Cutting Dovetail Joints With a Router Jig

My woodworking skills are, to be charitable, dodgy. But working with wood is an unavoidable necessity in our old house. So towards the end of 2017 I began taking woodworking classes in an effort to raise the level of my craftsmanship and the first practical project I tackled was redoing some drawers in the kitchen. In order to do that I needed to cut some dovetails.

Dovetail joints are used most often for making drawers. The arrangement of the joint makes for a drawer that resists racking. Dovetail joints also prevent the front from coming off with repeated use. Even without glue the joint wants to stay together. It’s also, I think, very attractive.

The two most common dovetail joints are through dovetails:

Image: Wikipedia.

And half-blind dovetails:

Image: Wikipedia.

Since I’m working on faced drawers I used through dovetails. I hope to make some furniture soon that will make use of half blind dovetails.

To cut my dovetails I used a router and jig both made by Porter Cable. There are some other jigs on the market that work just as well but, judging from the reviews, I’d avoid the cheap models. Setting up a dovetail jig is a time intensive process and somewhat confusing in terms of orientation and adjustment. It took me the better part of a day and some repeated YouTube viewing before I made a functional joint. An inexpensive pair of digital calipers made fine tuning the jig a lot easier.

Once the jig is set you can crank out a lot of joints relatively quickly. You attach a guide to the bottom of your router and simply move in and out of the metal guides that are clamped on top of the wood. You cut the tails first and then flip the metal guides to cut the pins. My Porter Cable jig I have does through dovetails, half blind dovetails, rabbeted half-blind, sliding dovetails, box joints and miniature versions of all these joints.

Someday I will cut a dovetail joint by hand, but I’ve got a lot of drawers to fix and I appreciate the efficiency of using power tools for this task. While dovetails cut with a router have a machine-like uniformity, I think they still look a lot better than joints done with screws.

I give myself a mixed review for my first attempt. The drawers work fine but there’s room for improvement. I’m still learning and I gained a huge appreciation for drawer details such as dimensions, wood grain orientation, material choice and hardware options. I can also see using this attractive joint for other projects around the house such as boxes and cat furniture (!).

Now I wish I could unsee my dovetail apprenticeship. The modern world is full of shoddy drawers and once you see the world through the rubric of the square and solid dovetail joint, the sight of a screwed together drawer could tip you into a fit of zealotry. You might just burn down your local Ikea.

I’ll do a longer blog post about retrofitting old built-in drawers when I get around to redoing the bathroom cabinets. In the meantime let’s please #MakeAmericaDovetailAgain.

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  1. Those dovetails made me swoon. Forget bread, this speaks to me. My heart beats faster when I find furniture with dovetails. My heart fairly jumps out of my chest when the owner of the piece has not idea about the funny joints and apologizes. If I could handle the sawdust with asthma, I would learn to do dovetails. But, I would probably cut off a few fingers.

  2. I think you’ve done a very fine job and I admire your drawers. They’ll outlast you and that’s really something to be proud of!

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