Here’s a short story of dovetailing conversion.

Recognizing that discussions of cutting dovetails can sometimes devolve into, well, sectarian skirmishes if not handled with some delicacy, I offer up a short testimonial in explaining how my own practice has evolved over the past six months.

I learned to cut dovetails by hand, following an article written some years ago by Frank Klausz. The process, which involves removing the waste with chisels, worked well for the white oak I used.

Fast forward several years, and I find myself cutting dovetail joints in poplar, a wood that is very different from white oak. The fibers bend and break in funny places, meaning that it really doesn’t respond well to chopping.

It hit me somewhere around my sixteenth dovetail joint for the tool chest that this problem might explain why many woodworkers use a coping saw to remove waste when cutting dovetails.

I pulled out a coping saw from my tool chest and wasted away the space for the pins. This got me close enough that the chisel work became a paring operation rather than a chopping session.

The board on the left was chopped. The board on the right was coped and pared.

The board on the left was chopped. The board on the right was coped and pared.

I’d tried a coping saw before, but it just sorta clicked for me this time. Maybe it’s that this early Craftsman model coping saw once belonged to my grandfather. Maybe I was more inclined to give it a chance, or maybe I was instinctively more gentle and relaxed with it.

Essential bits of dovetailing kit.

Essential bits of dovetailing kit.

Maybe I just needed to become dissatisfied with my old method before I could find the motivation to stick with the new method.

Now that I have some experience with this cope-and-pare method, I’m starting to see the appeal of the fishtail chisel for paring between pins. But that’s a project for another day.

Stop The Chamfers

I have to confess, I let the hot, dry days of summer become an excuse, but no more. Sunday I wrapped up the stopped chamfers on my Hay Rake table.

Much of the grain I was working was too curly for the drawknife, leading to tear-out. I shifted to my spokeshave (and on the long stretcher, the jack plane) to waste away material, following up with my block plane for the finishing strokes. I found that the rhythm of wasting away material followed by planing or shaving to a line worked well for much of the work.

The smallest of these chamfers, however, were short enough that not even a spokeshave would work – these chamfers were just a little longer than the length of the spokeshave sole, leaving no room for travel. These chamfers I formed entirely with carving gouges.

The cove detail at the stop is less flamboyant than the lamb’s tongue, which seemed fitting for this design, which pays homage to farm life in the English countryside.

These are not the semicircular coves you’d get from a router. Instead, they are oval, a shape you could only achieve by hand. I was pleased with the result.


Here’s a close-up of marking out the cove shape. I use a 3/4″ No. 6 sweep carving gouge to connect the stop point on the arris with a point along the chamfer gauge line about 1/2″ back, creating an oval-shaped cove.


With little room for travel, there was no point in using a spokeshave here. It was all hand-carving with the No. 6 and a 3/4″ No. 3. Here, I’m almost finished.

And here’s the final chamfer.