Mark ( on February 16th, 2008

With the carcase of the table completed in the last post, it was finally time to build and dovetail the drawer. This is kind of a long post but, I thought everyone would rather see the entire process at once rather that breaking it into multiple posts. So, here we go!

Routing_Drawer_Front_Profile.JPGThe design for this drawer includes an overhanging lip on the top and sides so, the blank for the drawer front needed to be 7/8″ thick. This allows for a substantial drawer front with about a 3/8″ overhanging lip and half-blind dovetails at the front of the drawer. The back of the drawer has through dovetails and is designed to allow the drawer bottom to slide into groves in the sides and front while being secured to the back with a single screw. During the previous milling operations for the table I had already created a blank for the drawer front. So, the remaining components (sides, back and bottom) were still remaining. For the drawer sides and back, I chose some Soft Maple stock that I had in thicknesses just over a 1/2″ – my aim was to have the drawer sides and back all milled to a finished 1/2″ in thickness.

Measuring_Drawer_Components.JPGAfter cutting the thicknessed stock to rough size, I measured the pieces directly in the recess for the drawer. I offset the side pieces from the runners with a some scrap pieces of laminate to result in a consistent offset from the runners with minimal side-to-side play in the finished drawer. With the drawer components cut to finished length it was time to start the process of marking and cutting the dovetails.

Scribing_for_Dovetails.JPGAs I mentioned, the front of the drawer has half-blind dovetails and the back of the drawer has through dovetails. I chose to use two tails at the back of the drawer and three at the front. The first step in marking out the dovetails was to set a marking gage to the thickness of the drawer stock. Then a line was scribed on both the faces and edges of the tail boards. For the pin boards, only the faces of the boards needed to be scribed. These scribe lines do two things: they give you a visual place to stop your saw cuts and they also give you a starting point to achieve crisp edge while chiseling out the waste between tails and pins. I usually scribe the lines with my Japanese marking gage and then go over the scribed lines lightly with a pencil so that they can be seen easier.

As you probably know there is almost a religious war over whether you should cut the pins or tails of the dovetail joint first. The fact of the matter is that it is absolutely possible to do it either way and get beautiful dovetails as a result. Both methods have their merits and shortcomings. Here, I chose to do the tails first. This is mainly because I am self taught and that was the way I started. So, I tend to get better results that way. I have used both techniques before but, as it has been over a year since I last cut any dovetails, I wanted to give myself the best shot at success!

Dovetail_Layout_With_Dividers.JPGMarked_Back_Tails.JPGThe layout of the tails was done using a set of dividers, a bevel gage and a small square. For the drawer back, I used equal sized tails. For the drawer front, the center tail is slightly larger than the two outside tails to add some visual interest. To do this, I started by marking a point on each end of the tail board to denote the outside pins I then set the divider to a distance that I thought would equal the width of one tail and one pin and starting at one edge of the board I stepped across the end of the board trying the get the divider to land exactly at the pine line on the opposite edge of the board. This took a few tries, adjusting the divider accordingly. Once I had this setting, I stepped off the tails leaving dimples in the end of the board. Then with the same setting, I started from the opposite edge of the board with the same technique. The resulting dimples marked out the locations of the ends of the tails. I squared these lines across the edge of the board and then used the bevel gage to extend them on each face down to the baseline. I did the front dovetails the same way, except I used the same setting on the divider and only stepped of once from each edge leaving a larger tail in the center.

Cutting_Back_Tails.JPGCoping_Back_Tail_Waste.JPGChiseling_Tail_Waste.JPGComlpeted_Front_Tails.JPGWith the tails marked, I started the cutting operations at the back of the drawer. There were two reasons for this: first, because I have not cut any dovetails in a while, hiding any mistakes back there was preferred and second, the back of the drawer has through dovetails which are a little more straight forward to cut. The cutting process is the same as I performed on the top rail in a previous post. I clamped each drawer side into my vise at an angle so that the line of the cut was vertical and sawed to the baseline with my Japanese dovetail saw. I sawed all of the cuts on one side, then repositioned the board and sawed the other side to maintain consistency. I did this for both ends of the tail boards. The next step was to remove the waste between the tails so that the pins could be marked from the tails. This was done by using the coping saw to first remove the bulk of the waste while staying clear of the baseline and then chiseling down half way from each face at the baseline.

Marking_Back_Pins.JPGMarking_Front_Pins_2.JPGThe process of marking the pins from the tails is straightforward. I put the pin board into the vise on my bench getting it perfectly square to the bench top. I then placed the tail board on top of my bench plane which was on edge on the bench. With the pin board in the vise at the same height as the plane I carefully aligned the tail board to the top edge of the pin board until I saw a consistent sliver of light coming through between the boards at each dovetail recess. With the boards aligned I held the tail board in place and marked the pins with a knife along the edges of the tails. I then used the square to extend this lines down the faces to the baseline. The use of the plane in this operation helps to direct the pressure to the end of the tail board keeping it in place while marking as opposed to having pressure get directed to the center of the board while on the bench potentially allowing the tail board to move.

Marked_Back_Tails.JPGPlaning_Drawer_Front_Rebate.JPGHaving marked the pins on both the drawer back and front, it was time to saw the pins and then remove the waste material. For the drawer back, this was straight forward, first cutting the pins with the dovetail saw and then using the coping saw and chisels to remove the waste. The drawer front was a bit more of a challenge. This was because of the 3/8″ lip that I created with the table saw and planed smooth on three sides of the blank.

Coping_Back_Pin_Waste.JPGReady_To_Saw_Front_Pins.JPGChiseling_Fron_Pin_Waste_1.JPGChiesling_Fron_Pin_Waste_2.JPGThe pin cuts for half-blind dovetails can only go part way through the drawer front. So, the saw needs to be held at an angle sawing along the waste side of the line until the saw kerf meets both baselines. In this case I had the added complication of the lip which kept me from sawing completely to the baseline at the front of the drawer blank. To protect the lip, I used some masking tape along the lip and sawed as far as I could without cutting into the lip. From there, the rest of the work to remove the waste was done with chisels paring to the marked lines. With all of the tails and pins completed the initial dry fits caused me to do a bit more paring along the pin faces before the joints would seat. I did this by very lightly paring across the grain of the pins until I had met the scribed lines.

Completed_Front_Tails_and_Pins_With_Groove.JPGDrawer_Dry_Fit_With_Groves.JPGGlue_Up_Of_Drawer_Bottom.JPGNext, using the table saw I cut grooves into the drawer front and sides to receive the drawer bottom. I milled the stock for the drawer bottom from some leftover Poplar that I had. I thicknessed this stock to about 5/16″ and glued up the blank such that the grain ran from side to side in the drawer. I marked and planed a bevel on the three sides of the bottom that are to be housed in the grooves. Screw_Detail_On_Drawer_Bottom.JPGPlaning_Drawer_Bottom_Bevel.JPGBecause the drawer back is shorter than the sides, the drawer bottom sits underneath the back and is affixed with a single screw in a slot to allow for wood movement from front to back in the drawer bottom.

Glue_Up_of_Drawer_Box.JPGBack_Dovetails.JPGFront_Dovetails.JPGWith the bottom completed, I glued up the drawer box assuring that it was both square and also sat evenly on a flat surface without rocking. The last step will be to flush up the tails and pins on the drawer sides with a plane. I’ll do this when I do the final fitting of the drawer. As I stated, I had not cut dovetails in quite a while. These certainly are not prize winners but, they are definitely functional. Many woodworkers seem to get hung up on perfection with dovetails. Due to the way the joint works they there is both a mechanical linkage as well as a glue bond so there is no need for perfection beyond mere aesthetics. If we wanted things to look perfect and exactly uniform, we would simply cut dovetails with a router. We cut them by hand precisely to avoid this production look and to allow the world to see the path of the craftsman that created the joint.

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5 Responses to “Queen Anne Side Table: Dovetailing the drawer”

  1. Mark-

    The dovetails look great! So your a tails first guy. That’s ok I will still continue to read your blog. :-) Very nicely documented and very well done. The table is looking really good, keep it up.

  2. Mark –

    Another excellent episode. I had to read this a number of times. Lots of great information. Your dovetails turned out great! Looking forward to future episodes and completion of your table.


  3. Kaleo: Thanks for stopping by! Yes, right now I’m tails first but, I can definitely see where the marking of tails from pins can be easier – especially with narrow pins. The thing that was difficult on this drawer was dealing with the overhanging lip while sawing the pins.

    David: Thanks for the kind words. The table is coming along. I’m moving on to the top and then the finish prep and finish. I guess I had better decide exactly how I will finish it!


  4. Hi Mark:

    This was a real good write-up. It was kind of a surprise to me, no particular reason, that you wrote going to the Japanese Dovetail Saw then the picture of the marking guage. Do you remember why you choose to investigate Japanese handtools??? I have a few planes that are for specific tasks. Also in reading your post, I began to wonder if the reason the discussion of “pins or tails” evolved because most of us are self taught and its logical to put the peg in the hole and over time, the self taught woodworkers out number those with training.


  5. Hey Neil,

    Thanks. I think the reason I tried the Japanese saw was like many I originally had a very bad western saw and had difficulty using it. Also, sawing on the pull stroke just makes some sense to me. If I had a Lie Nielson Dovetail saw, I’d probably like it. However, my inexpensive Japanese saw works real well. I got the marking gage at the same time because the pin style ones seem to tear the wood and this one slices it. Now Veritas and others make the disc style that work just as well. I do have the advantage of two cutters for marking out mortises on this gage, though.

    I am a self taught woodworker. For the dovetails, the first way I tried is tails first. Mostly because I can visualize the tail and then cut the pin to it. It is also a bit easier to make the simple pin cuts precisely rather than the tails cuts as a second operation. I’ve actually done it both ways. I think for situations where you have very narrow pins it is a lot easier to cut the pins first and then mark the tails rather than the reverse. I guess I’ve just practiced a bit more with tails first so, that’s usually where I start. It is interesting though that usually we want to cut the “mortise” first and fit the “tenon” to it yet in this case I chose the “tenon” (or the tail) first. I think though that this is a bit of a different mindset because you want to avoid a lot of fitting of the tail if you can because it’s so visible – unlike the tenon which you can fit a lot while trying to match the mortise.


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