The Basics on Dovetails

The Basics on Dovetails

Creating a dovetail joint requires precision and attention to detail, but it is not as hard as many beginners believe. Dovetail joints are known for their strength and durability, as well as their signature look.

A dovetail joint consists of two main parts: tails and pins. 

Tail joints got their name because their wider, fan-shaped projections resemble the tail feathers of a dove.

Pins are the narrower, wedge-shaped projections on the second piece of wood and are cut to match the spaces between the tails. 

When the joint is assembled the pins fit snugly into the tails, creating a strong and durable connection.

You can see a video of this process on my Youtube Page: BEGINNER DOVETAIL PROJECT // French Cleat Side Table With Hand Cut Joinery (

Step 1: Marking the Wood

Begin by marking the thickness of each board on the other board. It is better to be wider than shorter with this marking as any protruding tails and pins can be planed or sanded down until flush once the joint is complete.  

Dovetail Step 1: Marking the Board Thickness

Step 2: Marking the Tails

Next you have to choose which board will get the tails. In general, the board with the tails is typically the vertical board in a frame, as the natural movement of the joint is against gravity.  If the Tail is on the horizontal board, gravity could pull the joint apart.

To mark the tail, two things are important.  One, the symmetry of the size of the dovetails and two, the angle of the mark, but both have flexibility for your preferred style.

To get the dovetails symmetrical, a compass can be used to ‘walk’ down the board from each side to mark where the ends are.  A ruler can also be used to measure the specific distances desired.

Dovetail Step 3: Marking the Tail Distance With a Compass

Then mark that line across the board as it will be your future cut line.

Dovetail Step 2: Marking the Top of the Board

Mark the angle, somewhere between 5-10 degrees, I prefer mine at 7 degrees. Any more angle and you end up with a lot of wood without continuous grain in the pins or any less angle and your dovetail becomes more like a box joint, without any natural hold.

Dovetail Step 2: Mark the Angle of the Tail

Step 3: Cutting the Tails

Getting this cut exactly on your marked line is not as important as it being straight.  The straighter it is, the less cleanup is needed. 

Dovetail Step 3: Make the Inital Cuts

After your initial cuts, remove any waste with a coping saw.

Dovetail Step 3: Cut Out the Excess Material

Then chisel the remaining excess away.

Dovetail Step 3: Clean Up the Cuts With a Chisel

Step 4: Transfer the Tails/Marking the Pins

With the tails cut, put your other board in a vise or clamps so you can lay your tail board across it to transfer the cuts.

For this, it is best to use a marking knife with the flat side against the tails.  Doing this gives you the exact spot to place your saw to cut the pins.

Dovetail Step 4: Transfer the Tails to the Pins Board

Step 5: Cutting the Pins

This cut does need to be exact, as it needs to mirror the tails perfectly to get a gap free joint.

After your initial cuts, remove any waste with a coping saw, then chisel the remaining excess away.

Dovetail Step 5: Cut the Pins

Step 6: Test Fitting

Before test assembly, the place I have the most trouble getting a flush fit is with buildup in the corners of the cuts. Use a flat edge to make sure there is nothing in the corners that would keep you from getting a perfect fit. If it doesn't sit flat against the pin, use a chisel to clean up the inside corner until it does.

Dovetail Step 6: Checking the Cuts

Then perform a dry fit to ensure that the tails and pins fit together snugly. Make any necessary adjustments if the fit is too tight or too loose.

 Dovetail Step 6: Test Fitting

Remember that dovetail joints require practice to master, so don't be discouraged if your first attempts are not perfect. Additionally, there are variations of dovetail joints, such as half-blind dovetails and sliding dovetails, each with its own set of steps.

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