Tool Chest Details – Dovetails


This isn’t a tutorial on dovetails. The world needs another one of those like we need another portal to hell below an abandoned Chi-Chi’s.

Instead, this blog entry is about some of the details that are specific to making a tool chest. So not all these bullet points apply to drawers or other casework.


Gang Cut Your Tails
I’m indifferent as to which part of the joint I cut first. It really depends on the type of dovetail joint. When I cut massive dovetails for a tool chest, I cut my tails first because I can gang-cut the tails. When I introduced this idea to my classes on building tool chests, we saved almost a day.

The only downside to dovetailing through 2” of pine is that the sawdust can pack into the gullets of your saw and stop the cutting action. Here’s how to avoid this problem with the flick of the wrist. Once you are about 1/8” deep into the kerf, begin lifting the saw a smidge on your return stroke. This allows the sawdust to fall from the teeth and clears your gullets.

Also, here’s a tip when gang cutting: Clamp the boards together as shown above when inserting and removing the boards in your vise. This makes it effortless to keep the boards aligned throughout the cutting.


A Joint in the Tails
Many old books on building tool chests recommend you stagger any glue lines in your panels for a tool chest so that the entire chest doesn’t split in the middle if/when your glue fails.

I have seen many pieces of messed-up old furniture, but I have never seen a glue-line failure on four panels. So I generally don’t worry about this advice.

I do, however, try to bury the glue line in the middle of a tail. If your glue is sub-optimal you don’t want it running through the sloping wall of a tail. A piece of your tail could break off during assembly. This I have seen.


Chop to the Side of Your Chisel
If you stand at the end of your panel while chopping then you have no clue if your chisel is 90° to the surface of the panel. You need to stand or sit to the side so you can see if the chisel is 90° or some other angle if you are undercutting the floor of the joint.


Good Marks
Finally, I recommend you use traditional marriage marks on the edges of your panels. By looking at these marks you can instantly see if you have your panels messed up. I have watched hundreds of students ignore my advice and use their own A-A, B-B, C-D system and mess things up royally at glue-up. No marking system is perfect, but marriage marks are the best method I’ve found.

Plus, it’s a universal language. I can see if someone is screwing things up from across a room and attempt to save them if they are using marriage marks. If your marking system involves emojis, Pokemon and the compass rose, only Squirtle can save your butt.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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22 Responses to Tool Chest Details – Dovetails

  1. Jeff says:

    Could you perhaps do another post explaining your marriage mark system?

  2. I will never look at an abandoned Chi-chi’s the same way again.

  3. johncashman73 says:

    I still laugh and shake my head at the guy who marked his parts using which direction was north.

    • Larry says:

      I had a dislexic partner and that’s how we communicated on any directions but up and down. If I talked about the right side of a carcase was like flipping a coin.

      On a house build, telling him where to place a rafter I had just cut was “towards Littlestown” or “towards Hanover”

      Sitting in a truck, directions were “my side” and “your side”.

  4. Murray Heidt says:

    How long is your moxon vise?
    What’s the spacing between the hand screws?

    Thank you, have a great week

  5. Bill Bockstahler says:

    I too would like you to explain you system of marriage marking.

  6. Jake Strait says:

    Thanks for the image showing how far off your line you are when you aren’t looking for accuracy.

  7. Paul Fickes says:

    When gang sawing, I’m confused about which sides are the sides clamped together?

    Lost Art Press posted: ” This isn’t a tutorial on dovetails. The world needs another one of those like we need another portal to hell below an abandoned Chi-Chi’s. Instead, this blog entry is about some of the details that are specific to making a tool chest. So not all these “

  8. Paul Fickes says:

    Which sides of panel are clamped together with gang sawying the dovetails?

    • johncashman73 says:

      I’m not certain about what you’re asking, but the front and back are tail boards, and the two ends have pins. Gang the front and back to cut tails, then mark the pin boards individually from the tails.

      • Hi John,

        I suspect he’s asking if the tailboards are clamped together as they will be oriented in the chest. Or if they are clamped together with both outside surfaces facing the sawyer.

        The answer is: Either is fine.

        I gang saw with the panels clamped as they will be oriented in the chest. My reasoning is that it helps me remember to keep things oriented using the marriage mark throughout the process.

        • Paul Fickes says:

          Thanks John and Chris, yes Chris, that’s what I was wondering. Also have the Trad Eng Chest Tool chest, and couldn’t tell from that, concluded it didn’t matter so long as one paid attention obviously to the back side and the baseline. In both cases of orientation in clamping, would have to be perfect front and back, But, I still wondered if there was a “correct” way or not. Have my panels built and followed the “as oriented” guideline. Yes, it helped in orientation for sure. Thank you, Paul

  9. Steve Kindem says:

    My dovetails improved immediately in quality and speed when told to view and chop dovetails from the side. Thanks for the tip (Pt. Townsend class)

  10. Mike says:

    Symbols confuse me. I ride in an elevator 10x a day and I still stare at the door open and close symbols and can’t remember which is which. “Open” and “close” would be so much better. I work by myself in the shop. Sometimes I write full sentences on my work. Such as “this is a taste space for sliding dovetail key, chop off at line and re-cut once fit is dialed in” Works for me.

    I went from an A to a C in high school Anatomy when the teacher decided to adopt “techniques for visual learners” and instead of writing sentences on the board she went with flow charts and diagrams.

  11. Spencer Stricklin says:

    I’m stuck on Chi-chis….the implication is that there is-or has been- one or more portals to hell floating around there?! Me thinks Chris’ previous journalistic experience was for the weekly world news. 😉

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