How to Use a Dovetail Jig

How to use a dovetail jig (7 tips and tricks)

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Making dovetail drawers is easy once you conquer your fear of how to use a dovetail jig. In fact, many people have given up on this high quality drawer construction in fear of this simple jig. But, in this article we’ll show you seven tips on using a dovetail jig to help you master building dovetail drawers .

I rarely take the easy way out when woodworking.

In fact, I prefer to build four corner dovetail drawers over the standard (front) corner dovetail drawers.

Why? Well, I’ve found using a four corner dovetail (front and back of drawer) isn’t much harder. And it skips needing to dado the back drawer side.

In this article we’ll show you:

  • How to setup your dovetail jig
  • Which router bit to use
  • Order and layout of drawer sides 
  • Cutting tips
  • Adjusting for errors
  • Avoiding chip-out
  • Four corner dovetails

TIp 1: Start With a Quality Dovetail Jig

Planning to make a lot of dovetail drawers? 

Not interested in just making the standard dovetails? 

Maybe you’re not sure what a half-blind, rabbeted half-blind, sliding dovetail, through dovetail, box joint or even miniature dovetails are. But, if you’re plans include experimenting you’ll want a jig you can grow into.

Then my first tip is setting yourself up for future dovetail projects by having a jig that will produce a high quality dovetail and let you grow into it.

Tip 2: Finish all Planing and Sanding First to 180+ Grit

Planing Dovetail Drawer Sides

We’ll get into measuring and dimensions of drawers in another article.

But prior to stepping up to the dovetail machine you’ll want to make sure you’ve properly prepared the wood. Because once you’ve dovetailed the drawer you CANNOT change the thickness of the sides or you’ll end up with a loose / gap-filled drawer.

Curious about the blue “X”? I use a wood crayon to mark my panels when I’m roughing them out. That way, in a pile of 50 panels, I always know the layouts and which boards go where.

Not happy about my surface glue? While I usually use a wood glue scraper I was going to toss my planer blades after this job. So I skipped the scraping.

Using a Drum Sander on Drawer Side Panels

So, here’s the basic steps to prepare the wood:

  1. Plane the wood to thickness (I like 11/16″ on most drawers)
  2. Rip the sides to width and cut to length
  3. Cut the drawer bottom dadoes on the table saw
  4. Sand the sides in a drum sander to 180-grit or finer

Pictured above you can see a stack of drawer sides that are going through my 22×44″ Jet drum sander.

Tip 3: Cutting the Drawer Dadoes

Dovetail Drawer Dadoes

As mentioned in Tip #2, I always cut the dadoes BEFORE I make the dovetail drawers.

Why do it in this order?

Two primary reasons:

  1. In a soft drawer side the table saw will always leave marks. By cutting dadoes after planing you’l be able to sand those out.
  2. You can’t change the thickness of a drawer slide after the dovetails have been cut.

So when do we learn how to use a dovetail jig? 

Let’s get started now that you have the preparation steps down.

Tip 4: Make Spares

Spare drawer sides

There’s not much to this tip other than speed.

You will make a wrong cut with your dovetails. At least until you’ve mastered the process and markings.

So, rather than stop production and try to manufacturer a few new boards just plan ahead and have 5-10% of your drawer sides as spares. Don’t make a mistake? Well, then save them for next time.

Tip 5: Setting up the Dovetail Jig for the First Cut

How to Use a Dovetail Jig Setting Up First Cut

Repetition is the key to success when using a dovetail jig. 

Since all jigs differ, the #1 rule is read the manufacturers instructions.

Haven’t used a dovetail jig before? Then go with the most straightforward cut possible. 

Here’s a few pointers to pay attention to:

  1. Make sure the drawer side locks are firm and won’t slip under pressure of the router.
  2. Lock the top piece in first
  3. Install the Porter Cable 7-Degree  dovetail router bit into your palm router and set to the height of your wood thickness (verify with your jig settings).
  4. Lock a 3-4″ wide test piece in both top and bottom
  5. Cut a test dovetail, fit, and adjust until perfectly tight

Tip 6: Use the Dadoes for Guides

Dovetail Jig Guide Using Dadoes

This is how I’ve made thousands of drawers.

With the dadoes on the outside of the jig. And the drawer front on the top of the jig. 

Find a pattern and a groove (no pun intended) and once you have a working drawer just remember the cycle.

Tip 7: How to Avoid Splintering with a Dovetail Jig

How to Avoid Dovetail Jig Splinters

Want to avoid splinters on your dovetails? 

Well, if you’ve used a router long enough you probably have tried running the router backwards with every-so-slight pressure to knock the edges off.

And guess what? That same trick works on dovetail drawers and jigs.

So, on every drawer I always make a shallow pass across the entire inside of the drawer and carefully at the top edge of the drawer. After this, it’s almost impossible for the wood to noticeably splinter.

How to Avoid Dovetail Jig Splinters
Print

How to Use a Dovetail Jig

Learning how to use a dovetail jig is more than mastering the jig - it involves having the drawer sides fully prepped, sanded, dados cut, and a router setup for the task.
Makes 1 Dovetail Drawer
Author E.D. Tryon
Cost $10-200

Equipment

  • Belt Sander
  • Dovetail Jig
  • Router
  • Table Saw
  • Dado Blade
  • Router Bit

Supplies

  • 2 Drawer Sides
  • 1 Drawer Back
  • 1 Drawer Front
  • 1 Drawer Bottom

Instructions

  • If you don't have a jig, the first step will be determining what's best based on your planned use. Jigs range from $50 to $200 and more with simple to complex dovetail templates.
    How to Use a Dovetail Jig
  • Dovetail drawers require either a softwood or hardwood drawer side. The next step will be gluing up your panels. Due to glue drying time this is best done the day prior.
    Sanding Wood in Drum Sander
  • For a high quality, tight dovetail jig fit the drawer sides will need to be sanded to a finished thickness. And for this step I like to sand to 180 grit on my drum sander, then move to the table saw for dados.
  • Before cutting the first dovetail it's important to have the groove cut to hold the drawer bottom. And, while you can accomplish this with a few passes on a standard blade, for a quantity of drawers it's best to use a stack dado blade.
  • If it's your first time using your new dovetail jig you'll want to practice on scraps until you understand the sequence. So, first, layout a test drawer like a real drawer, go through the rotations of the boards and get comfortable on the sequencing.
    And fine tune the jig and router bit until you achieve a snug fitting joint.
  • Cut your First Dovetail
  • Finish Dovetails
  • Assemble Dovetailed Drawer

Dovetail Jig Manufacturers

Like most other jigs, there are a variety of manufacturers of dovetail jigs.

Here’s a few links to help you decide which is the right jig for  you:

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a dovetail jig?

While drawers can be made without a dovetail jig, drawers made with dovetails are considered higher quality for both their looks and durability. As dovetails provide a very tight drawer construction with interlocked wood joints and maximum glue surface they will withstand decades of use. So, choosing to use a dovetail jig is a choice in the style, quality and durability of your drawers.

What is the best dovetail jig to buy?

The best dovetail jig to buy is the one that’s right for your budget and uses. While dovetail jigs are available for upwards of $200 and more, if that will be more than you’ll use a jig then purchasing a jig for $50 will make more sense. And allow you to invest your tool budget elsewhere. Popular brands, however, are Porter Cable and Rockler.

What angle is a dovetail drawer joint?

Angles of dovertail drawers can vary by the hardness of the wood. Generally angles of 7-degrees to 14-degrees are common; with higher angles in softer woods.

Other Woodworking Jigs

There are a wide variety of woodworking jigs available to make projects easier. 

And honestly, they are all almost invaluable at allowing DIY’ers and professionals alike achieve a higher quality cabinet or furniture project.

Be sure to check out our other guides to jigs:

Interesting Finds

Last update on 2020-09-24 at 01:55 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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