The joy of a good dovetail jig

Like a lot of woodworkers, I’ve cut dovetails all sorts of ways, slowly by hand with a saw and chisel and a bit quicker by machine with an angled saw blade and a dado set. Till now I’ve thought of dovetail jigs as a compromise: offering quick but clunky-looking results, due to a big fat router bit making the cuts. Also, I had heard they have steep learning curves with lots of fussing. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

I just finished a big review of dovetail jigs for the next issue of Fine Woodworking magazine, and I’m here to say that the best are really amazing. I can’t give away the winners, but I can show you how these things work, and basically why they are so awesome.

Next week, I’ll show you a cool project you can build with your new dovetail jig, or any dovetail method for that matter.

So as most of you know, there are two basic kinds of dovetails, through-dovetails and half-blind dovetails (used often for drawer fronts, as you can only see the dovetails on one side of the joint). These jigs can cut both in a variety of ways. And thanks to skinnier router bits and variable spacing, the joints they make look very close to hand-cut. In fact, only the purists will know the difference.

What you get in return though is a much faster, more foolproof process. If you’ve ever struggled to make this demanding joint, or been too intimidated to try, a dovetail jig is for you. Here’s how they work, and some of the many advantages.

It starts with how easy they are to set up and use. For a start, they all use a template with fingers on it to guide a bushing that attaches to the bottom of your router base, like this:

router bushing
The bushing rides the template fingers and the bit sticks through the bushing to reach down to the wood below.

Let’s say you are going to cut through-dovetails. You always cut these one part at a time on a dovetail jig, first the tails with a dovetail-shaped bit and then the pins board with a straight bit. Both boards attach to the jig vertically.

cuttingtails
On this Leigh jig, the fingers slide and lock in any position, meaning you can vary the spacing of the tails for a hand-cut look. Plus you’ll notice the spaces between the tails are pretty skinny, not really clunky at all.
Leighlines
Then you just load the other board in the jig and flip the template over to cut perfect pins. Most of these jigs have awesome guidelines built in to help you nail the setup on the first try. 
cuttingpins
Using the tapered fingers on the other side of the template, and a straight bit in the router, you cut the pins, fast and foolproof.
throughdone
Imagine getting a fit like this, on stacks of parts. You can go nuts with dovetails!

Half-blind dovetails are different. What’s cool here is that you load both sides of the joint in the jig at once and cut everything in one pass, with a single bit and a single setup.

PCguidemarks
The Porter-Cable jig has a deep groove on the template that you just line up with the junction between the two boards. Then you are ready to cut.
Half-blindscut
Note how the two boards are offset so you can cut both at once, but then the tabs (tails) on one will line up with the little pockets (spaces between the pins) on the other. Check it out…
half-blind-one
This is how the two parts of the joint fit together.
half-blind-closing
A few taps with a rubber mallet…
half-blind-closed
… perfection in minutes.

This is just a small taste of what these jigs can do. For the whole story, plus great jigs for every budget, pick up the July/August issue of Fine Woodworking, on newsstands in early June.

 

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