Cutting Dovetails On The Bandsaw

By David J. Marks

Dovetails are one of the strongest methods available for joining case goods.  They are also one of the most attractive because you can see the contrast between the end grain and the long grain.  Being aware of this contrast the woodworker has a variety of options available in terms of how to design the layout of the pins and tails.  If you choose to use a router template with fixed spacing, you are locked into the layout of the template.  If you choose a dovetail jig with variable spacing your options open up, but you are limited to a pin neck of one quarter inch or thicker because the router bits have one quarter inch shanks.

Cutting dovetails by hand gives you the broadest range of artistic design, although for me, I find it faster to cut them with a jig.  Using the band saw with some shop made spacers is a wonderful alternative that combines the speed of using a jig with the aesthetic qualities of varied spacing and a thin pin neck.  I recommend cutting the pins first.  The first step is to lay them out.  Use a cabinet makers scribe that is set about 1/32 of an inch more than the thickness of the stock, and scribe both faces on all of the ends.  This will allow the pins to stand a little proud after the glue up, making it easier to flush them to the sides. 

My personal preference is to leave a half pin on both sides, with a whole pin pretty close to it. This helps to lock the pieces together at the corners.  I usually place a pin in the center and then add some more pins towards the ends.  Because we are using spacers, the layout needs to be symmetrical.  Once the layout is complete we can set up the band saw.  Make an auxiliary table that is wide enough to accommodate the width of your stock out of some shop grade plywood or MDF, and clamp it to your band saw.  Tilt the bed to 14 degrees, if your band saw does not tilt to 14 degrees, and then set it up for 12 degrees or 10 degrees which will look just fine.  For this technique the band saw needs to tilt in both directions, if yours does not, then you can compensate by placing the appropriate sized wedges under one side of the auxiliary table.  Now set the stock on the bed and line up the first cut mark with the blade and screw a MDF fence to the auxiliary bed.  To control the depth of the cut, screw another piece of MDF to the bed to act as a stop block.

There is a lot of repetition cutting dovetails, so rather than moving the fence for each cut, it is more efficient to use a system of spacers.  I cut a series of spacers out of MDF that correspond to the distance between each pin and number them to avoid confusion. After the cuts are made on one end, rotate the stock and cut the other end.  Cut the second piece of side stock exactly the same way and then tilt the bed to 14 degrees in the opposite direction.  After all the cuts are made, chop out the waste with a sharp chisel, just as you would in cutting hand dovetails.  

Once the pins have been defined, set them in place on the tail boards and scribe around them with an exacto blade.  Now remove the auxiliary bed and set the table back to horizontal.  The tails can be cut freehand sawing to the waste side of the line.  Make a series of cuts inside the tail layout and cut the waste with a chisel.  Dovetails can be confusing so I always recommend doing a test run on some scrap stock.