Nothing exemplifies handmade furniture quite like hand-cut dovetails. But, learning to cut perfectly fitting dovetails takes lots of practice. The biggest challenge is being able to saw the matching angles on the tail and pin boards. These need to be perfectly straight, at the same consistent angle, and dead square.
A dovetail guide will not only help you cut perfect dovetails, but you’ll be able to cut them considerably faster, with less effort.
Barron Dovetail Guides are available in 5 popular dovetail ratios (with their corresponding approximate angles): 1:4 (14°), 1:5 (11°), 1:6 (9.5°), 1:7 (8°), and 1:8 (7°), to accommodate whatever angle you find most visually appealing. The ratio is milled onto the top of the guide. Some woodworkers like to use multiple dovetail angles, depending on the type of lumber and the kind of project they’re working on. These guides are conveniently colour coded to make it easier to distinguish which guide you are using. I tested the 1:6, or 9.5° guide. Normally I use a 12° angle (more or less a 1:4.7 ratio), but the visual disparity between a 9.5° and 12° angle is, in my view, fairly insignificant.
While my primary focus was testing the Barron Dovetail Guide, David was kind enough to send me a sample of the saw that he recommends using with the guide – the Japanese made Gyochucho #372. This is a traditional dozuki saw that has a super thin (about .0156″ thick) blade, approximately 2″ by 9-1/2″. The blade fits into a rigid metal spline that keeps it from buckling. The spline slips into a removable 12″ cane wrapped wood handle that is very pleasing to the hand.
The 19 TPI blade has impulse hardened teeth cut in a rip tooth configuration with an almost indiscernible set, probably around .005″. Impulse hardening, a process in which an electrical current is applied to the teeth, makes them exceptionally durable, so this saw should last for years – unless you cut dovetails by the hundreds daily.
Of course, you don’t have to use a Gyochucho saw with this dovetail guide. But, you will want to use a fine tooth saw with minimal set. In the photo above you can see the difference between a typical Western dovetail saw (in this case a 20 TPI Veritas Fine Cut Dovetail) and the Gyochucho. I found that the thinner blade on the Japanese saw makes for effortless cutting, the kerf is very thin and very clean, and the cuts are easier to start than with a western saw.
You’ll also need a sharp, marking knife, preferably with a thin, narrowish blade, a fret or coping saw, and a marking gauge. You can get very nice marking knives from Blue Spruce Toolworks, Czeck Edge, and from David Barron. My preference is for a fret saw, as I find the slimmer blades make a cleaner cut. You can pick up a standard fret or coping saw from most hardware stores, or you can get a Knew Concepts – the reputed king of fret saws – from Lee Valley. Both Glen Drake and Lee Valley make wheel type marking gauges, but if you prefer a gauge with a knife style cutter, David Barron makes a gorgeous Macssar ebony version.
Barron Dovetail Guides are CNC milled from anodized aluminum. Overall they measure 1-3/4″ wide by 2-3/8″ long on both the square and tapered arms. High strength magnets are embedded into each side of the guide – these hold the saw at the right angle as you cut the pins and tails. The magnets are slightly recessed, and covered with low-friction plastic pads to better help glide the saw across the face of the guide, yet prevent abrasion to both the guide and the saw blade. David thoughtfully provides a replacement set of plastic pads, as eventually they’ll wear out. However, they should last quite a while – I’ve been using the guide for over six weeks and the pads are still in very good condition.
There are two abrasive pads attached to the base of the guide – these make it much easier to hold the guide securely onto your stock without needing to clamp the guide in-place. Initially I thought that the guide would wander about in use, but not so. A modicum of downward hand pressure is all it takes.
The beauty of this guide is that it makes the saw cut perfectly straight, at the same consistent angle, and dead square. All you need to do is cut to the dovetail base layout line, saw out the waste between pins and tails, and then chop to the layout line. I was very surprised at how quickly I cut my first set of dovetails with this guide, and how well they turned out. The process, as you’ll see below, is quick, simple, and easy. I’ll highlight just the main features, as David has produced a detailed DVD that shows you how to cut dovetails using his guide (more at the end of this review).
The first step is to mark out the dovetail base lines on the pin and tail boards. You only need to run the lines around the sides of the tail boards (as you’ll be cutting out the half pins).
I was taught to step out the pin sockets on the tail board using dividers, then use a square to lay out pin lines across the end of the board, and finally to extend the lines down the face of the board to the base line, using a sliding bevel.
The Barron Dovetail Guide simplifies all that – just eyeball the layout for the pin lines and pencil them in freehand. If you’re off a micrometer or so, only someone with crosshairs in their eyeballs will be able to tell the difference. In the photo above the lines are about 1/8″ apart.
With the angled end of the guide pointing downward, cut down to the base line. I make a practice of positioning the saw so that I cut on the waste side of the line. However, don’t worry if you cut either side of the line a tad – joint tightness comes into play when you cut out the tail sockets on the pin board.
David recommends that you cut all the layout lines that are oriented in the same direction (towards the left). Then turn the board 180-degrees and cut the remaining layout lines. This way you’re always cutting in the same orientation.
It’s quite easy to hold the guide firmly in place by exerting downward pressure with your forefinger, while pressing the base of the guide against the stock with your thumb.
To cut the half pins and the three pin sockets in the photo above took under a minute and a half. The main thing to watch out for is not to saw past the base layout line.
If you’ve not sawn out pin sockets with a fret saw before, it might seem a bit daunting. However, just take your time, and cut slightly above the base line. You’ll trim the balance of the waste out with a chisel. Keep the outside (show) face of the board towards yourself when sawing as you’ll be less exasperated if you cut on or slightly over the line on the inside (non show) face of the board. You’ll cut the half pins with the dovetail saw, not with the fret saw.
Because the bulk of the pin sockets was sawn out, you only need to do a minimal amount of paring to clean the sockets up to the base line. On a 3/8″ board as shown in the photo above, two or three smart taps with a chisel halfway through each side of the board does the trick. Tilt the chisel by a degree or two so that you’re undercutting slightly. You can use a chisel to clean up the inside shoulders of the socket (as David does), or trim any errant fibres with a slim, sharp knife, as I do.
You’ll really need to use chisels with sufficiently beveled edges for this, else you’ll damage the sides of the sockets. Not all ‘bevel edged’ chisels have enough of a slope to prevent damage to socket walls. Chisels that work well for dovetail work are available from Stanley, Blue Spruce Toolworks, Lie-Nielsen, and Lee Valley.
The tail board is the template for the pin board. Use a sharp marking knife to transfer the layout lines to the end of the pin board. Score the lines a few times to ensure that they’ll be more clearly visible.
I’ve always fiddled with a block of wood under the tail board to position it over the pin board, and then fiddled a bit more to ensure that the ends of the tails are flush with the pin board. David has designed a highly functional alignment board that simplifies this whole process (more at the end of this review).
To cut the tail sockets on the pin board you orient the guide so that its square end is now pointing downward. Cut all the layout lines that are oriented in the same direction (towards the left). Then turn the board 180-degrees, turn the guide 180-degrees as well (photo to the right, above), and cut the remaining layout lines (towards the right). It’s important here to cut just up to the layout lines to ensure a snug fit. As for the pin sockets, you then saw out the waste and pare to the base line.
While good lighting is important when making any joinery cut, it’s especially important here. If you cut too far into the line your dovetails will be loose. Even though there are ways to ‘fill in’ loose joints, I recommend that you cut your losses, and start afresh.
Cutting the tail sockets takes longer than cutting the pin sockets, as you need to ensure that you don’t cut into or over the layout lines.
Shown above are the first two pairs of test dovetails that I cut using the Barron Dovetail Guide. Since then I’ve cut an additional eleven sets of dovetails – 44 pairs, and every one of them perfect. Mind you, I’ve some experience cutting dovetails, though I’m far from an expert. But I do feel that with this guide, anyone with basic woodworking skills, and the appropriate tools, can cut tight fitting dovetails in no time. You’ll certainly need much less practice than doing it freehand, without the guide. And, skilled woodworkers will find that this guide greatly speeds up the process.
What really impressed me with this guide was how much easier it is to cut dovetails than doing everything by hand. The huge advantage of the guide is that all you need to do is focus on the position of the saw on the layout line, and stopping your cuts just shy of the dovetail base line. The guide takes care of the angles for you.
The Barron Dovetail Guide does the exact same thing as the Lee Valley Veritas Dovetail Guide. While I’ve not used a Veritas Guide, I can see one distinct advantage with the Barron Guide in that it doesn’t require you to clamp and unclamp the guide each time you move it to another layout line. Additionally, Barron Guides are available in a wider range of dovetail ratios.
At $59, which includes shipping, this is a fabulous accessory that any woodworker who aspires to cut perfect dovetails should own.
Iyou’re new (or relatively new) to dovetails, and you decide to purchase a dovetail guide, then I would highly recommend you consider purchasing David’s 40-minute DVD on hand cutting dovetails. Even if you don’t purchase a guide you’ll still benefit from the DVD – it’s almost like being the workshop with David. Certainly, watching a highly proficient woodworker explain the nuances of dovetail joinery is far more instructive than reading about it. In the DVD David walks you through the process of cutting dovetails in a step-by-step format. The presentation is clear and concise, and the camera work first rate. Throughout the presentation David’s focus is not on how fast you can cut dovetails, but on how accurately you cut them.
David also talks about his Roubo style workbench and some of that features that make it so useful for joinery work, and demonstrates his dovetail alignment board.
Marking out the pins is a crucial part of dovetail joinery, as it determines how well the joint fits together. The tail board forms the template from which the pins are laid out. You want to line up the base line of the tail board with the inside edge of the pin board. If the base line extends past the inner edge of the pin board the joint will be too tight. Conversely, if the base line is behind the inner edge of the pin board the joint will be too loose.
Barron’s Dovetail Alignment Board enables you to quickly align the tail and pin boards, and accurately mark out the pin lines. I made one, and it works like a charm. Visit David’s YouTube site to see a video on how to make and use, the alignment board.