The secret to good dovetails is simply practice.
Lots of it. With a big dovetail project coming up soon, I wanted to hit the bench and get some practice in. When I first started out woodworking it took me over a year to muster up the courage to try a dovetail. With a little practice, you can easily cut dovetails by hand without relying on a fancy jig. I start my practice by scribing some simple vertical lines into my practice piece. Darkening the lines with pencil makes them easier to see and follow. Then I’ll practice simple verticle cuts, focusing on keeping my saw and kerf perfectly 90º to the face of the board. Here my sawing motion is rocking a little, but my cuts are coming out straight so it’s liveable. As I go along I mark my cuts. First 3 were poor, then I got into the swing of things. I put blue painters tape on the endgrain of the pin board to make marking easier. For a full list of tools used, and the two books on Dovetails I HIGHLY recommend, there are links in the description below. I mark the pins with a bevel gauge and then remove the waste tape before cutting. Again the focus here is to keep the saw and the kerf straight up and down the grain of the board. Now that some rudimentary practice is out the of the way and I feel confident in my saw again, I plane and square my practice boards for the real dovetails. I lay my dovetails out by eye and with wing dividers, in the Christopher Schwarz style. Cutting these lines was really difficult with a camera lendse and microphone in my way lol I like to set my marking gauge about 1/16 wider than my stock, this gives a little wiggle room. Using a 1:5 ratio (or ~10º) I’ll mark out the tails on both sides of the board with a knife before darkening with a pencil. For some reason I wanted to try tilting my stock to make the tail lines vertical. This was a bad idea. Cutting on a slight angle isn’t very difficult and I should have stuck with what I know. I clear out the pin socket waste with a coping saw before refining the socket with hammer and chisel. One of my chisels was getting a little dull, so a quick sharpening with 1000, 1500, and 2000 grit before stropping brought it back to mirror, razor, sharpness. I clear out the waste with a chisel, sneaking up to marked line, halving the waste until I’m there. Then I clean, square, and pare the tail shoulders and pin sockets. I have seen a few others mark their pins this way, so I wanted to give it a go. Turns out I prefer to have the pin board vertical and the tail board flat on top of it so I’m marking down instead of to the side. Same procedure for cutting out the pins and clearing the waste as for the tail board. Stropping every few minutes helps keep your chisel razor sharp and makes trips to the wet stone less frequent. Test and fit, test and fit. Pare sparingly and small. If the fit is still struggling, you can darken the tails with some pencil led and use them to show you where the culprit is. This big pine board was my first ever attempt at dovetails. We all start somewhere, but I don’t want you to be afraid of this beautiful joint. With just a little practice and the right technique, dovetails can come easily even to you! Cheers! There’s good work in the making.