The best dovetail jig
Dovetail joints are immensely strong and can be used decoratively or may be hidden. Cutting them has always been the mark of a skilled carpenter, but with a good dovetail jig anyone can produce accurate, quality work in a fraction of the time.
However, with several different types available, choosing can be difficult. Some dovetail jigs are one-step rather than two-step, and most models can accommodate wood of a certain size.
Our guide explains your options, and our recommendations showcase the best of each style. Our favorite, the PORTER-CABLE 4216 Dovetail Jig, combines ease of use for the beginner with the flexibility demanded by the enthusiast or professional. It also offers great value.
Considerations when choosing dovetail jigs
Dovetail joints are used to fix two boards at right angles to each other. One board has the "tails" -- the angled shape that gives the dovetail its name -- the other has the "pins," which slot into the gaps between the tails and provide the lock that keeps the joint together. A dovetail jig makes achieving this impressive joint easy.
One-step vs. two-step
Two-step dovetail jigs provide an accurate path for the router cutter to follow, so the tails and pins are uniform, but they cut them separately -- lining up has to be done very carefully for the joint to work properly. One-step dovetail jigs cut the tails and pins at the same time. The boards still need to be lined up precisely to start with, but once the jig is set, cutting the joint is fast and easy.
All jigs have maximum capacities in terms of the thickness and width of board they can handle. The former is typically between a quarter of an inch and 1 inch, while the latter is usually 12 inches or more.
It's vital that the boards don't move during cutting. If you're using a low-cost portable dovetail jig, you'll probably need extra clamps. Bench jigs have their own quick and secure clamping system, holding one board vertically and the other horizontally.
Variable spacing and depth
The other important feature is the spacing of the joint. On cheap dovetail jigs, the gaps are fixed -- which can make it difficult to get enough tails and pins across narrow boards (when making jewelry boxes, for example). More advanced models offer interchangeable templates (also called "combs"), with different spacings. The very best dovetail jigs use adjustable "fingers." Each one can be set individually, so you can vary the number and size of the tails and pins, creating interesting decorative effects.
Varying the depth of the joint allows you to create hidden dovetails, and some jigs provide a useful guide to set your cutter so you don't have to measure.
One or more router cutters is usually included with the jig, though with high-end models you may need to buy others to take full advantage of the capabilities.
The cheapest dovetail jigs are around $40. They're perfectly adequate for the occasional user but lack flexibility and aren't particularly straightforward. Midrange models cost from about $120 to $200, offering ease of use and precision -- within the limits of the templates. Fully adjustable models run from $300 to $700.
Q. Is there more than one type of dovetail joint?
A. Yes. The most common are through dovetails (which can be seen from both sides) and half-blind dovetails (typically used for drawer fronts). There are also full blind, sliding, and secret mitered dovetails -- though names do vary. If you buy a quality jig, it's fascinating to experiment with different styles.
Q. What size router do I need for a dovetail jig?
A. It mostly depends on the kind of woodworking you do. Some people find maneuvering a 1/4-inch router easier. On the other hand, a 1/2-inch router has more power, making it easier to cut larger joints. If you make boxes and other small projects, a 1/4-inch model will be fine. If you make furniture, a larger model gives you more flexibility.
Dovetail jigs we recommend
Best of the best: PORTER-CABLE's 4216 Dovetail Jig
Our take: High-quality joint cutting system for the keen amateur or pro.
What we like: Comprehensive set of templates lets you cut an enormous range of dovetail and box joints (with appropriate cutters). Strong and simple clamping. Easy to learn. Very good value.
What we dislike: Not much. A few owners found manufacturing faults.
Best bang for your buck: General Tools' Portable Dovetail Jig
Our take: A decent introduction to dovetails for the woodworker on a budget.
What we like: Good basic jig, capable of creating accurate joints with care. YouTube videos help with learning. A sensible choice for those who only cut dovetails occasionally.
What we dislike: Limited style and spacing of joints. Flex can affect accuracy.
Choice 3: Leigh's Super 12-inch Dovetail Jig
Our take: Top brand delivers the ultimate in quality, precision and flexibility.
What we like: Leigh's reputation is second to none. This superbly made, fully adjustable "finger" jig offers unlimited variety. Fast, secure clamping. Comes with three different router cutters.
What we dislike: Expensive -- but worth it for the pro.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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