Sliding Trays… and dovetails

Followers of my Instagram feed will know that the tool chest is now finished, although I am a couple of blog posts behind at the moment. The next stage of the build was to construct the three sliding trays which will hold the smaller tools not appropriate to sit on the floor of the chest (with my planes) or in the moulding plane corral or saw till. All three trays are made out of 1/2″ thick pine and dovetailed at the corners, with hardwearing oak bottoms. All three are 9″ deep, and the top two trays are 2 3/4″ tall, while the bottom tray is 5 1/2″ tall.

The most important dimension when preparing the stock for the trays is the width of the front and back pieces. The trays must be tight fitting inside the chest so as to avoid binding. I appreciate that this sounds counterintuitive, but if there is any slack in the trays they will twist and bind on their runners. So as with the other pieces which needed to be friction fit on the internal fit out of the chest, I prepared the stock for all three trays over length, and then trimmed with my 9 1/9 low angle block plane until all the pieces fitted snuggly on their respective runners.

Now, there comes a time on every woodworking blog where the author feels the need to write a detailed post on how to hand cut dovetail joints. So far I have resisted following the trend (how many more posts on this topic does the internet really need, right?), but this appears to be a prime opportunity to succumb to the inevitable. So here goes…


The dovetails are orientated with the tails on the sides of the trays, and pins on the front and back pieces. This helps the trays resist racking forces when pulled and pushed along their runners. I cut my tails first, and my initial step whenever dovetailing is to mark the base line on all sides of my tail boards using a marking gauge set to the full width of the work piece. I then cut a shallow rebate (or rabbet, depending on which side of the pond you are from) of no more than 1/8″ on the inside face of tail boards using a Veritas skew rabbet plane (although a large shoulder plane would do at a pinch). This rebate has a number of purposes, which will be come clear further down.


Numbers frighten me (I am but a simple construction lawyer, after all) so instead of calculating the correct width or my dovetails and pins I prefer to step them off using dividers. As a starting point, the width of the half tail at each end of the work piece is always equivalent to half the thickness of the workpiece. With that dimension marked on, I then adjust the dividers until I can fit the correct numbers of tails and pins between the two half pins (each span of the divider should equate to a tail and a pin). Easy.


With the number and position of the tails pricked out using my dividers, I then mark on the detail using the excellent Saddle Square by Sterling Tool Works, being sure to clearly cross hatch the waste to be removed (no one wants to chop off their tails, but everyone has done it once). For all my marking out operations when cutting dovetails I use a mechanical pencil loaded with 0.3mm lead – this lead is fine enough to drop right into the kerf of a marking knife or gauge, and makes for a very accurate line.


I also prefer to gang-cut my tail boards wherever possible. Here the two tail boards for a tray are placed back to back and the tails cut with my 10″ Bad Axe Doc Holliday dovetail saw. After gang cutting 1″ thick southern yellow pine tail boards for the tool chest carcase, cutting 1/2″ thick white pine was no challenge at all, and the saw slipped through the stock like butter.


The waste is then sawn out from between the tails using a coping saw, cutting as close to the base line as possible (the saw of the coping blade drops down into the kerf left by the dovetail saw very easily).


Instead of using a coping saw to remove the waste from the half pins at each side of the tail board, I use my Bad Axe 12″ carcase saw to cut down the baseline and remove the waste. This saw is finely toothed and leaves a glassy surface which requires no additional cleanup on these cuts.


The sockets between the tails are then cleaned up, paring what little waste remains back to the baseline using a sharp chisel and mallet (I use a 16oz mallet by Blue Spruce Toolworks), with special attention given to removing any junk from the corners under the tails. When paring, I start from the front of the piece, and pare to halfway through the thickness of the piece before flipping over and finishing off from the back. This prevents any blowout on the back edge, and also keeps the floor of the tail board perfectly flat. The edge of the rebate cut into the back edge of the tail board also gives the chisel a vertical surface to register against when paring.


With the tail board complete, it is next a matter of transferring the layout to the pin board, and this is where the rebate on the tail board comes into its own. First off I mark out the  base line on the pin boards, although unlike with the tail boards, the base line is the thickness of the tails and not the thickness of the full work piece. For this reason, I prefer to keep two marking gauges handy when dovetailing – a Titemark gauge and the lovely cocobolo 4″ marking gauge made for me by Jeff Hamilton.


Fixing the pin board in the vise, I lay the tail board on top, and secure it in place with a weight (usually my bench plane). The rebate registers against the pin board and stops the tail board from shifting during the layout process. I then use a Blue Spruce small marking knife to mark the position of the tails onto the top edge of the pin board. Removing the tail board, the position of the pins can be marked down to the baseline using the Sterling Tool Works Saddle Square, and marking knife, and then all knife lines marked in with a fine pencil. It is then a case of sawing and chopping the waste as before. One of the best tips I have received on dovetailing was from Chris Schwarz, who firmly advocates cutting the pins a thousandth of an inch to the waste side of the line to ensure a nice tight joint (apparently the Aussies refer to this unit of measurement as a “bees’ dick“, who knew?!). Sawing to one side of the line rather than on the line takes some practice, but this has definitely improved my dovetails.


The final step is to gently chamfer the inside corners of the tails (leaving the first 1/8″ of each corner un-chamfered) to ease assembly, and then gluing up. I hammer my dovetails together with a rubber deadblow mallet. Ordinarily I would check dovetail assemblies for square, and clamp up while the glue dries. Here I was less concerned that the trays were square than I was that they were the same shape as the interior of the tool chest. Accordingly, once the trays were assembled and the excess glue cleaned away, I wedged each of them onto their runners in the chest so that they would conform to the shape of the chest (which is not perfectly square). Because I had deliberately made the trays quite snug, the chest acted as a large clamp while the glue cured.

5 thoughts on “Sliding Trays… and dovetails

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