How to cut dovetails on curved components
Words: Peter Young
Photos: Linda Nathan
Whenever you introduce curves into a project the level of complexity rises sharply. I recently made a nine drawer serpentine front dresser. The three middle drawers had a convex curved front while the side drawers had a concave curved front. The drawer fronts were constructed by laminating layers of bendy ply and then covered with veneer. I built in solid wood edges so I had solid wood to dovetail into rather than plywood.
Choosing a strategy
There are three ways I know of to address the issue of dovetailing a curved drawer front as shown in the diagrams below.
The first option (fig.1) is to bandsaw the curve from solid and leave the back of the drawer front square with the drawer side. In that case no modification of technique is needed but the drawer front does end up being quite substantial in thickness.
Where the inner and outer surfaces of the drawer front are parallel curves, for example where a lamination technique is used, then the two other methods can be used. One of these methods (fig.2), is to angle the shoulder of the tail so that it matches the angle of the curved drawer front. While this is quite an elegant solution is does complicate the cutting out of the half lap joint.
The third method (fig.3) is to square up the inside edge of the drawer front to create a 90° landing for the drawer side to meet the drawer front. The only difficulty here is to accurately mark out and cut the angled rebate that the drawer side will meet. The latter method is the one that I chose to use.
Marking square into a curve
The photos below show some of the steps. The ends of the drawer front need to be parallel to the opening that the drawer front will fit into, that is, 90° to the drawer side – which is what you would like to do anyway. You can now use this surface to draw a line 90° to the inner corner of the drawer side end. Sounds complicated to read but it’s much clearer in the diagram. Now it’s necessary to remove that triangular piece from the inside of the drawer front.
I use a cutting gauge set to just under the thickness of the drawer side to scribe a line down the inside face of the drawer front. I then use either a block plane with a fence or a shoulder plane to cut the rebate. If you have a snipe bill plane you can use it to follow the knife line and establish the shoulder of the rebate and then follow up with either a block plane or a shoulder plane. Once the angled rebate is established then cutting the half lap dovetail proceeds in the normal way. Just remember that whereas the inner wall of the rebate is normally parallel to the drawer front, in this case it is not.
This is not a complicated process, but a few techniques like these can allow you to add more complexity into your designs.
Peter Young is a Brisbane based studio furniture designer and maker who also teaches at Sturt School for Wood,
NSW. Links to some of Peter's other articles for Wood Review magazine are shown above to the right.
1. Showing the angle that the drawer side will meet the curved drawer front.
2. The drawer side needs to be square to the front, so a 90° ‘landing’ will be created in the inside edge of the drawer front.
3. Marking off the small squared off section to be removed.
4. The pen mark shows only a small square rebate will be removed.
5. Marking off where the shallow rebate on the curved drawer front will be made.
6. Finishing the rebate with a shoulder plane.
7. Completed shallow rebate or landing.
8. Lapped pins cut showing the rebate that permits a 90° joint.