Use Dividers for Quick & Easy Dovetail Layout – No Measuring

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Editor’s note: This dovetail method is referenced in the October 2021 issue of Popular Woodworking, so we are republishing it to the home page. The blog below was originally published in September 2012 to coincide with the release of the video. 

I’m in the midst of making a place to put my woodworking stuff, a la Christopher Schwarz’s “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” The picture at left shows my dire need for just such a receptacle. (And it perhaps also shows a need to cull my collection.)

It’s the same chest build Chris is teaching to a full house of students right now at Roy Underhill‘s The Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, N.C., and although we started on the same day, as Chris’s blog reveals, the students are well ahead of me. (I’m guessing they’ve had fewer meetings to attend in the last few days.)

This chest, when finished, will be painted on the exterior (likely a slate blue – which will surprise exactly no one who knows me), so the dovetail joinery won’t show. And, I want it to look sturdy and rugged (and actually be sturdy and rugged). So I elected to lay out big tails and fairly big pins rather than fuss around with delicate and refined.

I’m gang-cutting the tails (which is why I’m going tails-first on this one) because even though they’re large, there are still a lot of them. I might even be brave enough to “gang cope” the majority of the waste before separating the two tailboards for chopping. Maybe.

But no matter what size tails you like, I think it’s easiest to lay them out using two sets of dividers – it’s a lot faster and simpler than measuring the layout on all four ends of the tailboards. Plus, as long as you don’t adjust either set of dividers after you’ve determined the spacing, all of your dovetail layout will match perfectly (something that’s a challenge to achieve when using a tape measure or rule). I make no promises, however, about perfection once the sawing starts.

I used a pencil to mark the tails, because I find it’s a waste of time to bother knifing in whichever part of the joint you choose to cut first. When I transfer to the pin board, then I’ll grab my marking knife.

While we’ve written about this dovetail layout method several times over the years, until I actually saw it done, I didn’t really get it. So I’ve filmed a short video to show the method. Apologies for the several title cards and words. I was planning a voice over, but one of the cats kept meowing in the background (they love to play in the shavings pile when I’m in my shop/study). So instead, you get guitar music (because I’m not cool enough for the banjo).

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