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Tool Review: Dovetail Jigs

Tool Review: Dovetail Jigs

Whether they’re hidden in a drawer joint or left exposed to grace the corners of an heirloom blanket chest, dovetails say craftsmanship. In this review we took an in-depth look at the different types of dovetails found in fine woodworking and the jigs woodworkers use to make them.

A Brief Tale About Tails
Let’s face it, woodworkers today have it pretty easy. Biscuit joiners, brad nailers, and good glue and screws make joinery relatively simple. But before such conveniences, there was still need to strongly join boards. The dovetail was one ingenious solution.

The drawings at left show how flared tails cut in the end of one board slip into tapered sockets in the mating board. That board also has “pins” between the sockets. The interlocking pins and tails create a strong joint, even without fasteners or glue.

Interestingly, the look of the tails is what appeals to many people. But the fact dovetail joints look great is really a happy accident. Strength is the dovetail’s strong suit. Grab the pin board and try to pull the joint apart — it’s just about impossible.

Through Dovetails
The first dovetails were what we now call “through” dovetails. The ends of both boards are visible in this kind of joint. Today, through dovetails are common on boxes and blanket chests where they make a great decorative accent.

Half-Blind Dovetails
Half-blind dovetails, on the other hand, are only visible on one side of the joint. The tails are shorter and fit into sockets cut only partway through the pin board’s thickness.

Half-blind dovetails are typically used when there’s need for a strong joint that’s hidden from view. That makes half-blind dovetails great for drawer joints. The “pin” board is used as the drawer front, so the joinery doesn’t show. Pull the drawer open, and the sides have no choice but to come along with the front since they’re locked together.

Even non-woodworkers are often familiar with half-blind dovetails, since they’re used in many high quality kitchen cabinets.

Half-Blind Dovetail Jigs
If you’re building kitchen cabinets or a chest of drawers, a half-blind dovetail jig is a good place to start. They are, in general, the least-expensive dovetail jigs. The Vermont-American (see above) only cost me $40 at a home center. The Porter-Cable, even with its all-metal construction, was still under $100.

Once the initial setup is done, you can turn out drawers quicker than with about any other joinery method. Plus, since the joints lock tightly together, getting the drawer glued up square is easy.

Part of the reason half-blinds are so quick and easy is that both of the mating boards are clamped and cut at the same time. Stop blocks on the jig even establish the necessary offset between the pieces automatically. The router — fitted with a dovetail bit — rides on a template often called a comb. A bushing mounted to the router base follows the template’s fingers, guiding the router and bit.

To use the jig, just move the router in and out of the template’s fingers. It’s almost foolproof. I say almost because you can mess up by lifting the router up after cutting, rather than sliding it out. Do this, and the bit may chew right through the template. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve done it before, but only once! On the downside, most half-blind jigs won’t accept very wide boards. But drawers usually aren’t more than 5" or 10" high.

Through Dovetail Jigs
If your woodworking leans more toward building boxes and hope chests than building drawers, a through dovetail jig may be a better choice for you. That’s because these jigs allow you to create dovetails that look like those traditionally cut by hand.

When it comes to jigs that only cut through dovetails, there are just a couple players in the market. The model 1500 from Keller is one of a few from that company. The Katie Jig is about the only other choice. Expect to pay around $150 and $250 respectively, including bits.

You’ll quickly notice that these jigs look quite a bit different than the half-blind models. They don’t have clamping bars or knobs; just a two-sided template attached to a base. And instead of the workpiece clamping to the jig, the jig clamps onto the workpiece.

The template on a through jig is two sided. One side is for the tails, the other for the pins. That means each board gets routed separately. Plus, these jigs require two different bits. A tapered dovetail bit cuts the tails, and a straight bit cuts the pins. And instead of using a bushing, these bits are guided by a bearing.

Two bits and a two-sided template means through jigs require more setup time than half-blind jigs. The first board to be joined has to be aligned, at least initially, by eye. Then this marking gets transferred to the mating board. Because of that, there’s more chance for error. The Katie does have simple stops that help with alignment of the remaining boards, and it’s designed so both workpieces can be clamped to the jig at one time.

With either jig you also have to switch bits to cut a complete joint. To keep from switching bits constantly, the manufacturers advise cutting all the tails, then all the pins. Again, alignment can be an issue. If you’re lucky enough to have two routers, setting up the straight bit in one and the dovetail bit in the other really speeds up the process.

While their design does make them more complicated to use, these jigs offer a nice benefit. Either jig will handle stock wider than the jig itself. There are a couple other things worth mentioning about these jigs. The Keller and Katie are remarkably similar in basic looks and operation. In fact, both use the same router bits. But the spacing between the template fingers is adjustable on the Katie, which allows cutting dovetails of varied sizes for more of a hand-cut look.

Combination Dovetail Jigs
What happens if you want to be able to cut both through and half-blind joints? That’s when you may want to look at one of the big dogs of dovetailing, the do-it-all combination jigs. As the name implies, these jigs will cut half-blind and through dovetails. In some cases, combination jigs will cut other joints such as box joints, sliding dovetails, and dovetails with unusual shapes.

It probably goes without saying, but expect to pay more for a combination jig than for either type of single-purpose jig. How much? Prices range from around $120 for the Craftsman to $350 or so for the Leigh (see above). Again, there are models priced in between.

Don’t think, though, that you’ll get everything you need to cut every joint for that price. Manufacturers differ on this. Craftsman includes both through and half-blind templates. The Porter-Cable comes with a half-blind template only. Leigh’s template can cut both types of joints. All manufacturers offer accessory templates.

Though you will lay out more money to fully accessorize these jigs, their versatility is impressive. And remember that the Porter-Cable and Leigh jigs were designed with professional woodworking and cabinet shops in mind. You could park a truck on either one.

Like half-blind jigs, combination jigs are stationary, with the workpieces clamping to the jig. And that means there are restrictions on the width of stock the jigs can handle. Sizes up to 24"-wide will accommodate most any need, though. In order to cut so many types of joints, combination jigs do have a lot of stops that need adjusting. On some jigs you can also adjust spacing between pins, and even the width of the pins. If you want to do it all, a combination jig may be for you.

Decisions, Decisions!
No one-page description of each type of dovetail jig can’t possibly tell you everything you need to know before buying one. But my idea here isn’t to recommend a specific brand. What I can do is offer some insight on which type to buy, based on my own experience, and that of the Workbench staff. I said up front that the variety of jig types and prices complicates making a decision. But if you’re looking for your first dovetail jig, I think the choice is simple — buy a half-blind jig.

First, half-blind models are by far the least expensive. And to me it doesn’t make sense to pay for extra bells and whistles that may not get used. Down the road, you can always upgrade to a more sophisticated model.

Second, half-blind jigs are the easiest to understand. Cutting dovetails means working with your pieces inside out and backwards. That’s confusing enough without needing to make umpteen adjustments just to get started.

Third, we all dream of building heirloom projects. But for most DIY woodworkers (at least those of us at Workbench) the projects on the must-do list get higher priority than any on the want-to-do list. For me the must-dos include shop-built kitchen cabinets, night stands, a chest of drawers, and a computer desk for a friend.

All of those projects have one thing in common: drawers. And I have yet to find a faster, simpler way to build drawers than with a half-blind jig. Try it sometime and I think you’ll agree.

Once you’ve mastered half-blinds, you may get the itch to try through dovetails. Then you’ll have to decide which way to go — a through jig or combination jig. Things get a bit more sticky here.

To my eye, jigs that cut just through dovetails are easier to use for projects like blanket and hope chests. These projects usually mean dealing with panels that are long and wide. That makes them tough to wrestle into a jig. Clamping the jig to the workpiece and being able to move it to accommodate wide stock is easier.

So when do I recommend a combination jig? If you want the freedom to cut both types of dovetails, and you’ll be cutting a lot of them, a combination machine may be your best choice.

And by all means, if you do any production-type work, get one of the heavy-duty models. While you’re out shopping, don’t forget there are a few other things you’ll probably need to get started. Check out the accessories page for details.

Dovetail jigs don’t usually come with everything you need. Be sure to check the package for anything else you have to buy. Chances are you’ll need a bit (or bits) and at least one size guide bushing.

Bits: Half blind jigs just require one bit, generally a 1/2"-cut, 14° dovetail bit. Through and combination jigs require a straight bit as well. Invest in good quality, carbide-tipped bits for the best performance.

Guide Bushings: Router manufacturers make guide bushings for their routers, or you can pick up a universal base and guide bushing set for under $20 that fits most round-base routers.

(c) 2002, August Home Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.