No matter how quick and functional a build may be in everything we make, we should be aiming at clean, tight joints.
I don’t like excuses for shoddy joinery.
For the most part my Marples bevel edge chisels are up to this task. But some joints demand a bit more refinement and more importantly, efficiency.
If you do a lot of dovetailing, then you’ll definitely benefit from some finer chisels.
A Fine Bevel
I have a dedicated set of fine bevel edge chisels for this reason. Ones where the bevel goes to an elegant, almost sharp point along the sides.
Not only do these make it easier to cut tight joints, but they help you to do it with more pace.
Shallow Cutting Angle
Since I have a dedicated set of dovetail chisels I’m able to keep them set with a very shallow cutting angle.
This is perfect for giving a good deep chop with every cut.
Since the cleanest, most efficient way to cut any joint is to minimise the number of cuts you make, that shallow angle really counts.
Another tremendous benefit of a rather low cutting angle, (20-22 degrees) is that the chisel doesn’t have that nasty tendency to jump back past the gauge line. Efficient and clean.
Short & Agile
Along with a fine bevel, there are two other factors I consider important in a chisel for dovetailing.
Firstly I want high carbon/ O1 steel.
That goes for all my tools, and is a preference I have mainly for the swift sharpening routine this softer steel allows.
Secondly I favour them short. Short blade and a short handle. Or butt chisels.
Butt chisels are about a third of the length of a conventional chisel. I love these for dovetailing because they’re stupendously agile.
When strength is less important, a tool may as well be optimised for good handling. I favour the butt chisels for cutting dovetails because I can throw them straight on my lines and whack away. In the hand they feel more like a good knife than a chisel.
When you’re cutting dovetails, it never comes as one joint. There’s always a few drawers to do with four joints in each of them. I find my fine edged butt chisels indispensable for speed and efficiency.
These butt chisels are not designed for hitting with a mallet, but I’ve found they’re fairly well built and can take a bit of a pounding.
You certainly wouldn’t want to be making deep mortises with them, they’re far too delicate for that sort of work, but they can happily take a swipe for dovetail waste removal. I suppose it’s more of a tap than what I’d call a twat.
The point being that the edge is sharp and shallow, so it digs in will minimal force.
Skew Chisels For Dovetailing?
Yes and no.
You won’t use them for through dovetails.
But they are really useful in half blinds.
There’s some funny angles in the corners, and you need to remove waste whilst leaving the rest intact.
A skew chisel makes this awkward waste much more accessible.
If a joint’s not so fine then you can get away with a narrow straight chisel going in at an angle. The chisel will go in deeper than the waste in order to reach the point you need, but no one will know as it won’t be seen.
If the half blind’s ridiculously fine and the blind part of the joint comes very close to the face of the board, then that extra corner of the chisel can poke right out the front and be visible.
In that case I’ll use a skew.
I’ve also found a good Japanese style marking knife can work well for this task.
Skew chisels don’t have to be expensive and you can even make your own.
I have a couple and they’re very useful. But they don’t get used as much as you’d probably think. If your wondering about buying one then you probably don’t need it. You will know when you need it.
Selecting Dovetail Chisels
Not to dismiss any other brands that are available, but my set of chisels for dovetailing, are from Ashley Isles.
It’s their fine bevel edge butt chisels that I use, rather than the equally suitable, elliptical face dovetail chisels also available from them.
I’ve had them for many years, as you can tell by looking at them – they’re no longer all as pretty as they started.
All I can say is they’ve been more than adequate for my needs so I’ve never looked to replace them. And don’t feel I ever will.
I’ve no hands on experience with other brands of dovetail chisels for that reason, but if you do, then please feel free to share your experience of them.
If you cut a lot of fine joints then you should also consider getting yourself a decent dovetail saw (though I’d recommend opting for a small tenon saw).
The fine saw and chisels for dovetailing are about the only fancy hand tools that you really need.
If you’re setting up a tool kit then I’d allow a good chuck of the budget here, but the rest of it really can be minimal and basic. For a full guide, check out the post on the complete tool kit for woodworking with hand tools.