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Making Dados with Hand Tools

I was asked how dados were made using only hand tools, and thought I could put my response up here to help out if someone had the question again.  It's not for a finished project, just to explain the procedures used... 

First is how to make a simple dado, followed by making a stopped dado...

A Simple Dado

Most longer through-dados would be made with a "dado plane" - but that is not a good solution for shorter through-dado, like in my example where I use 1x2 stock much like you would find in a face frame for a cabinet.  Here, sawing and chiseling the wood away is a more efficient process.

1. I mark out the cut I'm going to make, top and sides, and score it with a marking knife (or utility knife, whatever's handy) at the exact width of the mating piece.. 

2. I make the initial cuts with a back saw, watching both the front and the back of the cut to make sure I cut to the right depth, staying on the waste side of the lines made in the previous step.

3. I make several extra cuts in the waste area of the dado to make removing the wood with a chisel easier. 

4. I remove the majority of the waste with a sharp chisel and mallet, leaving just a little waste in the bottom of the cut to pare away.

5. To start paring, I use  the mark I made earlier with the knife as a starting place for the chisel, I pare into the dado using the chisel, making sure to leave it a little higher in the middle, leaving it slightly convex. To make cuts like this your edge has to be *sharp*... if it isn't, it could tear out grain, leaving a rough bottom.

6. Another method is to use a router plane to level out the bottom.... I won't, but show it here as an option. 

7. Clamping the board down, I pare out the hump, working towards the middle from each side. Again - the chisel has to be SHARP! 

8. I had cut one side a little inside of the mark. Using a chisel, I square that side up. 

9, 10, and 11: here is the final dado, complete. 

At this stage, if it doesn't fit well, you can use a small file to clean it up and fit it better... 

Total time spent on the dado - less than 5 minutes. 

To further  illustrate the method of paring I describe above...  Start by creating the 'hump' in the center, then pare away the corners until a pyramid shape remains.  Then slowly pare away the pyramid from the top down as shown in this illustration (an animated gif, sorry).  While this is for the bottom of a dovetail, but because the dado above is short, the same steps apply.

Work from each side, checking your progress frequently using both your eye and a square.

Making Stopped Dados with Hand Tools

Stopped dados require a slightly different approach.

1. I drill a hole that will act as the end of the dado, and using a market knife, score the edges of the dado.

2. Using a stair saw set to the proper depth, I make the outer cuts. Because my saw is set up for hardwood and not softwood, it's a bit grabby - so I stay well within the lines. In hardwood, I would cut quite a bit closer... 

Note:  a back saw will also work here in place of a stair saw.  The advantage of the stair saw is you can adjust the depth it will cut - with a backsaw, you just have to pay attention that you don't cut too deeply.

3. Using the mark left by the knife, I pare out the edges to the line.

4. I then chisel out the majority of the waste, and start squaring up the end of the dado using the same chisel.

5. This just shows what's left after chiseling out the waste... still pretty rough, but the majority of the material has been removed.

6. Using a router plane, I level out the bottom of the dado, then clean up after with a chisel.

7. Which leaves a nice finished dado. A small scraper cleans up what's left.  You can see the hole I drilled is deeper that the the rest of the dado - this doesn't hurt, unless you drill through your stock.

8, 9, and 10: Simply shows the board inserted into the dado. You can see in the one where I was a bit careless with the saw but hey, I did it in a hurry! About 10-15 minutes. 

I hope these photos help give the idea of how hand tools are used to make dados.

Hope this was useful information.