There are many ways to layout and mark dovetails. Some masters of the trade can quickly scribe a baseline and then, channeling years of experience and finely tuned skills, put saw to bare wood and in a few short moments parallel, straight and perpendicular saw lines emerge, precisely defining the beginning of perfect hand-crafted dovetails. Mere mortals such as myself are humbled and awed. However, all is not lost for aspiring masters.
The initial layout of your dovetails sets the course for how your final project will present itself. Some decisions need to be made on the number and size of tails, full pins and half pins, aspect ratio, spacing, etc. Once those decisions have been made the design needs to be transferred to the wood. Though some masters have all this in their head, I use layout tools. They are not all that different than what others may use except perhaps the Dovetail Marker. Here is the process I use:
If using a marking gauge to lay out your baselines it is important to have square and true edges. A shooting board makes this an easy task.
For scribing the baseline I use a Tite-Mark wheel gauge and/or a Hamilton marking gauge. Both are excellent and highly recommended. I like to use several marking gauges and leave each one set to do a specific task.
I use dividers to space out my dovetails. I find them quicker to use and more accurate than using a rule. There are many writings and videos on how to use dividers to lay out dovetails so I am not going into detail. Note I am marking along the baseline here. Another method is to mark along the end grain.
To actually make the lines for sawing I use a drafting pencil and a Dovetail Marker at this stage. If I want to be ultra precise, especially on very small pieces, I will use a marking knife; for most work a fine pencil line is adequate. (When marking my pins from the completed tails I always use a marking knife.) I have used many styles of marking gauges or templates for marking the tails. The traditional way is to use a sliding bevel gauge set at the appropriate angle and a square.
Though these tools are time-proven and work well, especially on larger pieces, they are slower and have some drawbacks. You have two tools to manage and they are generally larger than the task requires so they are somewhat cumbersome to use. On narrow stock it can be difficult to properly register the bevel gauge and is prone to error. I am not saying you cannot do amazing work using a bevel gauge, however, there are other options. One such option is a Dovetail Marker that I have been using for a few years now.
I first saw this Marker in Paul Sellers’ blog: In this post he walks you through making one of these gauges step by step and it is a fun little project. As an alternative, Blue Spruce Toolworks is now making precise, machined versions of this Dovetail Marker from resin-infused figured maple. This wood is very stable and durable and will last a lifetime.
The Dovetail Marker combines a bevel gauge on on side and a square on the other. You can quickly flip from one function to the other. The Marker excels at working on any width stock by having a positive, firm shoulder to rest upon the workpiece. Another great feature is it’s compact size and how it neatly slips into an apron or even a shirt pocket.
Using the marks from your dividers and the angled faces on the Dovetail Marker, draw out tails. Note you simply need to rotate the Marker 180 degrees to mark the opposite angle:
Use the 90 degree square portion to continue the line onto the end grain:
That’s it. You are ready to saw out your tails (mark the waste portion first!) and well on your way to some beautiful dovetail joints!
We are offering the Dovetail Markers as a set of three with 1:4, 1:6 and 1:8 angle ratios. The complete set of three markers is initially priced at $65. They are also available individually for $25 each. Much care and precision goes into making these Dovetail Markers including a hand-rubbed oil finish. The size is approximately 4.0 inches long overall, 1.5 inches wide and 0.7 inches thick. Link to store: Dovetail Markers
If you prefer to make your own, please check out the link to Paul Sellers’ blog. I am sure you will find these markers to be worth the effort. Another alternative to this style of marker is one made by Sterling Toolworks which Chris calls the “Saddle-Tail“. It is a finely crafted marker that will also last a lifetime.