I wanted to make something with dovetails and also use my new leg vise. I decided to make a frame for a mirror I had laying around using dovetails as the joinery. The wood of choice was Poplar and Cherry for visual interest reasons…
Cutting dovetails is a skill in which needs practice, in my experience anyway. So, I have practiced with pine and some oak, in fact the first dovetails I ever cut were in Jay’s [Bates] shop. He’s actually the one who taught me. I find the process of cutting dovetails an enjoyable one. It gives the piece your working with more meaning, I think, because you’ve invested time to develop the skill it takes to create hand cut joinery. It also looks great. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert or anything, like I said in the VIDEO this was my first project using dovetails as the actual joinery and I think the frame came out pretty good for my first hand tool project. Continue reading below about how I made the frame.

Here’s the video in case you missed the link above.


My thought process on cutting dovetails

The steps I took to get to the completed project are not necessarily the ones you might take. I’ll go over the steps briefly below to give you an idea of my thought process.

The first thing I had to do (off camera) was to mill up the pieces of wood I would be using. You could make a similar project to what I made without the same thickness wood, but in this project I wanted the same thickness. So, after the milling process I determine the location of my dovetail shoulder which determines the size of my dovetail. I basically laid the wood out and visualized what I wanted. I used my marking gauge to indicate the shoulder line, the t-bevel gauge to determine my angles for the dovetail (on both sides) and used a pencil to darken those lines so I could see where to cut. Next, I used my mini square to connect the dovetail lines on the end of the work piece. After this step you can start cutting your dovetails. There are a couple of things to note here: 1) When cutting the tails remember to cut on the outside of the line and 2) When cutting the tail sockets remember to cut inside the line. I got a little carried away when cutting mine and ended up removing too much material in places. That’s why you see gaps and why I need more practice. My thinking was to cut the tails out first, then use the tails to trace out the sockets and cut inside the line leaving a perfect fit. My advice is to go slow and take your time and leave everything a little proud because you can always remove material, but it’s hard to add material. When it came time to assemble the frame I had one joint that was a little too snug and it snapped the end of the socket off. Looking back I should have removed just a tiny bit of material to relieve some of the pressure. In the end, it all worked out and looks great for a first time dovetail project.

I recently traveled out of town for some training and the instructor was from NYC. When asked about certain things he would tell us “ya know there’s a running joke on the streets of New York when someone would ask you how to get to Carnegie Hall, you say practice, practice, practice”.

I believe that rings true in a lot of things, but it certainly does for me when cutting dovetails.

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37 COMMENTS

  1. Love that you were showing the defects. I’ve been wanting to try dovetails for a while and I may start with something like this.

  2. I think I could modify this a little bit and use a dry erase board for something my daughter is wanting done. I will share the pics when I get it done…

  3. I need a large router bit to do this now. I don’t have quality hand tools capable of such a task, and no where near the confidence to try it wothout power tools. πŸ™‚

    • Are you referring to the rabbits on the back or the overall project in general? If you’re talking about the rabbits you could just cut them on the table saw. Your cuts would show on the sides unless you start and stop the cut like I did with the router.

  4. I was actually referring to the large dovetails on the main frame. πŸ™‚
    I really need to invest in some nice hand tools… marking gauges, chisels and hand saws.

  5. I love that you showed your mistakes and how you’re learning from them. It helps others learn as well as feel human about our own mistakes and loose joints! πŸ™‚

  6. I really need to practice my dovetails. I don’t have a good bench/workspace for hand tools and that makes it difficult. But that’s just an excuse! Thanks for the good content. Keep it coming!

    • I would love to have a traditional style workbench, but right now I just don’t have the space. Adding the leg vise to my existing bench has been so useful. Maybe you have a place to add a leg vise to get started. Thanks!

  7. I plan on getting into hand cut dovetail joinery soon. I am slowly starting to acquire the tools necessary. I’ve got two Stanley bench plans I need to restore. I’ve got a set of 3 chisels from Lowes. I need to “initialize” and sharpen them. Still need a saw, a mallet, and maybe a dove tail guide.
    I appreciate this video because you are showing us how much hard work that this skill needs. It wont happen overnight. I enjoy watching your videos.

    • It’s satisfying when you finish your first set of dovetails (pretty or not) just knowing you’re capable of creating a hand cut joint. Good luck with your progress and keep us posted. Thanks for the support and kind words.

  8. I love this piece. My girlfriend has been wanting a mirror for the bedroom to do make up and her hair with and I wanted to make her one but couldn’t figure out how I was going to do it. This just gave me alot of creative ideas. Thank you Shawn and I’m sure my dove tail is going to need some real work and practice lol. I thought yours turned out good.

  9. I like that you left the mistakes in. It’s encouraging to us absolute beginners to know that everybody makes mistakes when they’re learning something new.
    Do your best and let the learning, not the crafted item, be the product.
    Thanks for sharing your talent.

    • Thanks! It definitely was a fun project and the bold look of the dovetails makes this frame an interesting one. Good luck!

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