Dovetailed Case Construction | Serpentine Chest of Drawers Build Part 2

Welcome to my shop and welcome back to my series on building this curvy serpentine chest of drawers. 

Last time we looked at the design and the lumber selection, and we ended up making up our panels for the case. This time, we’re going to get into the case joinery. 

Here are the panels from last time. The first thing I’m going to do today is get these labeled and cut down to their final size so they’re ready to start on the dovetail joinery. Continuing on with the theme of eliminating error, really well labeling these components helps prevent mistakes. 

So at this point, these are just side panels. They have an outside face, and they don’t have a top, bottom, or front. I want to take a few moments to decide which is going to be the left side, which is going to be the right side, what’s going to be up, and what’s going to be down. 

This is what we’re looking at for the layout. Here I have the right side and the left side. The biggest determining factor for this was a knot on the backside of the right side panel. I didn’t want any of this showing on the front edge of the case, so if that one’s the back, this becomes the layout. I have a bit over an inch to trim off the width, which allows me to remove this section of sapwood, so I’ll have a nice heartwood face for the front of the cabinet. 

How you mark up your panels is going to be totally up to you. The most important thing is that you know your markup convention. This is going to be the right side, so I’m going to give it an R. I like to indicate what the front edge is and which way is up using arrows. That’s all I need for now to go through the cutting process to get these cut down to their final size. Now it’s very clear to me which way is the top of the panel and what is the front edge of that panel. It makes it a lot easier when I’m over on the table saw getting these things cut down to their final size because there’s no guesswork of which way things need to go.


This one’s going to be the top. The only thing I need to determine here is what’s going to be up and what’s going to be down. It doesn’t matter because this is not a visible panel, but I’m going to go with this side. I’ll mark it with a T for top. And I know that’s the front edge because it’s, well, it’s got walnut on it. For the top and bottom, I always label the sides you can see. So for the top panel, it’s the very top, and for the bottom panel, it’s actually going to be the inside face. Again, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re consistent and you know what you’re doing. 

With that bit of layout taken care of, it should be a pretty simple matter to get these cut down to their final size. I’ll take them over to the table saw and start by taking these to the final width. So for the sides, I’ll spend some time making sure I get that front edge looking really nice without any sapwood. I’m not super worried about keeping the panel symmetrical (in other words, having the two boards be the same width) and having that glue seam right in the middle. That’s not as important to me as removing any defects and making the things that are actually visible and important actually look good. In the case of this chest of drawers, the front edge of the sides is more important to me than the actual faces or the sides of the case. 

One small change that I’m going to make to my overall initial plan is that the top and bottom are going to be cut back in width by the thickness of the back boards, which I’ll add on here. So they’re going to be 5/8 of an inch narrower than they originally were supposed to be. That allows me to have my back boards recessed and attached to the top and bottom. We’ll add a rabbit to the sides later on to receive those backwards. 

Lastly, I’ll go through and cut everything down to final length. Again, for the top and bottom, they are two slightly different lengths due to the two different joinery methods. The top is going to be a 1/4 inch shorter than the bottom for the different style of dovetails. The case sides are going to be 28 inches long. 

With all these panels cut to size, now I can start working on the dovetails. I’m going to start on the through dovetails on the bottom of the case since that’s going to be slightly easier. The top and bottom of a chest like this are going to be tail boards. I’m going to cut these tails first. You’ll see with the structure of the chest like this, the whole structure is tying the two sides together. All the horizontal pieces of the case are going to be tail boards holding the sides together so they can not pull apart. You have a mechanical advantage of a dovetail keeping the sides from coming apart. So the top and bottom are tails, and so are the dovetail dividers. 

One thing I like about cutting dovetails is it’s kind of fun, and there’s so many different ways of doing things. I have several different techniques or styles I’ll do these things in, depending on my mood. Today, I’m going to do a bandsaw and table saw-assisted hand cut-ish dovetails, I guess. Depending on your mood or what you’re trying to do, you can cut these things however you want. It doesn’t really matter as long as they fit together nicely. The other great thing about this stage of the build is that these are structural dovetails. They will never be seen. So this is a good time to practice or warm up, if you’re not feeling super confident about your dovetailing skills. 

These are arbitrarily laid out. It doesn’t matter how they look. It doesn’t matter what the spacing is. When I bring this over to the saw, I’ll probably open these up a little bit. I don’t need tiny little pins on this because you’re not going to see it, so I’m not particularly worried about that. A wider pin is going to be easier to cut. 

Over at the bandsaw, I’m going to use my little tapered jig guide and make all these cuts. The nice thing about that is that I can repeat the exact same spacing and layout on the other side just to help speed things along. 

With our tailboard all cleaned up, next I’m going to start transferring the tail locations onto the pinboard. I’m going to get this all jigged up and ready to go for that. 

You can see how this is going to come together. I have a little bit of material in the front for cutting the serpentine pattern in there. That’ll give me a little bit of extra leeway with that. I have the back panel and the bottom panel set back 5/8 of an inch, which is going to allow the back panels to slide right in here and attach to the bottom. I have everything lined up here along the edge, so now I can grab my marking knife and trace around all the tails. As I am transferring these, I notice that I will have one pin in the middle of a knot, which isn’t great. If I had paid a bit more attention to the layout, I would have avoided that.

Now we have all the waste to remove between the pins. You could use a coping saw, carve out the bulk of the waste, and then come back and chop along the scribe line with a chisel. I’m feeling incredibly lazy today, so I’m going to go over to the bandsaw to hog out the majority of the waste from between the pins. Then I’ll go over to the table saw, set the blade height to the scribe line, and sweep the board back and forth across the top of the blade. That’ll remove all the waste from between the pins and will leave a relatively flat area for the base of all these pins. I’ll have a little bit of cleanup work to remove some material against the pins from the little angled bit. 

It went together, which is all that really matters for a structural joint which is not going to be seen ever. Its passable. I would not want that for the side of a blanket chest or something, but that’s pretty good for a quick and dirty through dovetail for the side of a case. 

Using the exact same process, I finished the other side. I’m going to get this in here and then we can work on getting the top dovetailed into the case assembly. 

Now we have the top, which is going to go on top. The process for this one is going to start out very, very similar to the bottom. First thing is to cut the tails into the top. The biggest difference here is that since these are going to be half-blinds, and we know this panel is a 1/4 inch shorter than the bottom, we want to have the tail length be an 1/8 of an inch shorter. 

I have a marking gauge here that’s set to 5/8, so this will give me a proper length once this goes inside of the case sides. I’ll scribe my 5/8 line all the way around here, and then we’ll go through pretty much the exact same process to create this tailboard. I’ll lay out some tail pattern, then cut them out. 

With through dovetails and half-blinds, at least up to this point, creating a tailboard is exactly the same. The difference with half-blinds comes in when you get into the pins. 

Now that this is all cleaned up, let’s get these tails transferred to the sides. First I’ll scribe my line for the pins, and I will also scribe with the same setting from before as to the thickness of the case parts, which are 3/4 of an inch. So for half-blinds, there are two different scribes. 

Once again, we’re sitting 5/8 of an inch from the back, and I have my tails sitting just a little bit over the scribe line. That’s going to give me a little bit of a tighter fit and give me a little more leeway later on. Now that I have that in the right position, I can trace around all these tails, just like the through dovetails. 

Normally with the half-blind dovetails, you’ll see me remove the bulk of the waste at the drill press with a Forstner bit. Two little issues right now. First off is, this is a big panel and it’s awkward to do that on the drill press. Second bigger issue is that since the move, I can’t find my chuck key for the drill press. So I can’t actually put anything in it right now. 

That means we’re going to use the router, which is also effective at removing some of this waste. When doing this, I like to have it oriented so we’re cutting with the end grain up, because it’s a much easier cut on the router, and it’s very easy to control. I have the bit depth set to be just a little bit above the actual baseline for a little bit of leeway. Along the back, I’m going to freehand that as close to that back line as possible. I’m not super worried about that either. It’s going to be a pretty quick thing to clean up with a chisel.

While I’m clearing out all that waste, let’s talk a little bit about Triton’s routers. In the video I’m using the MOF, which I tend to use for free-hand routing. The TRA is a larger, more powerful router. The TRA is a beast of a router and shares all the same award-winning features as the MOF. The TRA is great for heavy-duty work-spitting big bits or for applications where you need a greater plunge depth. I’ve had mine set up in the work center’s router table module for five years now. This thing’s always ready to go. One of the features of the Triton routers is a built-in raise and lower mechanism, so you don’t need a dedicated router lift for this router. The crank can be fed through the tabletop and engage with the router, and you can crank that router up and down just like you could with a router lift. Now, another great feature here is if you keep cranking all the way up, you’ll engage the spindle lock, and you’ll be in router bit changing mode. So you’ll be able to change that router bit from above the surface of the table with only one wrench. That lock feature is also nice on a bearing-guided bit. If you want to change that bearing out, you can hold that bit in place while you change the bearing. That is the TRA. Next time, we’ll take a look at the MOF. 

Now we have a little bit of cleanup left to do inside of here. I got relatively close to that back wall with the router. I’m not super worried about this being too delicate right now because it is a fairly straight-grained area. I am going against the grain as I’m coming down with the chisel, so I’m going to keep that in mind as I’m working. If I was really worried about it, like if there was a bit of figure here or a knot or something, I can clamp another board to help support the fibers in that area. 

Before we test fit, there’s a few checks that we can make. We want to make sure this back wall is either perfectly square or there is a little bit of a gap on the bottom. That makes sure that the dovetail seats fully along the top. I have a combination square here just long enough to hit the back of the socket, and I can run it through here and make sure that the top of the square is contacting all the way down. If there’s some junk in here, it’s going to push a square away from that top and you’ll see a gap there. 

The other thing you want to check is the squareness of all the pins. Those are the glue surfaces, so you want to make sure they’re nice and square, which they should be if you follow the scribe line that was scribed. But it’s a nice little check before you go smacking things together. 

This passed all those checks, so let’s try a test fit. Not too bad, a few gaps here and there. It doesn’t really matter again, because it’s all going to be hidden. It’s a nice warm up for the ones that actually matter. 

I got the other side thrown on here, and now we have our box all dovetailed together. Next we can start working on getting the dividers installed, which will further tie the case together and support all of the drawers. 

The way I like to do this is with a scrap piece of wood or a scrap piece of sheet goods as a reference guide. I also use a router with a dovetail bit and a guide bushing on it. The piece of sheet goods is going to make it so that these things can only be cut in one place, and you don’t have to worry about any layout errors or anything like that. The biggest thing with these dividers is that you want them all to be coplanar, in the same plane. If you have one divider that’s a little bit off in one way or another, it’s going to cause the actual web frame, which supports the drawer, to have a twist in it. That’s going to cause a drawer to rock inside the opening. So I don’t even bother with any kind of layout; I just have my little piece of sheet goods, which I trimmed down to the appropriate size to get my divider where it needs to be. The biggest thing again, is that these don’t need to be exactly in the correct position but they need to be in that same position. 

The process for this is very simple. I have my piece of sheet goods set up so that it is going to put the top divider in the right spot. I’m doing this all based off of the center line of the divider. Then my guide bushing in my router is a one inch diameter, So my piece of sheet goods is 1/2 inch narrower than where I want my divider to end up. All I have to do is clamp my piece of sheet goods to the case. I’ll probably put a clamp on the case just to make sure the bottom, which is essentially the reference for this, is fully seated in those dovetails and doesn’t go anywhere. 

I’ll cut the front sliding dovetail socket, move on to cut the back one, flip the case 180 degrees, move my sheet good to the other side, repeat that process for the two on that side. 

Then I can trim my piece of sheet goods down to size for the next one, and so forth and so on, until all of these dividers are fully cut. Every position has four sockets and then there’s three actual dovetailed dividers, so 12 of these sockets total. As far as the depth goes, I have my dovetail bits set to cut to a depth about 9/16 or so, right around there. Again, the actual depth isn’t a huge deal as long as everything is absolutely consistent. The depth of the dovetail is more of an aesthetic thing. I typically go for about 1/8 of an inch or so, so that’s about what this is set for. 

The last thing, when I’m done cutting all 12 sockets, before I move on or touch the router or do anything, is I’m going to do a quick little sample setup and make myself a setup block. That’s going to make the next step cutting all of the actual tails a lot easier. It’s going to give me a quick way to set the router bit height on the router table and give me a handheld sample piece to test fit against versus having to try and test it against the case. 

All right, that takes care of our 12 sliding dovetail sockets. One thing to note, on one side of the socket as the bit’s coming in, you’re going to get some tear out as that bit’s coming through and pulling the fibers out. You can do two things to address that. If this is going to be your finished surface, you can back that up with another piece of material, and you can remove that piece of material later. In my case with this piece, this is not a finished surface. The front of this whole case is going to be further processed for that front facade. So any of this tear out or chip out here is not going to be a problem because it’s still a waste. In the back, we haven’t cut the rabbit yet either, so that’s all going to be removed too. So there’s no reason for me to worry about tear out at this point. 

Next we can work on the dividers and get that stock milled up for it. I have my divider stock here, which is still rough-milled and oversized. I’ll make one quick note on that: the dovetail bit is 3/4 of an inch wide at the very tip here, so if we make divider stock 3/4, you essentially have to create the angle dovetail right at the very edge of the stock. So I can make it a little bit easier, I’m going to make the divider stock a little bit thicker. In my case, let’s say 13/16, that’s a little bit out of the width of the bit, but does make it a little bit easier when we cut those spline dovetails.

Real quickly, I’m going to get everything milled down to final thickness and ripped to final width. Then we can take a look at getting them all cut down to final length. 

Next it’s time to cut the actual dovetails onto the ends of all the dividers, and I have the router table set up to do that. I used my little test set up to get my bit height into roughly the right height. 

I have also created a zero-clearance type of situation here with a tall fence and a base piece on the bottom. That’s going to give me a nice, smooth surface so there’s nowhere for anything to hang up as the pieces are coming across the bit. The nice thing about having a sample piece is that this is obviously a lot easier to deal with than the whole case, so we can run some tests and see how things go. The best thing for testing is going to be the offcuts from the divider stock because it’s all the same thickness. My first two tests were to get the bit height set correctly. The most challenging part about this is there really isn’t a whole lot of room for error. You can go too far, too quickly and this will not fit correctly. I end up erring on the side of a little too tight, that way I don’t have to worry about it being too loose. If it’s too loose, you have gaps. You really need this to be super, super snug. If it needs to be adjusted, it’s a lot easier to really quickly adjust this fit than it is to try and add more material back on. 

Before actually going through and cutting the real dividers, I’m also going to test the sample piece on the case and see how it fits over here. Again, this is a little bit snug, but that’s ok. I’ll cut them all like this and then give them a little bit of sanding with some sandpaper. 

Let’s go ahead and cut all these dividers! A big thing with the actual feed for this is going to be consistency more than anything. You need to have nice, consistent pressure into the fence and down to the table. One thing I like to do is run the piece over twice just in case my pressure was a little bit different.

The left side is fitting really nicely, but the right side is still a bit tight. I can either adjust the tail itself with a little sandpaper, or I can go back to the router table and just put a little more pressure as I’m feeding this through. 

With the joinery finished on all the dividers, front and back, I think we’re working towards doing the serpentine profile next. The last thing I have to do is to cut and fit the false bottom divider. That’s going to be pretty easy. That’s just a simple cross cut on one end, come back to the case, make a mark and cut it down to final length. That will then slip in between the case sides, and that’ll take care of everything we’re going to need before heading into the serpentine pattern facade on the front of that case. 

That is the fundamental construction method of any case piece that is going to be constructed out of solid wood and dovetailed together, no matter what the kind of style or ornamentation is. 

If you like these more in-depth videos, definitely check out my classes over in the guild. This time I’m going to recommend you take a look at the high boy

I’ve said this many times about that project, but the high boy is simply a chest of drawers sitting on top of a table. The two pieces are constructed in exactly the same ways you would construct those two individual pieces. We have a table with some drawers. And then up top is just a chest of drawers, and that is built exactly the same way as this serpentine chest. The only difference is the ornamentation and the stylistic choices. If you have a dovetailed chest of drawers, a flat front, a curvy front, some kind of crazy bonnet top, it’s all fundamentally the same, just trimmed out and detailed a little bit differently. 

Again, if you want to take on the challenge of making your own serpentine chest of drawers, I do have your full set of plans that you can check out as well. 

That is going to do it for this one. Next time, we’re going to take our basic dovetailed case and make it all curvy and introduce the serpentine profile into the case, which should be fun! 

Thank you as always for watching, I greatly appreciate it. If you have any questions or comments on the serpentine chest of drawers or anything here in the shop, please feel free to leave me a comment. As always, I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have. And until next time, happy woodworking!

The Guild:
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