Dovetail joints are a part of woodworks that has been used for centuries. This technique involves connecting wood together without the need of any nails. Thus, it uses friction instead, using a symmetrical pattern to connect the ends of the wood.
Although dovetails are a great source of tensile strength, there will be some cases that it will backfire. When sculpting dovetails, it requires uniformity in their tails and pins. Without the best dovetail jig, this could be a troublesome task. Today, let’s review some of the best jigs out there in the market!
Last update on 2019-07-20 at 10:07 PST - Details
History of the Dovetail
Dovetails have been an integral part of carpentry for hundreds of years now. Thanks to the advancement in anthropology, there is hard evidence that proves this. These artifacts which make use of dovetail joineries are usually traced back to ancient Egypt.
Such evidence shows that dovetails are often used by Egyptians to strengthen the tombs where the mummified emperors lay to rest. However, there have been findings in China as well where the ancient Chinese used dovetails for the burial of their emperors.
All of these dovetails have different designs. Thus, it has also been an integral part of history and anthropology when studying the evolution of both carpentry techniques and architectural designs.
What’s so special about the dovetail?
We now know that the dovetail is a type of joint that is extremely durable. This is the case without relying on nails, strings, or super glues. So what does this kind of joinery have that made it so reliable throughout thousands of years?
For one, the dovetail joint makes use of a fundamental principle, and that’s using shapes and spaces. Let’s use your feet and your running shoes as an example. For starters, we all have different preferences in the sizes of our shoes.
For one, some might want their shoes a little loose. This is to allow the shoe to aerate enough to keep their feet comfy. On the other hand, some people like theirs tight. This is usually the case if they’re using their shoes for rigorous training.
Similar to a dovetail, your shoes will be hard to remove if your feet and your shoes are perfectly synced. This means that the mold and size of your shoe are perfectly symmetrical with your feet. Hence, it has little-to-no space inside the shoe.
The dovetail works the same. One end of a wooden plank has a particular pattern that fits perfectly to another end of the plank. These are called the tail and the pin. If you’ll notice, the tail is reminiscent to the triangular tail of a dove. Hence, the name dovetail.
The tail and pins interlock perfectly, having no space in-between at all. Ideally, a dovetail joint doesn’t have any bumps of wood sticking out from the joint too. This simple idea alone made it one of the best joints when it comes to tensile strength. Surely, it’s no easy joint to remove, and it further strengthens its case if you apply glue to the joints.
Modern uses of a dovetail
Although used for tombs before, dovetails are most commonly applied on furniture nowadays. Notably, dovetails are heavily used for drawers. This not only makes the drawers durable, but it also helps shape the drawer better. Thus, allowing better depth, symmetry, and aesthetics.
Besides drawers, dovetail joints are used for a wide variety of other crafty projects. However, the common factor here is that these kinds of joints are best used for boxed constructions. Other examples of these include jewelry boxes and cabinets.
So, why need a dovetail jig?
There was no high-powered machinery back in the time of ancient civilization. So how did they discover and maintain the use of dovetails? Well, simply put, people carved dovetail jigs using sharp tools. Similarly, nowadays some people still make dovetails by using a saw and a paring chisel.
Although possible, it's not the best way to make dovetails. If you rely too much on traditional tools, you’ll be more prone to mistakes. This will potentially waste both wood and effort on your part.
This is where the dovetail jig comes into play. This kind of jig is specifically designed to make dovetail patterns by using a particular jig bit that carves out the wood. The work here is minimal since you’re only going to set the machine according to its manual.
Once you’ve locked in the piece of wood, you’ll just navigate the jig. It’s even made simpler because a dovetail jig will have a guide that helps make your dovetails accurate and precise.
Types of Dovetails
The dovetail jig has further evolved over the years. From one type of dovetail jig, it has expanded to many other types meeting different aesthetic demands and tensile strengths.
It’s important for you to know the types before buying a dovetail jig. This is because each type of dovetail requires different cutting techniques with the jig. Knowing the type will help you to maximize the use of your dovetail jig while minimizing the mistakes.
Here are some of the types below:
- Plain dovetail joint - This joint is arguably the strongest dovetail. It doesn’t look pleasing considering that you can see the grains both inside and outside. However, it’s tough to pull apart. This is the joint that the ancient Egyptians used.
- Full blind dovetail - The full-blind dovetail is utilized for the highest form of wood craftsmanship. Using this dovetail ensures that the grains are hidden both inside and outside. Because of this, it got another name which is “secret-mitred” dovetail. It’s typically used for authentic jewelry boxes and high-end cabinets.
- Half-blind dovetail joint - Similar to the full blind, it’s also designed for excellent construction and durability. It’s not as high since it hides the grain of the wood. This is usually used for drawers because of its strength and aesthetics.
- Sliding dovetail joint - The sliding dovetail joint is a nifty trick to strengthen divisions or partitions further. It usually starts with a flat surface of the wood. Then, it connects in an inverted “T” to divide the forest. This is often used for cabinets and dividers.
Our Top 5 picks
The Porter-Cable 4216 Super Jig Dovetail is an all-around jig that will help you cut a wide variety of furniture such as drawers, cabinets, and other boxed crafts. One of the best things about the Porter-Cable 4216 is that it comes with different bits that cater to the types of dovetails. Some of the pieces included are half-blind, rabbeted half-blind, plain dovetail, and sliding dovetails.
The Porter-Cable super jig is also reliable because of its firm grip on the wood. The jig is a heavy-duty cam type which allows it to clamp quickly to sandpaper locking bars. Overall, this dovetail jig is as versatile as it can get.
- Requires no assembly
- This dovetail jig is a one-piece, no assembly type that’s supported by a strong steel base
- It has a 3-year warranty period
- It has a combination kit, three templates, two lock nuts, four router bits, four template guides, and a wrench.
- It can have issues when making consistent dovetails
- The offset guides are a bit confusing
The Leigh Super Dovetail Jig offers one characteristic as its best selling point, and that is precision. Leigh has been one of the leaders in the dovetail jig industry for quite some time now. One of the reasons why the Leigh is so famous is because of its overall efficiency. For industries involved in woodworking, this is the father of all dovetail jigs.
However, the reason why this dovetail jig is not famous is that of its hefty price. In comparison with the Porter-Cable that we just mentioned, this jig is almost twice the price. Still, if you’re looking at professional level dovetails, the Leigh is hard to beat.
- Great adjustable feature
- Its dovetail width is not fixed, unlike other jigs. Thus, you can get all kinds of dovetail jigs that you desire.
- The Leigh also has no grounded space setting. This means that you can adjust the areas of your dovetail to meet the requirements of your project.
- Top-notch durability
- This jig is made out of aluminum alloy, which is one of the best material out there for any industrial power tool.
- The cam levers are made out of high-quality polyurethane for added strength
- Convenient to use
- Any dovetail jig will require you to feel out its functions first, and that’s true with the Leigh too. However, it’s a lot simpler to use compared to others.
- This is made simpler because of the adjustable pins and markings.
- It’s also supplied with instructional DVDs and manual instructions
- Extremely pricey
- This jig is best suited for professionals and businesses in the woodcraft industry.
- Although it’s easy to learn, it’s not advisable for beginners.
Since we talked about the Leigh being a professional dovetail jig, the Keller is the opposite. The previous jig we talked about is hard for beginner use. However, the Keller Journeyman is one of the best in the market for starting artisans.
Like any good dovetail jig, the Keller Journeyman presents a lot of options for different project requirements. So although it’s a good starting jig, it doesn’t fall too much regarding performance. However, the best feature that this jig presents to newbies is its price. Surely, you won’t get a cheaper jig that performs as well as the Keller!
- Efficiency at a low price
- The Keller Journeyman is almost a 100% discount from the Leigh Super dovetail jig
- It boasts a 15-inch precision milled template that allows top performance matched with versatility
- It doesn’t have a fixed dovetail width like the Leigh. Thus, your project designs are endless with this machine.
- Simple features make it the best for beginners
- This jig is heralded as “idiot-proof” which speaks a lot about its natural operation function.
- It comes with a phenolic guide and user manuals for beginners who want a wider understanding of dovetails and the Keller jig.
- It has a back-to-back model that handles wood of all kinds of thickness
- This doesn’t come with a clamping system
- It might sound like a big blow to convenience. However, making your clamping system is a good project to do as well!
- The router bits it comes with may be prone to lose its bearing seal.
Porter-Cable makes its second appearance on our list with the Deluxe Dovetail Jig. This is no surprise since the Porter-Cable doesn’t face much competition, especially for hobbyists.
This model of Porter-Cable is similar to the first in our list. It offers all-around versatility, durability, and efficiency in operation. One of the best features that it offers is that it has two carbide tip bits and template guides for accurate and precise cutting.
- Extremely versatile
- It offers a wide range of cutting designs
- Its kit comes with a lot of extras such as a wrench and added templates
- Very durable
- Long-lasting dovetail jig is made out of high-quality steel. It’s anchored by a sturdy steel base and has machined models that are made out of aluminum alloy
- Like all Porter-Cable dovetail jigs, it comes with a 3-year warranty
- It has a fixed dovetail widthThis could limit you when doing projects that need extra adjustment for the width.
- The jig is not the easiest when setting up
The Prazi PR-3900 ChestMate is our last jig in this list, but it certainly holds its ground as one of the up and coming jigs. For starters, the ChestMate dovetail jig has that Leigh jig feature of having no fixed dovetail jig.
The Prazi Chestmate is also a precise and accurate dovetail jig. It might not be known like the Leigh and the Porter-Cable, but it’s worth a try.
- Endless options when using this jig
- There are no fixed templates which allow you to adjust the spacing to your desired wish freely.
- The routing insert is easy to remove
- It comfortably accommodates all sorts of dovetail bits. However, you could say that the PRAZI Chestmate specializes more on plain dovetails for the strongest joints.
- Durable construction
- This dovetail jig can withstand a few drops from the work table!
- Easy setup
- It’s probably one of the easier dovetail jigs to set-up. It’s straightforward and is even made easier by an instruction guide that’s included with the jig.
- The brand supports only one dovetail jig which can be quite of an inconvenience.
- Doesn’t work well with ½ inch stock projects
Getting the best dovetail jig will all boil down to how good it performs. With that said, there’s no doubt that the Leigh is probably the best regarding performance. However, it’s an industrial power tool that’s not recommended for the average wood crafter.
If you’re just a hobbyist or a part-time craftsman, the Porter-Cable Super Dovetail Jig is the best for you. It doesn’t fall far from the efficiency of the Leigh, but it’s also half the price of the Leigh. Moreover, it comes with a mini kit that offers more to your project. It can be a little hard to study if you’re beginner, but it’ll be worth the investment if you put your mind and learn it correctly.
Of course, the Keller Journeyman and the PRAZI are also attractive options for beginners. In the end, it’s all up to your preference and need. If you found this article informative, let us know below. Don’t forget to share it to your fellow artisans!
Thomas Roberge is a Pro himself, who has been in the business of home renovation and construction, working with various tools. He used to be the owner of 2 local construction companies with over 18 years experience. His works also include writing inspiring Do IT Yourself Tips and Tricks.