Inlaid dovetails are usually made using a router and a jig. To me, the hand-cut methods that some woodworkers have shared on the Internet appear cumbersome or overly complicated. As a result, I have had no desire to try any inlaid dovetails by hand. That changed when I came across an article by Tage Frid on outlined joints. His technique is easy to understand and simple to execute. If you know how to cut a through dovetail, you can hand cut this other attractive joint, too. For this sliding-lid box – which I will use to hold my marking and layout tools – I also cut different types of grooves, as well as tongues.
Inlaid Dovetailed Box
The Outlined Joint
Tage Frid's outlined dovetail technique is illustrated in the diagram. Essentially, you prepare the typical dovetail boards and rabbet their inside faces to house the contrasting inlays. The tail and pin boards are then cut as usual and glued up. Finally, saw kerfs are cut diagonally into each joint and inlays are glued into the kerfs. I admire Frid's simple approach to tackling complex challenges.
Adjusting the plane’s fence with a hammer.
Checking the rabbet’s final depth with the saw blade.
Rabbet and Inlay the Boards
After scribing the baselines on all the boards, use your tool of choice to cut the rabbets on the boards. I used a skew rabbet plane and fixed its fence using the marking gauge's setting. The depth of the rabbet is the same as the thickness of your dovetail saw blade.
Make the accent inlays out of contrasting wood slightly thicker than the rabbet. Orient the inlay so its grain runs in the same direction as the rabbet's before you glue it. Lastly, plane and trim the inlays flush.
Marking the pins.
Using a pair of wedges to break apart the dry assembly.
Cut the Through Dovetails
Mark and cut the tails as usual. To transfer the tails to the pin boards, I always use an alignment board, which I consider to be the best method. Complete all the pins and dry fit the joints, which will keep your final assembly woes at bay. Disassemble the joints for the next step.
Cut the Grooves
There are three types of grooves to cut for this box: through grooves and stopped grooves for the bottom, and half-stopped grooves for the lid. You can cut all the grooves through and then plug the exposed groove holes; however, a finer approach is to cut the stopped grooves where they are needed, in this case on the pin boards. Through grooves are cut on the tail boards because the exposed end holes will be covered by the pin boards when assembled.
I cut through grooves with a plow plane. For half-stopped and stopped grooves, I also started with the plow plane (for the grunt work) but switched to a chisel to clean up the uncut waste at the ends of the stopped grooves.
Make the Sliding Lid
I replaced the plow's groove cutter with a tongue cutter and cut the tongue on each side of the lid. Remember to register the fence against the same face of the lid to ensure the tongues are coplanar, even if they are cut slightly off-center on the edges. Finally, carve out a finger hold of the desired shape on the top.
Complete the Inlaid Joints
Glue up the box with its bottom in place and let it cure. To add the diagonal inlays, follow these steps:
- Cut a diagonal kerf into each joint between the tail and pin baselines.
- Glue an isosceles triangular inlay into the kerf with its grain oriented in the same direction as the pin's.
- Trim the inlay flush with a sharp chisel and clean up all the joints with a plane.
1) Sawing diagonally into the join on the pin board and stopping at, but not past, the baselines.
2) Using a domed face hammer to thin down the inlay for a tight fit.
3) Trimming the inlay excess with scissors.
While many woodworkers would make an effort to remove the shoulder lines in a dovetail project, I find the gauge lines to be a mark of authentic handwork. Therefore, I kept those layout lines on the box before I applied the finish.
There you have it – a small box that even your highly-skilled fellow joint makers can admire!
Text and photos by Charles Mak
Charles Mak, now in retirement, is an enthusiastic hobby woodworker, teacher, writer and tipster. He formerly worked part-time at his local Lee Valley Tools store.
Frid, Tage. 'Three Decorative Joints'. Fine Woodworking. July/August 1982: 68 - 70.
Kirby, Ian. The Complete Dovetail. Fresno, CA: Linden Publishing. 2001.