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December 11, 2017

How To Choose A Dovetail Jig

How to choose a dovetail jig is one of the most common questions facing woodworkers. You might disagree on the best way to cut them, but one thing that most woodworkers can agree on is that a dovetail joint is one of the most attractive joints around, plus it’s incredibly strong.

It’s also generally regarded as the mark of quality workmanship, and for good reason – if you’ve ever tried cutting any kind of dovetail by hand, you’ll know it’s one of the most difficult joints to master. It takes a lot of practice and if you want to see how an expert woodworker does it, watch this video on Hand Cut Dovetail Joints

The thing with dovetail joints is, unless you’re a professional woodworker, you’re not cutting them every day. However, when you do need them, they’ve got to be right!

Luckily, you don’t have to be an expert or a professional. Armed with a router and a dovetail jig, creating accurate, good-looking dovetail joints is within the capabilities of everyone. So what should you look for in a dovetail jig?

There is a wide variety of router jigs designed for cutting dovetails. Some can cut both through-dovetails and half-blind dovetails. Some allow variable spacing of the pins and tails. Many offer alternate templates for cutting finger joints or sliding dovetails. When making your decision about which type of dovetail jig to buy, you need to consider:

Points to Consider when Choosing a Dovetail Jig

  • HOW much do you want to pay – the more you pay, the more features you get
  • WHAT type of dovetails do you want – through, half-blind, sliding, variably-spaced
  • HOW often will you use it – if you use a dovetail jig every day you can justify paying more and quickly learn how to use all the capabilities
  • HOW easy is it to set up – if you buy a top of the range dovetail jig and, like most of us, you only use it infrequently, you may have to re-learn how to set it up every time

All the dovetail jigs that we have reviewed on this site can produce accurate dovetail joints, so the decision comes down to choosing a jig that offers the best balance between the diversity of joints it can create and the complexity of its setup and adjustment. There are 3 main types of dovetail jig:

Stock Mounted Through Dovetail Templates

These dovetail templates are the most basic. They have no jig body, and no clamping system. Instead, you screw them to a backing board which you then clamp directly to your stock to form a row of uniform equally spaced through dovetails.

Keller 135-1500 Journeyman Dovetail JigThese dovetail jig templates come in pairs. One has a row of parallel fingers used with a dovetail bit to form the tails. The matching template has a row of tapered fingers used with a straight bit to form the pins. Usually these templates are joined back-to-back, although the more expensive versions come as two separate templates.

They offer the advantages of being easy to set up and of having no stock width limit. For example, an 18″ template can be moved across a 32″ wide board. Most other types of dovetail jig are limited to 24″. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. A good choice is the Keller 1500 Journeyman

Bench Mounted Template Dovetail Jigs

These are the most popular type of dovetail jig and allow you to cut through, half-blind, sliding and miniature dovetail joints. Typically, these dovetail jigs feature templates that mount to a jig body, which has two clamping systems, one vertical and one horizontal.

Porter Cable 4212 dovetail jigThe vertical clamping position is used for through dovetail pins and through dovetail tails, half blind tail pieces, and sometimes box joints. The horizontal clamp is used only for half blind pin pieces. The best example of this type of dovetail jig is the Porter Cable 4212

The main disadvantage of these dovetail jigs is that your pins and tails are all the same size and uniformly spaced. This gives the joint a machine-made look that is not as attractive as a variable spaced joint. You will also have to make your stock match the incremental pitch of the template, as all dovetail joints should begin and end with a half pin.

Variable Guide Finger Dovetail Jigs

The third and most advanced type of dovetail jigs was invented by the founder of Leigh Industries. They replaced the fixed pitch template with a row of moveable guide fingers.

Leigh D4R Dovetail JigThis is truly an improvement over the template dovetail jigs because it allows you to get closer to the look of hand-cut dovetails by forming narrower pins and wider tails, it allows you to vary the spacing, and it also allows you to work with any width of stock, up to the capacity of the jig.

The original is still the best example of this type of dovetail jig – the Leigh D4R

However, with these type of jig, versatility comes at a price. The dovetail joints that they can produce are amazing, but the jigs are quite complex. They require a lot of adjustments, settings and test cuts, so they have a steeper learning curve than other types of dovetail jig – you can’t have it both ways. You need to consider how often you will use this type of jig, not just because of the price but because, unless you’re a professional woodworker, you may have to re-learn how to use it every time you pull it off the shelf.

To help you decide whether you need a variable guide finger jig, see our guide Dovetail Jig Templates – Fixed vs Variable

Conclusion
As a general rule, dovetail jigs are like everything else – you get what you pay for. Don’t expect a stock mounted through dovetail jig like the Keller 1500 Journeyman to do what the more expensive jigs like the Leigh D4R will do. And don’t expect any dovetail jig to do it all for you! Whatever type you go for, dovetail jigs demand very accurate work and the more complex the joint, the more time consuming the set up. But then the better it looks.

It comes down to what you want out of it compared to what you are prepared to put in, which is probably why the bestselling dovetail jig on the market is the Porter Cable 4212, a top of the range bench mounted template dovetail jig, which offers the best all-round combination of price, options, and ease of use.