The Dovetail Joint Is a Strong Woodworking Joint

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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I prefer to use the dovetail joint whenever possible on boxes and other projects I make. The joint is attractive and reflects craftsmanship. Even though it appears difficult, after doing it a few times it becomes far easier. I like this joint because it can be accomplished by only using hand tools. The tools in the photo are all the tools needed to make dovetails. A fine tooth trim saw, sharp chisel, mallet and the dovetail marking gauge. The gauge I use to lay out the tails and pins for the joint is made of steel and brass and is adjustable. The most difficult aspect is measuring and laying out the dovetail joint which requires some precision. That is why I choose to use a good adjustable marking gauge to obtain that precision.

A Dovetail Gauge

I purchased the gauge in the photo from a specialty woodworking store and by following the original directions that came with it the gauge has worked extremely well and been consistent. Some old timers make their own layout gauge but I kept losing mine so I purchased this one and have liked it for its precision and utility. It is made in England by Collett Engineering.

Hand-Cut Dovetails vs. Machine-Cut Dovetails:

The dovetail joint is mechanically strong and attractive and represents craftsmanship. There are products made now that can make dovetail joints by machine. Personally I still prefer to make them with hand tools and do not use the machines even though they are very accurate and faster. To my eye the dovetail machines lack that hand made look which I find appealing. When making them with hand tools you can run the risk of making a measuring mistake which means that you will have to cut all the tails and pins off and start over again. The box will be a few inches shorter but that is usually the worst possibility. If one tail or pin is laid out a fraction off it will also affect the remaining tails or pins. The machine dovetail takes much less time to accomplish but the hand made dovetail provides more satisfaction when complete and most woodworkers can tell the difference between the two techniques. There is also less opportunity for making an error when using machine dovetails.

I will not go into the details on how to make dovetails because there are many books and web sites on the step by step process of making the dovetail joint which are readily available. The directions that come with the marking gauge pictured are easy to understand and follow and will get a person started in the right direction. Sawing inside the marked lines and using a mallet and chisel to remove the waste material is all that is needed for a good dovetail joint. The times I have made mistakes was when I didn’t pay close enough attention and made the cut on the line or outside the line instead of on the inside.

Dovetails Make a Strong Joint

The box in the photo was made twenty years ago and has held up extremely well considering the hard use it receives as our firewood box. It stands as a testimony to the strength of the dovetail joint. Approximately seven months out of the year it has firewood loaded into it once or twice a day. The weight of the firewood generates pressure on the dovetail joints but they have remained solid. The box is made out of walnut and maple and it is the dovetail joints that make it so solid and sturdy. It has recently been refinished with an oil and wax finish and I added cut nails mostly for decorative purposes. The cut nails are square and it is best to pre-drill holes so they won’t split the wood when they are hammered into the piece. They do not provide much joint strength but provide an attractive and old fashioned look to the piece.


Dovetail joints appear hard to make but in truth they are not that difficult to accomplish with a little practice. They are time consuming and all it takes is patience, attention to detail and being precise in laying them out. The finished product shows craftsmanship and a certain degree of professionalism not to mention an attractive and sturdy piece of furniture. The photo of the firewood box clearly shows that dumping firewood into the box has not weakened it nor have any of the joints loosened in the past twenty years. The dovetail joint is a strong durable joint and with the tools pictured it can be accomplished easily. It should be said again that when cutting the tails and pins be sure to cut slightly on the inside of the lines you mark and everything should fit nice and tight. If the joint is too tight it is better to file a little off the tail than have it loose.

Dovetail joints are satisfying to make and provide a strong and attractive addition to a piece of furniture. The firewood box pictured is also used to store our woodstove tools when they are not in use so it serves double duty.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their mountain lifestyle go to their website, McElmurray’s Mountain Retreat.

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