Hand Cut Dovetails – Suspended Utensil Shelves

The number one purpose for the majority of projects I make is to solve a problem or serve a purpose…which isn’t really the case with this one. The primary goal for this project was to have some peaceful skill building shop time…and then hopefully have a functional project that will serve a purpose.

In the beginning of 2016 I built a solid woodworking workbench with the idea of getting into more hand tool woodworking. Obviously the workbench isn’t limited to just hand tools as power tools can be used with it as well but there are features of the workbench that really cater well to hand tool woodworking. The bench has quite a bit of mass, the joinery is solid so no racking is present, and due to a couple vises, bench dogs, and hold fasts there are many convenient ways of holding material in place. The workbench along with a growing collection of hand tools has really opened a new door and a new area for woodworking growth. My goal for this project was to focus on some peaceful shop time with a few hand cut dovetails.

With the “why and how” out of the way I needed to find a “what.” For that, I settled on making a couple suspended shelves to mount below my upper kitchen cabinets next to the stove to hold commonly used utensils. This would put them within arms reach when needed and not take up valuable countertop space. For the materials I chose to use some sapele and pecan that have been sitting on my lumber rack for a quite a while.

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The first step in nearly all of my projects is to rough cut all of my material at my miter saw station. I love this miter saw station…seriously, I LOVE IT. Making a dedicated crosscut station with full material support, integrated dust collection, and a ton of storage is one of the best things I’ve done for any work space I’ve ever had. OK….back to the project.

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The sapele board was fairly flat but the pecan boards were really cupped. Even though all the material was wider than my jointer it can still be used to joint the boards. It just involves a planer and an extra step. It also requires me to remove the guard on my jointer. Don’t do this if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. With the jointer guard removed I can make an 8” wide rabbet on each of the boards.

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A planer doesn’t joint faces. It simply reduces thickness. So whatever shape the bottom of your board is in as it goes into the planer the top will remain in that shape as it exits the planer. Just a little thinner. Because the rabbeted face of the boards is indeed perfectly flat from the jointer a piece of 1/2” plywood (or similar) can be used to extend the jointed face to the bed of the planer. Then as the material passes through the top face will be planed parallel to the already flat rabbeted face.

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Once the top face is flat the plywood can be removed, the material flipped over, and the rest of the original bottom face can be flattened. I went to about 5/8” thick for all of my material.

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One last trip back to the jointer is needed to joint one edge to 90 degrees. Then that jointed edge can be ran against the table saw fence to rip the material to the final width.

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The miter saw station is great for repeatable cuts but it does have it’s limitations. In my case I find it easier and more accurate to crosscut on my table saw sled for smaller pieces or pieces that require a little more precision.

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After all of the milling process this is what we have. For each shelf there will be two horizontal pin boards on top for mounting, two vertical tail boards that will tie everything together, and one horizontal pin board for the shelf. It’s a good idea to lay out the pieces as in the orientation they will eventually be assembled and keep them this way as you work so you don’t accidentally get a couple parts mixed up.

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When it comes to dovetails I’m a tails first kinda guy. I wanted to keep the appearance very even and symmetrical so I used a pair of dividers for the layout. I previously made a video showing how to use dividers for laying out dovetails. I’ll post that video here as well.

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With the spacing determined cutting lines are drawn on the end of the board. Simply place the pen or pencil into the divider indention, slide the square against the pen, and strike a line exactly where it should be.

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I normally don’t layout the face of the cut. With a bit of practice it’s actually pretty easy to get consistent results by eye. Anyone can do this with practice. But because I was going to gang cut all of my tail boards I figured it would be a good idea to add these lines to just the front board.

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Before cutting I needed to establish where to stop the cut at. With a marking gauge set to the thickness of the material a line can be cut into both wide and both short faces of each tail board and then both wide faces of all the pin boards. There’s no need to mark the outside short faces of the pin boards because the pin boards will have a half pin exposed on both sides.

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When gang cutting like this it’s important to make sure the pin boards are clamped together nice and square. Then the end grain layout lines can be extended to all of the pieces.

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I’m starting to get a hand tool collection built up. For these I used my BearKat dovetail saw. You don’t need an expensive set of tools to make quality dovetails though. Any hand saw with sharp teeth filed to a rip cut pattern will do the job just fine.

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One of the main draws of hand cut joinery for me is how peaceful it is in the shop during the process. There’s no power tool noise and it’s extremely easy to get sucked in and totally focused on what is literally in my hands.

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Making the tail cuts is pretty much basic saw fundamentals. You obviously need to follow the line but the most important thing in my opinion is that the front to back saw motion needs to be perpendicular to the front face of the material. To start the cut I normally use my fingers to help guide the saw until the teeth are below the surface. Then the main thing I focus on is making sure the 3” or so of saw blade on my side of the work piece stays 90 degrees to the front face of the material. Human eyes are great at picking up subtle differences like if something is symmetrical or that darn picture on the wall that will never stay straight. The same holds true for seeing a right angle. Trust your eyes but occasionally check with a square when in doubt.

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There are many ways to remove the waste material. I’ll show you two on this project. The first is to do it all with a chisel. I find that this method produces great results but is a little slower for me. First use a chisel to establish a knife wall at the depth line. Then pear up a little bit of material going into the knife wall a few times. This slices the solid waste material into a few much weaker individual shavings that are easier to cut through.

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Then chop down to cut the shavings at the knife wall. They should all pull out easily by brushing your hand over the material. Repeat until you’re about half way through the thickness of the material.

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Then flip the board over and cut through the other half. Once you meet in the middle the larger chunk of waste will disconnect and can be removed.

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There’s almost always going to be a little bit of waste to clean up on the inside corners of the tails. Place the board back in the vise and slice away with a dovetail chisel. It’s also important to make sure that the bottoms of the shoulder cuts are either dead flat or a little bit under-cut. Having material sticking up will prevent the joint from closing properly.

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While were on the subject of dovetail chisels I’d like to show you mine. It’s really just a cheap bench chisel that I took to the side of a grinding wheel to round-over the top and reduce the side thickness to a single edge near the cutting tip. This allows the chisel to fit into acute angles where a standard bench chisel cannot fit without damaging the surrounding tail piece. Have an extra 1/4” chisel? Turn it into a dovetail chisel.

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Another way of removing waste, and the way I do it the vast majority of the time, is to use either a coping saw or fret saw to first cut away the bulk of the waste. I’m using a $10 coping saw for this.

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Then rotate the piece 90 degrees and remove the bulk of the half pin area with a back saw. If you get good at it you can actually cut directly on the marking gauge line and not require any chisel clean up work. I can get “good enough” results doing it that way but I really like how crisp things are after cleaning up with a chisel.

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Regardless of what method you use to remove the waste be sure to clean up the inside corners with a chisel and verify that there is no material sticking up that will get in the way. Also, be sure to check everything with a small square. If your cuts aren’t perpendicular to the front face of the material then you will have problems seating the joint later. I recommend getting one of these 2” engineer’s squares. They’re very handy. Here’s the progress with all of the tail cuts done.

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Once the tails are cut the geometry needs to be transferred to the pin boards. An easy way to do this is to set the pin board in a vise so that the top of the board is flush with the top of a hand plan that is resting on it’s side. Then slide the plane over and use it as a back leg to hold the tail board over the pin board. Use a marking knife to carefully trace the tail geometry onto the pin board without moving the tail board.

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There are two things that are very important when cutting the pin board. First, the entire saw blade thickness needs to be on the waste side of the marking knife lines but should also remove the marking knife line when the cut is made. And second, the cuts need to be exactly perpendicular to the end grain of the board. This doesn’t necessarily mean vertical. If the board isn’t vertical then you won’t be cutting vertical. An easy way to guide the saw so that you are cutting perpendicular is to first start the cut so that the teeth are slightly below the surface of the wood. Then slide the bulky end of an engineer’s square against the saw blade. If you keep the saw blade against the square while you’re making the cut then it will guide the saw perpendicular. Again, I recommend getting one of these 2” engineer’s squares. They’re very handy.

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Removing waste for the pin boards is the same as the tail boards. Whichever method works for you.

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Again, check to make sure that everything that should be square is indeed square. If everything is square and you made the cuts in the appropriate location then the first test fit should be perfect.

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The rest of this project is a rinse and repeat scenario. Lots of repetition.

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The assembly was pretty uneventful which is a great thing. All of the joints fit properly and there were no issues. I only used a tiny amount of glue on the sides of the pins. Even without glue a snug dovetail joint is pretty strong.

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With the glue dry I flushed up all of the joints with a hand plane. I didn’t want to use one of my bench dogs to act as a planing stop because due to the project’s height I thought it would put a little bit of unnecessary stress on the joint. Instead, I put a higher piece of material in my vise and used it as a vertical support planing stop. This worked great.

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There’s something really satisfying about taking end grain shavings and making the freshly shaved wood come to life. I used my WoodRiver #62 low angle jack plane for this. Super easy with a sharp blade. Generally speaking, the lower the blade angle the better it will cut end grain and the higher the blade angle the better it will cut figured wood.

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For a finish I went with satin spray lacquer. Quick, easy, and plenty durable enough for this application.

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A couple holes needed to be drilled to mount the shelves. Four holes on the shelf were drilled to allow access for a 6” driver bit. Mounting holes were also drilled on the opposite sapele pin pieces.

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The final resting place for the shelves will be in my kitchen suspended from the two cabinets that straddle the microwave. My wife said I should make stuff for the kitchen more often as prepping it for video is a guaranteed way to make me clean it.

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Here you can see the exposed dovetails. Overall I’m very pleased with the project but I think I would have used sapele for the entire build if I had to do it over again. I was hoping for a much higher contrast with the light areas of the pecan and the darker grain of the sapele but unfortunately the pecan had some dark spots. The contrast in the sapele pins looks great and I think I would have preferred that look along the entire bottom of the shelf. I’ll chalk that up as a learning experience. I’m still very pleased with the results.

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Here you can see why the lower holes were needed. They allow access to mount the shelves.

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Before I leave you with a few final images I hope that this in some way encourages you to try making dovetails if you haven’t already done so. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t turn out great right off the bat. Analyze your results and learn from them. And if dovetails just isn’t your thing then step out of your comfort zone and try something new. A year ago I said I’ll never get into making dovetails or even hand tools for that matter. Now I find the process to be relaxing, and with practice, the outcome to be very rewarding. Take care friends.

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10 Comments

  1. Tracy Norris

    Very nicely done Jay! It doesn’t appear that you used any glue on the dovetails but with the tight fit, perhaps it doesn’t need any. Again, well done!

  2. Breakinn

    Very nice work Jay. My only concern would be in it’s use. In my house when I pull one utensil three others want to follow it out :o(

  3. Rod Senn

    Nice dovetails. I liked your custom chisel idea! What dovetail saw do you favor these days? I am looking to buy my first saw and have looked at Veritas, Lie Nielsen, and Cosman’s saws. Like many tools, there are lots of options and just as many opinions.

    Rod

  4. Edison Norman

    Excellent work Jay ! Your dovetail skills are flourishing. Very nice build. Keep up the good work!

  5. Gary Phelps

    Great little project. I’m not a cook, but my wife pointed out that you should not store your spices above the stove where the are exposed to the heat. Maybe another similar suspended shelf could be in your future.

  6. Tony

    Great looking shelves, I am surprised you didnt go with your David Barron DT guide. Hand work can be very rewarding, you may find it addictive in the next few months, you should do some hand dimensioning of your stock, nail that and your on your way!

    Keep up tge good work
    Cheers, Tone

  7. Keith

    Nicely done. I’ve watching your videos probably since the beginning but do not remember ever seeing you do dovetails. Obviously you’ve had some practice and I’m wondering how long it takes, or took you to get comfortable with it.
    I’ve tried it a couple times and I’ll tell ya, I suck at it and it takes me Forever and it ends up looking like a jackolantern mouth.
    So, how long did it take for you to be happy with work?

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