L-shaped piece with a fence on one side.  That fence aligns the side and front squarely.  Then the step cut at the front of the side locks tightly for scribing.  Always scribe rather then using a pencil, the scribed line gives you something to register your chisel into.   Cutting half blind  dovetails is process you need to practice and discover for yourself how to manipulate your chisels and saws.  Important of course to mark what needs to be removed and cut on the waste side.  Take your time and remember it’s hard to replace wood if you go too far!  It’s all a learning experience and I keep on learning for sure!

For a drawer this small I’m putting a straight dado in the sides for the back.  For larger drawers in a piece of furniture it’s better to cut a sliding dovetail to stabilize the back.  Decided to use a backsaw, chisels, and my old Stanley 271 Router.  I use the router to scribe the line for the depth on the edge.

For a traditional drawer with a solid wood bottom the grain should run from front to back and it should be fastened so that it can move with the seasons.  For this, with a 1/8″ Birch plywood bottom that’s not a concern.  Now that the drawer is together (Old Brown Glue) the fitting process begins.  That’s a trial and error process and way to involved to write up!

Have fun with the process, use any project as an excuse to hone your skills.  Spending time in your shop with your tools is a great way to take your mind away from the pandemic, politics, and the unrest in our world — John





About woodworksbyjohn

I'm a retired woodshop teacher. I build one of a kind furniture pieces and custom picture frames. You can see some of my currently available work, boxes, carvings through my Etsy store: Contact me about your project -- always up for the challenge of unique work.
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1 Response to Traditional Dovetailed Drawer: Hand Tool Tutorial

  1. Michael A Mays says:

    Thanks’ John for the diversion for today

    Liked by 2 people

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