By Joshua Farnsworth

In this video & article I’ll have a shoot-out between a dovetail jig machine and hand cut dovetails, and talk about the pros and cons of each method.

Leigh Dovetail Jig Cutting Dovetails With A Dovetail Router Bit

Table of Contents:

Want to Skip to a Section in this article?

Moravian Workbench Plans

Introduction: My experience with a dovetail jig vs. hand cut dovetails

Years ago I bought an inexpensive dovetail jig, and had a very, very bad experience with it. It took me several days to figure it out, and it turned out that they had included some wrong parts, and it took another week to get the right parts.

Dovetail Jig Cutting Dovetails With A Dovetail Router Bit

I eventually got it to work, but the process was very frustrating. And the dovetails just didn’t look nearly as good as hand cut dovetails. So I sold my dovetail jig and just stuck to cutting dovetails by hand.

Hand Cut Dovetails With A Dovetail Saw Vs Dovetail Jig

But the older I get, the more I believe in second chances, so I started looking again to see if there was a jig on the market that could make descent looking dovetails without too much frustration.

Fitting Together Walnut Dovetails Made By A Dovetail Jig

Because as much as I love cutting dovetails by hand, it’s quite a chore if I’m making a bunch of chests or boxes.

Dovetail Box Made With A Leigh Dovetail Jig

And I certainly don’t ever want to come across as a snobby, academic white collar “hand tool purist” who cuts dovetails by candle light while reading French poetry. I love buying, restoring, and using my hand tools. Heck, I’ve got hundreds of hand tools.

Joinery Planes On A Moravian Workbench, Including Plow Planes, Router Planes, Shoulder Planes, And Tongue And Groove Planes

But I also love building furniture in the most efficient and most enjoyable way possible. That usually means using hand tools. Especially when I need some peace and quiet.

Making Hand Cut Dovetails With A Wood Chisel And Dovetail Saw

But if I’ve got hundreds of board feet of wood to square up, you can bet that I’ll use my machines.

Squaring A Board With A Felder Ad-941 Thickness Planer

And cutting dozens of dovetails on one project also makes a dovetail jig start to sound appealing again. After a little research into the power woodworking world I discovered the dovetail jig that is considered by many to be the best available jig for non-industrial furniture makers.

Using A Power Router And Dovetail Router Bit On A Leigh Dovetail Jig D4R Pro

That would be the Leigh D4R 24” dovetail jig. And the sample dovetails on the Leigh website actually looked pretty descent; much better than the dovetails I cut on my first go around. I decided to try out this leigh dovetail jig, along with my Bosch router, on some keepsake chests that I made for my kids this past Christmas. That way if the dovetails didn’t turn out great, my kids probably wouldn’t notice.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

And my plan was to pay attention to the differences between the process and the results of the Leigh dovetail jig versus using hand tools. So here we go!

Marking Hand Cut Dovetails With A Marking Knife On A Wooden Workbench

Portable Moravian Workbench Dvd

1. Setup Time Comparison

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

The first metric I kept track of was the setup time. The dovetail jig requires assembling all the parts, cutting a spacer board, setting up the guide bushing on my router, choosing which bits to use, adjusting the finger assemblies, setting the router to the appropriate depth, and making test cuts to make sure the settings are correct.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I’m not an engineer, so it took me quite a long time to setup and figure out how to use this Leigh dovetail jig.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

But with the help of my friend Norm, who loves setting up technical things, we were finally able to get a test cut for some through-dovetails after a couple of afternoons together.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

To be honest, the first test dovetails didn’t look amazing:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

But the nice thing is that I was able to micro adjust the settings until I got the dovetails to fit nicely together, without gaps.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Although the instructions took awhile to figure out, I must say that they were better than others I’ve used from woodworking manufacturers.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

And keep in mind that if you want to cut angled dovetails or half-blind dovetails that would take additional time to figure out and setup.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

In contrast, the setup time for hand tools is quite short, unless of course, your tools need sharpening and tuning.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Then it could take much longer to setup than the jig. But to summarize what I had to do for setting up is that I just had to grab and set out a dovetail saw, a crosscut saw, a coping saw, a couple of chisels, a marking gauge, a combination square, a bevel square, a pair of dividers, a marking knife, and a pencil.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

RESULTS: So in the setup time category the hand tools are the clear winner…if your tools are in good shape.

Wood And Shop Store With Moravian Workbenches

2. Cutting Time Comparison

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Once the dovetail jig is setup and figured out, all future dovetails are extremely fast to cut. For the keepsake chests I was able to cut sixteen through-dovetail joints in less than an hour, which turns out to be about 64 dovetails.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

It was amazingly quick. And I found that once I understood the jig, it only took a few minutes to change the size and angle of the dovetail bit for another project.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

The basic summary of the jig’s dovetail cutting process goes like this: I clamp the test tail board in the jig. This board should be the same width and thickness as the boards you’ll be using for your boxes or chests.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I space the fingers out to the orientation that I like:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Then I tighten the fingers in place. I loosen some brackets, flip the finger assembly over to the tail side, and adjust the scale to the proper setting for tails.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Then I add the desired dovetail-shaped router bit to my router and adjust the depth of my router bit to the baseline on the board:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I fire up my router, and route out the spaces between the tails:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Then I put the test pin board in the clamp. Again, it must be the same width and thickness as the actual boards you’ll be using.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I flip the finger assembly over again to the pin side:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I replace the dovetail router bit with the corresponding straight bit, and then I adjust its depth to the same baseline measurement as on the first tail board.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Then I route out the pins:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I test the fit, and if it’s too tight, I’ll adjust the finger assembly a bit, and then run the router through the pins again to trim them.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Once I’ve got a fit that I like, I take note of the settings on the scale:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Then I can run the pin boards through, and then the tail boards using the same process that I just showed.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Once I have the settings dialed in, cutting dovetail joints on a large stack of boards takes very little time.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

This is the wonderful thing about using a dovetail jig like this.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Of course this is a simplified summary of the use of this jig, so make sure you carefully read the user manual to learn how to use it safely.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

The dovetail cutting time with hand tools would have taken much, much longer than it did with the dovetail jig.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Even if I was gang cutting the dovetails it would probably take me a full day, if not more.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Some people are faster than me, but I’m pretty proficient with hand tools. I’ll be sharing my in-depth hand-cut dovetail tutorial in my next video & blog post, so make sure you subscribe to my newsletter (here) so you’ll be notified when it’s released.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

A quick summary of the process for dovetailing a box goes something like this: first I scribe all ends of the boards with a marking gauge:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Then I use dividers to divide the dovetails:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I’ve also got a short video on this cool trick, which you can watch here. Next I use a combination square to carry the lines along the top:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I then use a bevel gauge to draw the dovetail angles on the face of the board:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Next I use a dovetail saw to cut right next to the lines, in the waste area:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I follow that with the coping saw to cut out the waste:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I use a chisel to make a notch on each side of the board, and a crosscut saw to cut off the half-pins:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I then use a chisel and mallet to chop down to the baseline, and another chisel to clean up the tails, and make sure I’m up to the lines:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Now the tail board is finished. Then I set the tail board onto the pin board and trace the pattern with a marking knife:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I then use a chisel to deepen these lines:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

And I use a combination square to carry the marks down the face of the pin board:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Again, I use a dovetail saw to cut along the lines:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I use a coping saw to remove the waste:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I use a chisel and mallet to chop down to the baseline:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

And I use another chisel to clean up the cuts:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Finally I can test fit the joint:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

About half the time I have to do some more adjusting with a chisel, especially if I wasn’t careful enough when sawing:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

But finally the through dovetail joint fits together:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Wow, can you imagine doing this 4 times per box multiplied by 4 keepsake chests?

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

RESULTS: So in the cutting time category the dovetail jig is the clear winner. The initial learning and setup time is all pretty much done up front over a day or two, and then it’s very fast anytime you want to cut dovetails.

Stanley Bedrock Woodworking T-Shirt

3. Joint Appearance Comparison

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I was actually quite surprised by how good the through dovetails turned out on this jig. I used an eight degree dovetail bit on these through dovetails.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

No, the jig can’t cut super fine dovetails, with small pins, like these hand cut dovetails on this drawer:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Why not? Because of the router bit shank can’t get too thin or it would be dangerous to use:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

But I think these dovetails look pretty great nonetheless. To be honest, I was pretty surprised how nice-looking they came out:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Once you have the settings right, these dovetail joints are very tight and consistent, with none of the gaps that I sometimes get when using hand tools on harder woods:

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

RESULTS: In the joint appearance category I would have to declare a tie.

4. Cost Comparison

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Now I’ll try to compare the costs between the two methods. The cost of the 24-inch Leigh dovetail jig runs at about $599 (see it here), and $799 with the accessory kit (see it here). The accessory kit has the magnetic router support bar with a shop vac port, all the router bits that you’ll need for different sized dovetails, and some other items.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Leigh does offer a 12-inch dovetail jig for about $299 (see it here) if you don’t think you’ll ever want to make large boxes. I’ve included links to these dovetail jigs below this video and in the accompanying article.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

If you don’t have a power router, of course that will add about $150 to $200 onto the cost of this setup. This is my favorite router. I have two of them.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Now for the hand tools. The cost of all the hand tools required to cut the dovetails, which I mentioned earlier, is difficult to estimate. It could easily cost as high as $1,500 if you shop like some of my students, and buy higher end saws, chisels, and marking tools. But it also could be as low as a couple hundred dollars if you went cheap. But it would probably be around $400-$500 for an average set of new hand tools for dovetailing. Here are the hand tools I used in the video, along with links where you ca find them:

RESULTS: So I would probably say that hand tools would slightly win out on the cost factor if you watched your budget carefully.

5. Safety Comparison

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Using a power router definitely introduces a higher risk of serious injury than using hand tools. However, when I use chisels I quite often come away with some small cuts, no matter how careful I seem to be.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Whereas I’ve never had an injury with a router because of all the safety precautions I take. When using the router on this jig I never put my face or hands down near the spinning bit, so I feel pretty safe.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

I also always wear safety glasses and hearing protection muffs. These are my favorites (pictured above):

RESULTS: So In this category I’ll have to give the two methods a tie. Or leave that up to you to decide based on your comfort level around power tools and hand tools.

6. Noise, Mess, & Relaxation Comparison

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Noise: The hand tools definitely win in the noisiness category, because the router is quite loud, and even louder when hooked up to a shop vac.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Mess: If your router is hooked up to a good shop vacuum, then the dovetail jig method is the cleaner one, as cutting dovetails with hand tools leaves a bunch of wood and sawdust on your workbench and floor.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

Relaxation: At first the hand tools seem to be more relaxing when making dovetails. And if you’re making just one box, then cutting them by hand wins in this category. But if you’ve got 64 dovetails to cut, then I’ll be finished, relaxing in my house after cutting with the dovetail jig rather than hunching over my workbench all day with an aching back and feet.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

And the Winner Is???

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

So what’s the verdict? Which is the best method? Hand-cut dovetails or a dovetail jig? Well, as you probably suspected, it all depends on your particular situation, budget, and level of comfort. So I’m going to let you answer this question for yourself, but hopefully my comparisons helped you with your decision.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

For me going forward, if I have to just make one small box or cut dovetails on a case piece or fine drawers, then I’m probably going to continue to do it with hand tools.

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router

If I’ve got a bunch of boxes or chests or non-fancy drawers to make, then I’ll use this Leigh dovetail jig.

Thanks for reading and watching my dovetail jig vs hand-cut dovetails shootout! If you’ve got any input to share, please share them in the comment section below. If this was helpful, please make sure you subscribe to my website below, so you won’t miss out on my other articles or videos. I’ll see you next time here in my shop!

Dovetail Jig,Leigh Dovetail Jig,Dovetail,Hand Cut Dovetails,Dovetail Jig For Router
SUBSCRIBE

Pointing Finger Vertical