Of all the skills a woodworker needs to learn, none is more coveted and elusive than hand cutting dovetails. As the name suggests, these joints look like a row of bird tails joining two boards at right angles to each other. They are often used to make drawers and boxes, but also to join the sides and tops on casework. They are usually a hallmark of quality construction and a sign that a cabinet maker has achieved a reasonable degree of proficiency in her or his craft. Dovetails are mechanically a very strong joint. Add a kiss of glue and the joint becomes indestructible.
Like many novice woodworkers, I have struggled to cut an acceptable row of dovetails. The results, at their best, have been ill-fitting travesties. As I've said, hand-cut dovetails are the holy grail of woodworking skills and the pursuit of perfection is a cash cow for producers of how-to books and videos. I remember watching a DIY video, Dovetail a Drawer, by Frank Klausz - a German craftsman who learned his trade in the strict apprenticeship tradition of Europe. One of the tricks of cutting dovetails is laying them out properly, but Klausz blithely eschews this approach, encouraging the would-be woodworker to lay them out by eye. Easy for a guy who has probably cuts tens of thousands of dovetails, but probably disastrous for a neophyte. Like many other joints, dovetails can be machined using a router and a specialized jig, which is relatively low-skill. But Klausz, a seasoned pro, can hand cut a drawer in minutes, probably way faster than it would take me to set up a jig and router.
Every year my adopted hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, hosts a woodworking trade show where manufacturers of woodworking products showcase their wares and where experts give workshops to the unwashed masses. I remember one year noted cabinet maker and popular producer of videos and books, Rob Cosman, gave a workshop on cutting dovetails. The talk was somewhat useful, but again, the attitude of the expert who has cut many years worth of the joint, is somewhat blithe. He proclaimed, "Dovetails only fit properly once, " meaning that you have to achieve perfection on your first shot. Woodworkers, especially novices, need to "dry fit" their projects to make sure everything fits together snugly and squarely before adding glue, which is generally the point of no return. This gives them the opportunity to fine-tune the fit and get everything right. But, according to Cosman, you ultimately ruin the fit of dovetails by dry fitting. Cutting dovetails is hard enough. Adding the pressure of achieving a perfect fit right out of the gate is enough to give novices heart palpitations and commit them to a lifetime of butt joints.
Anyway, this is a bit of a meandering post on dovetails, which actually seems appropriate since many woodworker follow a meandering path in learning how to cut them. The body of DIY products all advocate different approaches to making dovetails: careful layout with ruler and t-bevel or by eye; cut the dovetails first or the mating pins first; cut the waste out with a coping saw, or with a chisel, or band saw, or scroll saw, or table saw; dry fit or don't dry fit; and on-and-on. I guess the student is best to commit to an approach that makes the most sense to her and practice, practice, practice.
And so, down to the shop I go to find some scrap and try, again, to cut something that resembles a competently produced set of dovetails. Happy cutting!