Dovetails a la Underhill….

It was my birthday last week, and despite being buried in saw work, I figured I deserved some woodworking time on my special day. So, I took a couple hours to make some new bookshelves I need for our living room. My collection of woodworking and history books is growing by leaps and bounds (when I’m not in the shop, I always have my nose in a book) and I’m running out of places to pile them up.

So, I came up with a quick and simple design for some dovetailed shelves that would also let me try out a dovetailing method I read about in one of Roy Underhill’s books. Roy is my absolute woodworking hero and I adore his work. Ever since I read about this particular method of cutting the tails for a DT joint I have wanted to try it. What struck me about his method, which I’ve never read or seen anywhere else, is that besides the base line, there is no marking involved for the tails. So all you need to make them is your board and a saw. No knife, no pencil, no DT gauge or bevel gauge and no dividers or rule to lay out the spacing. You don’t mark the tails at all…you just cut everything by eye. Cool, right???

So let’s get to it and you’ll see what I mean…

After I mark the baseline for the thickness of the stock on the tail board, I clamp it up in my Moxon twin screw vise. In my mind, for a 9 and 1/2 inch deep bookshelf case, I see three large dovetails joining each corner of the case. It’s with this layout in mind that I begin…

To start the first tail, I grab my saw and make a shallow kerf to define the edge of the first tail by drawing the teeth back along the end grain. As you can see, there’s no mark what so ever for the tail cuts…I just guesstimate about 3/4 to an inch in from the edge of the board and pull back to establish the cut line. And this is the great part of Roy’s method…you lay everything out by eye and don’t mark anything…

Then, I switch to the other side of the board to define the cut line for the edge of the opposite tail. Same thing here….eyeball about an inch in and draw the saw back to establish a kerf line….

The trick here is to use the shiny saw plate to ensure that this kerf line is square. You can see the reflection of the board on the saw plate, and once you line it up equally in the reflection, you know you’re square and you draw back the teeth to mark the kerf.

Next, I cut the kerf defining the size of the first tail. I estimate about two inches from the first kerf and draw back with the saw…

Now the same thing with the second tail…about two inches wide…

We’ve now defined the width of our two outside tails and can focus on the middle tail. I define the middle tail about 3/4 of an inch from the right side tail…

And the other side as well…

And here’s the tail cuts kerfed out and ready to be cut…

Now I’m ready to cut my tails…and here’s the fun part. Again, there’s no marking here…no definging the slant of the tail with a knife line or pencil mark. I just estimate the slant of the tail by eye and tilt my saw accordingly, then start cutting. And once you’ve cut a few dovetails, you’ll get to know how the saw should feel for the proper angle…in fact, there isn’t really a “proper” angle at all. Its more of an angle that can be too sharp or not sharp enough. As long as you stay inside of those outside parameters, you’re dovetails will be just fine. So here goes…

Place the saw teeth in the first kerf, angle it slightly to the right and start sawing…

I make all of the right slanting tail cuts together…1, 2, 3. Here you can see the angle I’m cutting at a bit better…again, I’m just going by feel here…

I make the last right slanting tail cut, then go back and make my left slanting cuts to complete the tails. Here they are all cut…

Not bad for no layout marks…and man was this quick!

Now its a simple matter of cutting the rest of the tails for the case, removing the waste and paring to the baseline. After that, I match up my tail board to my pin board to mark the cuts with a pencil, and then it’s dovetailing as normal. Of course, I don’t mark the pin cuts on the face of either board….I just mark the slope of the tail on the end grain and saw straight down. But like I said, that’s all standard dovetailing…its really the lack of making any initial lay out marks that makes this method so freakin’ cool!

Now I know what you might be thinking….your probably telling yourself that this is cazy…how can you ensure that all of the tails are even and spaced properly???  How can you ensure that your tails are going to be uniform and perfect and esthetically pleasing????

Here’s the thing…dovetails don’t have to be perfect. In fact, they are more historically correct and look better when they are not perfectly sized and laid out. You want machine shop precision in your woodworking? Get a Shopbot and make your furniture like a cyborg…lifeless and dead inside. Me…I like traditional and human. And once you see the finished product, I think you’ll agree…dovetails laid out and cut by eye are very pleasing. It’s all about letting go of your precise marking gadgets and letting your sense of natural proportion take over. Your brain is surprisingly precise without any guides. Plum, level and true are pretty well programmed inside you. Let go and allow yourself to know them and you’ll spend a lot more time sawing and chopping and less time marking and measuring.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s the case glued up and trimmed flush ready for planing…

I’m pretty pleased with this method…thanks Roy! 🙂

And since this was so much fun, I ended up making a second book shelf…and this one was even quicker. The whole thing went together from 8 foot planks to a  glued up case in about two hours.

After I finished the first one, I decided to dress them up a bit with some nice simple crown molding and base quarter round. Even though it covers up the dovetails, they were a little too plain for our living room…

‘Til next time!

🙂 Matt

Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 7:48 pm  Comments (11)  

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Matt,

    Roy totally kicks ass! One more Underhill technique omits another tool-the pencil for transferring the marks. Before you cope and chisel out your tail waste, put the tail board on the pin board, stick your saw in the kerf and lightly draw it back, and voila!, perfectly transferred marks. You just have to be sure to not saw in your saw-scribe line when doing your pins, just right next to it. I have done it and it works!

    • Hi Matt
      Thanks for the comment. I am very familiar with Roy’s method of marking the pins, but I’m not really keen on it…not sure why? Perhaps I’ll give it a try and let you know.

  2. Whoa, really nice job there partner I really like that method. As you probably have read I am in the process of building a wooden console for my S – I – L and I did use dividers to space out pins first. This is my 1st attempt with my Bad Axe saw ( Love It ), any how you made it look really easy. Did you get a lot of chip out on the inside or bottom of the Dove Tails. ? I did ugh.

    Well yours look great enjoyed the Tutorial.


    • Thanks Steve! I didn’t get any chip out…are you seeing it in your paring to the baseline?

  3. Great DT’s.

    Matt, I am trying to find your last name ?

    I am on Google+ Want to see if you are there and if I have you in my WW circle. I have 172 people in my WW Circle. Lots of great posts and the community is growing.

    PS. Still need to send you my saw.

    • Thanks Bartee!
      My last name is Cianci…I’m not on Google, I try to avoid online networking stuff like the plague! 😉

  4. Hey Matt…!

    Love your style. My kind of woodworking. If it can be done by eye or feel or a little of both and result in something that looks like it was precision made, that’s really the way to go.

    Nice look’n doves you have there. It wasn’t long ago that I finally figured out why they are called dove tails. It came to me when I was trying to make sure what I was seeing in my minds eye when I thought of tails versus pins. I have the tails figured out now but I’m still working on the pins. 🙂 Any ideas? I can’t seem to relate the pins to anything that looks like a pin. I suppose that as long as I have the tails figured out, it’s just a matter of realizing that the other one is the pin. *smirk*

    Just think, with my adjustable blade dovetail saw you could even eliminate marking the base line.

    I see some saws on the wall in the background in one of your pictures. If those are some of your backlog, good way to know who’s saw is next in line. It’s good that you are taking some time away from the daily grind/filing and just having fun. I was in business for myself for many many years and never worked weekends. It I couldn’t get it done in five days, it didn’t get done. I worked it as if I was working for someone else. Except when you work for yourself, no one is paying you over-time pay.

    Catchalater, 🙂

    • Thanks Marv! You know, since you mention it, I’ve no idea why they’re called pins! 🙂

      And those saws in the till in the background are my users…I keep customers saws packed up as they were shipping to me until I’m ready to work on them.


  5. Matt,

    Once again a great read. Another trick of St. Roy’s that I like to watch is how he uses the tail board before removing the waste to mark the pin board by running his saw in the kerf once. Personally I’m mixed on this idea, if I am doing something that I really want to nail I mark everything. If not I use a similar method from Frank Klausz (pins first is about the only differnece). I am hoping that by doing about 3/4 of my dovetails this way they will get more uniform and I can just do it this way all of thetime. I have a habit of cutitng the lefts a little shalower than the rights at the moment.

  6. I got started in woodworking with Roy myself (my father was a fantastic woodworker, but he used machines) I owe Roy a great deal, more than I owe to most of my college professors. I watched a couple shows, was completely hooked, and started in. A couple observations about Roy’s methods. They are completely authentic, no question, but they are limited to a TV schedule. He has half an hour to expose you to dovetailing, say. So will get the short version of what he has to say. Now, to an experienced woodworker, this is no problem. To a beginner it may be frustrating. And we want more beginners, right? More business for us traditionalists! Roy’s books have some more detail. I have every one of them unless he published a new one yesterday, but not enough for a beginner. In the old days you apprenticed to a master, age 12, (chilld labor? Bah. How many useful 12 year-olds do you know?) and eventually you learned to cut dovetails by eye. Nowadays we start much later, but we have an edge, and it is not machinery. We have the net. So anyone who is interested in dovetails (and I am!) should read this post. Beautiful job. Wish I had that post ten years ago.

    I still cut dovetails, but (what! heretic! Burn him right away!) I use Japanese (traditional) tools. They seem to fit my hand better. But it’s all a personal matter. We are both Interested in dovetails. Japanese cut them same way we do. Interesting to see the differences, because we are doing the exact same thing. Only, in Japan, if you cut doevetails the traditional way, you are not some kind of kook. You are a “National Treasure” as the Japanese say.

  7. Your precision work is phenomenal. I had a workshop instructor that kept calling us Gorilla mechanics. He said we measured with a micrometer, marked it with a chalk and cut it with an axe

    I guess we had a thing or two to learn.

    Thanks for sharing your work with us


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