How to Make Dovetail Joints With a Table Saw

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There are many different kinds of joinery, each with their own strengths and drawbacks. Dovetail joints are a popular choice for drawer fronts, due to their resistance to pulling force. If cut properly, these strong interlocking joints need no mechanical reinforcement. 

In this article we explain how you can make strong and beautiful dovetail joints, using only a table saw and a few hand tools. 

Making Dovetail Joints Using a Table Saw

Dovetail joints are extremely popular when making wood furniture, DIY wooden cabinets, and dovetail drawers fronts. This method of joining wood together produces incredible tensile strength. Its also a time honored method of woodworking, dating all the way back to the Egyptians from the First Dynasty.

To make dovetail joints with your table saw, you will need the following tools:

  • Table saw
  • Specially ground saw blade to cut away the waste from the tails
  • Alternatively, you can use a chisel and mallet.
  • Two jigs
  • Stopping block
  • Clamp
  • Mechanical pencil
  • Marking gauge
  • Bevel gauge.
Table saw

Make sure your table saw has beveling capability. We review some of the best mid range table saws here, and all of them have this ability. Here are the steps to constructing dovetail jigs with your table saw:

  1. Construct two L-shaped jigs. Each jig consists of a narrow base and a clamping board. Attach a stop block to the jig using a clamp; you’ll want to be able to adjust this as you work. You’ll use one jig to cut the tail board and the other to cut the pin board.
  2. Mark the shoulder line. Use a marking gauge to scribe the shoulder line onto your tail board. The shoulder line should be the exact depth of the companion piece that will form the interlocking dovetail joint. 
  3. Lay out your tail board pattern. Find the exact center of the tail board. Set a bevel gauge to the angle you will be using for your cuts. Use a mechanical pencil and the bevel gauge to mark out a symmetrical dovetail design.
  4. Adjust the blade using the bevel gauge.  Place one arm of the bevel gauge on the table. Adjust the blade using the rotating wheel, tilting it until the saw touches the other arm of the gauge. The angle should be exactly the same as the one you traced onto the tail board. 
  5. Prepare to cut the tails. Install a rip blade. Ripping blades have fewer teeth than cutting or combination blades, allowing them to remove material more aggressively and make flat-bottomed cuts. Stand the workpiece on its end and rest it on the base of the jig. Adjust the stop block, aligning the blade with the first cut mark. 
  6. Cut the tails. Cut through the base of the jig first, and then raise the blade gradually with each pass. Stop when the blade barely touches the shoulder line.  Adjust your stop block to align the blade with the next cut mark, and repeat this process until all the vertical lines have been cut.
  7. Remove the tail waste. There are two ways to remove the waste from your tail board. The first requires installing a blade on your table saw that has been ground to the precise angle of your dovetail. If you don’t want to spend the extra money or mess around with changing blades, use a chisel and mallet to chip away the unwanted wood. 
  8. Trace the dovetail pattern onto the second board. Place the ends of the board together to form a 90 degree angle. Use a mechanical pencil to trace the outline of the tails you just cut onto the end grain of the companion piece of wood. Extend the lines from the end grain onto the face of the board.
  9. Adjust your mitre gauge. While all your pin cuts will be made at the same angle, half of them slope in one direction and the other half slope in another. The means you will have to change the angle of your mitre gauge halfway through this set of cuts. Use the tips in the section below to adjust your miter gauge to the appropriate angle.
  10. Make the first cuts for the pins. Put your companion board into the jig, using the stop block to align the first cut line with the blade. Adjust the stop block after each pass and continue cutting until all the lines that slope in the same direction have been cut.
Man using a push block to cut wood with a table saw
  1. Switch your mitre gauge to the opposite angle and finish cutting the pins. Leave the blade in position — you’re changing the angle at which the workpiece is presented to the blade, not the angle of the blade itself. Cut the remaining lines in your pattern.
  2. Remove the waste from the pins. Use multiple passes over the blade of the saw to shave away the bulk of the waste. When you can’t reach any more waste at that angle, switch the mitre gauge back to the first position. Maintaining the same angle of the blade, cut away the rest of the waste.
  3. Assemble the joint. Nestle the pins into the recesses created by the tails and push the two boards together firmly. The two pieces should snap together.  

Tips for Making Dovetail Joints

Dovetail joints are considered an advanced woodworking technique. Give yourself time (and extra wood) to practice this method, as it takes some time to perfect. Here are a few tips to help you get better:

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  • Know your terminology. Dovetail joints are made from two boards. Tails form the sides of socket-like recesses in the tail board. Pins protrude from the pin board. The pins nestle into the sockets of the tail board to form a strong interlocking joint. 
  • Respect the shoulder line. If you cut past the shoulder line, your joint will be loose and wobbly. Use a pencil to darken the shoulder line if you have difficulty seeing it. Make sure to extend the shoulder line around the whole board. 
  • To adjust the mitre gauge, place one arm of the bevel gauge against the blade. Unlock the mitre gauge so it can slide along the table. Adjust the mitre gauge until it is parallel to the opposite bevel gauge arm. Lock the mitre gauge in place. 

You can also speed up the process by using the best dovetail jig, which helps you cut your joints faster and with more precision.

Conclusion

Dovetail joints have a reputation for being difficult to create, due to the exactness of the cuts required. This interlocking joint can be effectively constructed using a table saw

Start by cutting the tails, then transfer the pattern to the companion board and cut the pins. When all the waste has been removed, the two boards should lock together, creating a beautiful and sturdy dovetail joint.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.