Hand Cut Dovetails (Are They Worth It?)

Cabinetmakers discuss the esthetic merits (and practical demerits) of hand-cut dovetailed drawer boxes. October 8, 2005

Do you think that high end cabinet customers would appreciate hand cut dovetails on their drawers? These customers seem generally taken on the quality of dovetails, but it seems that the generic machine cut boxes don't fit the aesthetic quality of the rest of the package. More to the point, would those same customers be willing to pay a premium for "art" drawers instead of "commodity" drawers? I'm thinking of $75,000+ kitchen customers. Thanks for your feedback.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor W:
If I were that high end customer, no way would I pay a substantial increase of cost for the cabinetry. (But then again... I'm not impressed by dovetails!)

From contributor G:
My last kitchen (30K) had about 30 drawers in it. I imagine there would be more in a 75k kitchen. That's a whole lot of dovetailing. How would your hands feel after making 120 joints (corners)? It might take me a week to do that many, but I can knock off machined dovetails in a day. Maybe you could try a Leigh jig that would allow you to vary the spacing and achieve the best of both worlds.

From contributor C:
I am going to vote no. I believe that 99% really do not care. And the other one percent would not know the difference between hand cut and a good quality, random pattern, machine cut dovetail.

I also believe that while the knowledge to lay out and chop a dovetail joint is important, it is also an outdated process that will lead you into the poorhouse unless you find a sugardaddy/sugarmama who wants to brag about owning such joinery. But you know what? Whenever I build something for a family member that requires dovetails, I will always do the chopping by hand, even though it takes me a gazillion hours to do it.

From contributor R:
No! Until you explain it to them, a dovetail is a dovetail. The difference between a stapled lap joint and a machined dovetail is quite a different story and easier to see.

From contributor F:
The longer I am in this business, the more I come to realize that almost all customers have very little clue about the finer points of woodworking. The stuff I fret and fuss about and lose sleep over usually gets right by them unless I point it out. They typically only see the obvious.

Does that stop me from building a top quality product? No, I still build a brick house of a cabinet, but I have learned to stop putting time and effort into some things that go un-noticed and unappreciated.

My take on the dovetailed drawer issue is that the point is to use dovetail joints in your drawers because they are without a doubt the joint that will stand the test of time. Some guys will say that offset tongue or even butt joints are just as good, but from what I have seen, the first thing to fail in an otherwise well built set of cabinets are the drawer boxes when they are made weakly.

To summarize, I say machine dovetails are the way to go even in a zillion dollar kitchen. I would hand cut them if a client asked for hand cut, and boy would they pay! Otherwise I'll save hand sawn dovetails for fine furniture.

From the original questioner:
Thanks a lot for your timely responses. I really appreciate all the great info you are willing to share.

From contributor C:
This question reminded me of a very good friend who was also a competitor and sometimes collaborator in the business. He is now retired and I am sure he would not mind me telling this story. He was a very good salesman and the women customers were suckers for him because he was a Frankie Avalon look-alike. Because of his charming personality, he nearly always sold the handcut dovetail drawer option. But of course, he would do the dovetails with an Omni-jig. On one job, he was way behind schedule and the customer was beginning to panic, so my friend calls the customer and his wife into his shop to explain why the job is running so late. When the customer arrived at his shop, he had all the machine cut dovetail drawer parts laid in a neat stack on a workbench and he was busily pretending to cut them with a chisel. He showed the stack of parts to the customers and proudly proclaimed that this was going to be the masterpiece kitchen of his entire career. And all because of the hand cut dovetails that he had laboriously spent the last week lovingly cutting. Well, needless to say, the customer and wife were properly impressed and told the general contractor that he would just have to be patient waiting for the cabinets to be installed. I don't see my friend as often as I would like nowadays, but whenever I see him I loudly say "And they're all hand cut."

From contributor E:
I am in the camp that thinks dovetails are overrated. That said, if the client wants tails, that's what they get. However, it would be a cold day in the Amazon when I hand cut any.

From contributor J:
Although we have a PTP and a CNC beam saw, we hand cut all of our dovetails. We also hand plane all of our solid wood lumber and we don't use sandpaper - we hand scrape all of our wood before finishing. This sets us apart from our competition and keeps us from being profitable. We subscribe to Fine Woodworking and Roy Underhill is my woodworking hero!

We do ultra-high end kitchens (just like the rest of you) and those kitchens go for anywhere from 35k to 150k. That said, 80% of our work has melamine drawers. Very few customers question it and when we talk drawers, I just show them the Blum Motion and watch their jaws hit the floor. At that point, I seldom have drawer construction questions. To each their own, but I have a hard time believing that anyone here is going to get away with charging $150 or more per hour to hand cut dovetails. And even if you could, I’d try to find something else to do that wasn’t as painful.

From contributor T:
Why not offer it as an upgrade and just see how it goes? You must have some idea of what the labor difference is. Price it to a customer and if they accept it, maybe you're not crazy. If they fall over backwards, it might not work. I would suggest you carry a big pillow with you.

From contributor A:
I use outsourced, machine cut hard maple drawers in our kitchens. On a few of our really nice study/library rooms, the architect wanted something special. We looked at hand cut and decided the price would be way over the top. We finally went with wider, more traditional dovetails. We used the Leigh jig. This definitely sets them apart from the typical machined type. On one job, they speced Hondu mahogany drawer boxes. I could barely find it in my heart.

Buy a Leigh Jig and make them untypical. You could also try a different wood than white maple.

From contributor P:
The customer has no clue what kind of drawer or cabinet they are getting. As long as it looks good and it has the Blum Motion on it, they can show it off. But there are some of the elite out there that know what they want. Hand cut dovetails? Not in this day and age, but making sure the bigger drawers are one piece sides, half blind fronts, inset doors and drawers, etc. makes a difference and will stand the test of time. Make sure you charge for it and make sure that they know the difference between yours and the next guy's .We just beat out a box banger shop and we were double the cost, mainly because of what we offered and what they did not. Teach your customer what the difference is.

From contributor B:

I don't see that there would be a problem with hand-cut dovetails. I've seen the video of Frank Klausz building a hand-dovetailed drawer, start to finish, in about 3 minutes. This approach could be very profitable.

Trouble is, most woodworkers I've known couldn't build a dovetailed drawer box in a day. Granted, they were aiming for an aesthetic of perfection and artistry. But I've got to believe that a very skilled and experienced maker of dovetails could produce drawer boxes at a rate about 1/4 to 1/2 as fast as a guy with a router and a jig. And that's not overly cost prohibitive. The woodworker who can crank out hand work like this is an anachronism. It's the type of woodworker that, I believe, was relatively common before the industrial revolution. He or she may still exist somewhere.

From contributor N:
3 minutes? What exactly are you calling the "start" in this Ripley's feat?

From contributor R:
Hand cut dovetails equate to squat to most customers. If you really want to impress a client, apply a furniture grade finish to their cabinets. A blimey dovetail can only be seen when the drawer is opened, but a fine finish is observed the instant someone enters the room.

From contributor B:
I apologize - three minutes is an exaggeration, as it's been a few years since I watched that video. After consulting my library, I quote Fine Woodworking: 'Six pins, five tails, in about three minutes'. So figure that times four for each drawer, 12 minutes. Add a few more minutes to dimension lumber and finish, so 15-20 minutes. These are not fine dovetails, but a strong joint made quickly. My point is that hand-work can be very fast if employed with a systematic approach and lots of practice.

From contributor F:
Keeping in mind that I am one of those who does not think hand cut dovetail drawers in kitchen cabinets are a good idea. If someone really had to have them, I would probably ask for time and material at least until I could get a fix on the time involved in an average drawer box. I want to put some money down on the race between the hand cutter and the Omnijig.

From contributor J:
If you're going to ask the client to pay you time and material, what is the estimate that you're going to provide? Say there are 30 drawers. Are you going to charge 150.00 per hour? Less? If you’re charging less, and you typically have a GPM that is greater than this, why are you doing this when you could be doing something more profitable? We try very hard not to do work on a time and material basis. We can usually make more money doing bid work.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and give my real opinion. If you or anyone else believes that providing hand cut dovetails is a good business decision, you are completely out of your mind. I believe that if you had a potential client that insisted on hand cut dovetails, your time would be better spent finding another client!

From contributor M:
Only drawers with joint failure I have ever repaired were dovetail joints.

From contributor K:
First of all, I really don't think hand cut dovetails are worth the effort in the cabinet business (in furniture, yes). I do like the idea of the Leigh jig and creating a unique looking joint. There is nothing wrong with providing hand cut tails if you can justify the time and effort to yourself and your customer.

Contributor J, some of us out here still look at what we do as a craft. It is something that we practice every day. We study it and are constantly trying to improve our product (not our bottom line). We pay close attention to detail, aesthetics, proportion, balance and form. We spend a great deal of time working with clients during the design phase to assure that we can give them something to be proud of, not something that merely holds their dishes. We are probably, as a whole, not adequately compensated for all this time. That is a choice, but we are comforted by the fact that if we have to, at any time, we can start building melamine boxes like our competition and make profit our number one priority. You may say that we do this from ego or vanity, but I think we do it because it is a reflection of our values and our desire to create something that rises above the status quo.

I don't think there is anyone that would try to charge $150 an hour to cut dovetails. The $150 an hour you mentioned is your rate to offset your production capacity. It has nothing to do with the true labor rate you pay.

Contributor M, dovetail drawers are the only drawer worth repairing. All others are simply thrown away.

From contributor S:

Business issues aside, hand cut dovetails are not that big of an issue in our shop. My time per drawer averages about 1.3 hours. That's going from rough stock to parts ready to sand (insides) and assemble. Big drawers take longer, but most of the time in big drawers is in the glue-ups. Also, we're not a shop that stands there with a clipboard and a stop watch. Most of our customers get the dovetails. If budget is tight, they don't. At 1.3 hr/box, it's simply just another thing to figure for the job, no different than if they want really good undermount slides, or cheapo epoxy side mounts. To answer the original question - some do, and some probably don't.

From contributor V:
I too sometimes question whether or not anyone even notices a drawer side. However, we dovetail all our drawers, not with a jig either. Jigtails look cheaper than butt joints. You can make a dovetail that looks hand cut on the tablesaw and bandsaw way better than hand cut results. Still time consuming, but these high end homeowners probably never broke a sweat earning their money, so charge them double and be proud!

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor H:
I cut dovetails on the tablesaw, with pins 1/16" wide. I would guess 10-15 minute per dovetail. I am faster than most, and can make them look as handcut as any you've ever seen, but no one cares except me. No one will pay for them, except perhaps on a single colonial reproduction piece. If you try charging for that extra time, your customers will just go across the street. Jig cut boxes with modern glue will last for the life of today's style, and beyond. Handcutting makes a nice hobby.

Comment from contributor D:
We build dovetail boxes. None of these are hand cut. One of our sales people wanted to make more money (i.e commision, so he came up with the idea of charging more for fancier (upgrades). The majority of customers don't know the difference between a dovetail box and a melamine box. If you have, however, a good sales person (designer) who can tell how deep the customer's pocket is when he walks through your door, you will build dovetail boxes.

Comment from contributor I:
As a converse perspective to the majority of answers: Myself, I'd do it whenever warranted - on my own furniture, family/friend's things, and any job where I had a spare few hours left in the day, just to keep in touch with the "archaic" and founding aspects of the trade.

Comment from contributor E:
You may find some clients that will pay more for this service. However, it is up to you to design these tails to be special and cut in a proportion that is very unlikely to be performed in a jig, especially a very narrow pin that can not be machined with a 1/4" shank and certainly variable spacing even if the variations are very subtle. If you hand cut exactly the proportions that are available on a Leigh/Omnijig, then I would say no, it is indeed a waste of time for kitchen cabinets.

Certainly the quality and durability are completely equal. On fine furniture, I most always hand cut except for very modern style piece where we may proudly show off and advertise our precision machining as a feature rather than a manufacturing compromise. Actually hand cut tails that are cut very well but not to "gallery" or "studio furniture" level, can be cut very rapidly once you have the moves down. However, tails cut to our very best level of work will take more time, but this is good time and work if you find the clients who will want and appreciate it.