One thing that most woodworkers can agree on is that a dovetail joint is one of the most attractive joints around, plus it’s incredibly strong. However, if you’ve ever tried cutting one by hand, you’ll know it’s also one of the most difficult.
However, with a router and a dovetail jig, creating accurate, good-looking joints is within the capabilities of everyone. So what should you look for in a dovetail jig?
The thing with dovetail joints is, unless you’re a professional woodworker, you’re not cutting them every day. But, when you do need to use them, they’ve got to be right!
There is a wide variety of router jigs designed for cutting dovetails. Some can cut both through-dovetails and half-blind dovetails. Some allow variable spacing of the pins and tails. Many offer alternate templates for cutting finger joints or sliding dovetails. When making your decision you need to consider a number of factors:
- How much do you want to pay – the more you pay, the more features you get
- What type of dovetails do you want to produce – through, half-blind, sliding etc
- How ofter will you use it – if you use it every day you can justify paying more and quickly learn how to use all the capabilities
- How easy is it to set up – if, like most of us, you only use it infrequently, you may have to relearn how to set it up every time
There are 4 main types of dovetail jig:
Stock Mounted Through Dovetail Templates
These dovetail templates are the most basic. They have no jig body, and no clamping system. Instead, they clamp directly to your stock to form a row of uniform equally spaced through dovetails. These templates come in pairs. One has a row of parallel fingers used with a dovetail bit to form the tails. The matching template has a row of tapered fingers used with a straight bit to form the pins. Usually these templates are joined back-to-back.
They offer the advantage of having no stock width limit. For example, an 18″ template can be moved across a 32″ wide board.
The Keller 135-1500 Journeyman Dovetail Jig is an example of this type of jig.
Bench Mounted Template Jigs
These are the most common type of dovetail jig and allow you to cut through and half-blind dovetails. Typically, these jigs feature templates that mount to a jig body. The jig body has two clamping systems, one vertical and one horizontal.
The vertical clamping position is used for through dovetail pins and through dovetail tails, half blind tail pieces, and sometimes box joints. The horizontal clamp is used only for half blind pin pieces.
The main disadvantage of these jigs is that your pins and tails are all the same size and uniformly spaced. This gives the joint a machine-made look that is not as attractive as a variable speced joint. You will also have to make your stock match the incremental pitch of the template, as all dovetail joints should begin and end with a half pin.
A good example of this type of dovetail jig is the Porter Cable 4212
Variable Guide Finger Jigs
The third generation of dovetail jigs was invented by the founder of Leigh Industries. They replaced the fixed pitch template with a row of moveable guide fingers.
This is truly an improvement over the template jigs because it allows you to get closer to the look of hand-cut dovetails by forming narrower pins and wider tails, it allows you to vary the spacing, and it also allows you to work with any width of stock, up to the capacity of the jig.
However, with these type of jig, versatility comes at a price. The joints that they can produce are amazing, but the jigs are quite complex. They require a lot of adjustments, settings and test cuts, so they have a steep learning curve. You need to consider how often you will use this type of jig, not just because of the price but because, unless you’re a professional woodworker, you may have to relearn how to use it every time you pull it off the shelf.
Porter Cable make a variable guide finger jig, the Porter Cable 77240 24-Inch Omnijig Joinery System, but the one to go for is the original and market-leading Leigh D4R-PRO
Router Table Dovetail Jig
Leigh Industries are best known for their high-end variable finger spacing dovetail jigs – they invented them after all – that let you cut the full range of dovetail joints in any pattern you like. Dovetail jigs like their flagship Leigh D4R-PRO are designed to be mounted to your work bench and the dovetails cut using your router freehand.
With the LEIGH RTJ400 Router Table Joinery Jig they’ve reversed the process with the router mounted in your router table and the stock held in the jig and fed onto the cutter to produce fixed width through dovetails, box joints and half-blind dovetails. The Leigh RTJ400’s approach to cutting box and dovetail joints eliminates the need to hold and maneuver your router through the fingers of a traditional jig.
As a general rule, you get what you pay for. Don’t expect a stock mounted through dovetail jig to do what the more expensive jigs will do. And don’t expect a dovetail jig to do it all for you! Dovetail jigs demand very accurate work and the more complex the joint, the more time consuming the set up.
It comes down to what you want out of it, which is probably why the bestselling dovetail jig on Amazon is the Porter Cable 4212, a top of the range bench mounted jig.
Once you have purchased the dovetail jig of your choice, read our article Setting Up A Dovetail Jig For Perfect Dovetails to learn how to avoid some of the most common problems that you might encounter when you first get started.