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    Practice Your Dovetails with a Tool Caddy

    more on woodworking safety

    Tools and Materials

    The dovetail joint seems so perplexing, so vexing for woodworkers just getting their feet wet. And despite the fact that it's perhaps the most coveted of joints, the one that most folks really want to learn, novice woodworkers rarely "practice" dovetailing on scrap blocks. Rather, I've seen folks just say "damn the torpedoes," and ram full speed ahead into a project calling for dovetails. The results are often less than stellar.

    So why not build a simple project that calls for a minimum of tails and pins--a project that offers your practice and which doesn't require super tight joinery tolerances? This simple tool caddy--I actually use mine to haul in kindling from the yard--relies on just two "tails" per corner. What's more, you can make it out of pine or poplar--both are soft and forgiving--and cover it using a classic milk paint finish that hides a lot of the imperfections in your joinery. The distressed milk paint finish is easy to produce and will make your brand-new caddy look like it's been around for a century. The general box measurements are 9-1/4-in. x 18-1/4-in. (not including the protruding dovetail joinery).

    In this, the first installment of a three-part series, we'll cover the basics of cutting dovetail joinery, with a twist. Instead of cutting joints that meet flush, we'll cut our dovetails "proud." Each pin and tail will extend 1/8-in. beyond the faces of the basic box we're constructing. The technique yields an eye-catching joint that just begs to be touched.

    Read Part II and learn how to add grooves to the box sides for a solid pine bottom, then glue up the dovetail joinery.

    Read Part III of this series and learn how to add a distressed, antique finish to your tool caddy.

    How to Make

    Dovetail Joint Basics

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeMilled lumber

    Prepare Your Stock: Begin by milling up the four box sides as well as the stock for the center divider/handle. For this project, I milled my stock to 5/8-in. thick. You could also consider using pre-thicknessed stock if you don’t have milling machinery. In that case, either 1/2-in. or 3/4-in. thick stock would suffice. Consult the photo for actual dimensions.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeMake a pattern

    Prepare a Pattern: I made a pattern from 1/4-in. thick hardboard for the center divider. The pattern makes marking out the final workpiece quick and easy. Plus, it allows you to experiment with the design. The center hand-hold cutout was achieved by using a 1-1/8-in. forstener bit on either end of the slot. Next, I used a straight-cutting router bit at my router table to nibble away the stock in between. The curves that make up the handle were traced from a variety of cylindrical objects (cans) I have in my shop. The handhold measures 3-1/2-in. in width.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeSetting a marking gauge for dovetails

    Set Your Marking Gauge "Proud": Now it’s time to cut some dovetails. Remember, we’re keeping our dovetails “proud” by 1/8-in., so the first step was to set my marking gauge to the thickness of the stock (5/8-in.) plus 1/8-in. Got that? My marking gauge is set to 3/4-in. This will leave my tails and pins proud by 1/8-in. for a nice effect.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeMarking gauge scribes shoulder lines

    Scribe the Dovetail Shoulder Lines: Scribe the ends of all four box sides using your marking gauge.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeBevel gauge and square for marking dovetails

    Lay Out Your Dovetails: Now use a bevel gauge set to a 1:6 angle and layout your tail board. I started my tails 5/16-in. in from either edge of the board. Use your bevel gauge to mark the tails on the faces of the boards. Then go back and use a square to carry the lines over and across the end grain as seen in this photo. To set your bevel gauge for a 1:6 angle, use a square to make a tick mark on the edge of your bench. Now slide the square over one inch and make a line that's exactly six inches in length. Place your bevel gauge against the small tick mark and move angle the bevel until the metal fence meets the end of your six-inch mark.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeClamping wood for dovetails

    Clamp Two Tail Boards at Once: When sawing tails, do two boards at once. Gang them up in your bench vise and skew them at the angle, so that your dovetail marks are perfectly plumb. Notice how I’m using my square here for that purpose. It’s a lot easier to saw straight down than at an angle. Neat trick!

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeSawing dovetails

    Saw the Tails: Now use your dovetail saw to define the tails. When cutting dovetails, always try to cut just to the side of the pencil marks. This is actually much more important for the pin cuts, which come next.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeCoping saw

    Saw Away the Waste: Use a coping saw to saw out most of the waste, leaving about 1/8-in. to chop away with a chisel.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeUsing a dovetail saw

    Saw Away the Half-Pins: Now lay your box sides on their edges and saw away the half-pin sockets on either edge of the boards.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeChiseling dovetail waste

    Pare Away the Waste: After using the coping saw to cut away most of the waste in between the two tails, it’s time to pare away the remaining excess with a chisel. Lay your sides face down on a bench and chop straight down using a series of mallet blows. Notice how I’ve clamped the board down with a piece of scrap atop the workpiece? The scrap block is set in line with the scribe lines for my dovetail shoulders. In this way, I can rest the chisel against the block and ensure a nice, square cut with my chisel.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeorienting a dovetailed box

    Orient and Mark Your Boards: Now it’s time to determine the final orientation of your box sides, and mark them. I generally mark adjacent corners with the same letter for easier match-up during the glue-up.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargemarking the pins board

    Mark for Dovetail Pins: Now it’s time to use your tail board to mark for the mating pins in the end grain of the other two box sides. To do this, I clamped the shorter box side in my vise. Notice how it sticks up from the bench top the same distance as the width of the handplane in the background that’s up on end? That handplane gives me a solid surface to set the board on for marking. Slide the tail board up against the pin board—being sure that the shoulder meet with one another—and use a knife to scribe the shape of the tails onto the end grain of the pin board.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargeDovetail marks

    Carry Your Marks Over: Once again, it’s always a good idea to carry that line down with a square and indicate the waste material you’ll be cutting away. In this cases, I used the letter “X” to indicate waste.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlarge

    Sawing Dovetail Pins: Now you can clamp your pin boards up and saw just to the waste side of the layout lines. You can’t really gang up two pin boards at once like we did with the tail boards. So tackle these cuts one board at a time.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlarge

    Chop the Dovetail Pins--1: With the defining saw cuts made, you can clamp your box sides down to the bench and use a chisel to pare away the waste. I don’t use a coping saw on my pin boards. The angle of the cuts makes it uncomfortable for me. Instead, I clamp the boards down using a scrap block—again resting against the shoulder line—and find an appropriately-sized chisel. The first step in excising that waste is to tap downwards along the scribe line. Then......

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlargechopping dovetail pins

    Chop the Dovetail Pins--2: Tap inwards through the end grain to lift up a chip. Continue in this manner, going back and forth until you’ve gotten about 2/3 of the way through the waste. Then flip the board onto it’s other face and complete the chopping.

    Prepare Your Stockclick to enlarge

    Here’s what your joint should look like. Don’t worry if you need to clean up some areas during the test-fitting process. Dovetails rarely fit together perfectly on the first try, unless you are a seriously-seasoned pro.