Dovetails are one of the most challenging joints to make, which means the jig you choose must meet a certain set of standards if you're going to rely on it to provide precise results. It needs to be machined to perfection, rock-solid when mounted to your work surface, and of course, it needs to be reasonably easy to use. We compared 12 dovetail jigs on these qualities and more, and we found the Porter-Cable 4216 Super Jig to be the best dovetail jig overall. Not only is it sturdy and simple to use, it's also extremely versatile, offering several templates and adjustable depth which allows you to create dovetails of nearly any size or style including through, half-blind, sliding, and more. Article Summary
Dovetails are one of the most highly-regarded joints out there, partly due to tradition and visual appeal, but also because it’s a very strong joint that is difficult to master. While dovetails are traditionally done by hand (and many argue that’s the only way they should be made), this method can be extremely time consuming and hard to achieve, especially for first-timers or those working on bulk projects. For these reasons, many woodworkers have turned on tradition and opted for quicker ways of creating dovetails – this is usually done with a router and a dovetail jig that has been secured to the work surface.
The tricky part of this equation is choosing the best jig. Given the level of precision required to craft good dovetails, a jig must be extremely well-made and very carefully designed. First, it needs to be secure so that there’s no worry of unwanted movement as you’re working. Not only could this ruin your joints, but it could be a legitimate safety hazard. On top of sturdiness, convenience and versatility are top priorities. Everyone loves tools that are easy to use, and since dovetails can be made in several common shapes and sizes, it’s important that your jig isn’t restricted to just a single style.
Given the popularity of the dovetail joint, the market is flooded with different “miracle” jigs, all claiming to be the best at helping you craft perfect dovetails in a quick manner. However, we all know that “miracle” usually means “too good to be true,” so we decided to put 12 popular jigs in a head-to-head comparison to figure out which one really is the best dovetail jig overall. After comparing a number of different aspects like quality, sturdiness, ease of setup and use, versatility, and more, we came to the conclusion that the following three jigs are at the top of the pack.
The best dovetail jig overall
Porter-Cable is an industry giant, and they are well-known for making some of the best tools and tool accessories out there. Their 4216 Super Jig is arguably the most popular dovetail jig out there, and for good reason. It offers professional quality, a variety of templates for different joints, and is priced well to make it a tremendous value no matter whether you’re a DIYer at home or an industry pro.
Right off the bat, one of the most attractive benefits of this jig is the fact that it requires no assembly. For such a versatile and dynamic piece of equipment, it’s almost unheard of to not have some sort of complicated process to put things together. Simply pull it out of the box, mount it to your workbench (you can use the built-in twist clamps or you can bolt it down, whichever you prefer), and off you go. It’s made using a single-piece steel body, so needless to say, it’s extremely durable and stable as you work.
The most important parts of choosing a dovetail jig lies in how easy it is to use and how much you can do with it, and that’s where the 4216 Super Jig truly excels. Instead of restricting you to just one joint template like most other jigs, Porter-Cable includes three of them to allow you full customization over your project. The 4211 template is for half-blind, rabbeted half-blind, and sliding dovetails; the 4213 template is for through dovetails and box joints; and the 4215 template is for miniature versions of each of the previous joints provided by the 4211 and 4213 templates. There’s also four dovetail router bits, two lock nuts, and a wrench made specifically for the jig.
Once you choose your template and bolt it down to the jig, you’ve got a full 12″ working space that can accommodate stock (aka wood) from 0.25″ to 1.125″ thick. Your project board is held onto the jig using heavy-duty clamps with locking bars that are backed with sandpaper, so you’ve got several levels of security to ensure the wood stays completely still as you make your router passes. Speaking of which, there’s also an adjustable screw with a depth gauge that allows you to set how deep the router bit goes into the template (for larger or smaller joints), which is another nice little customization aspect to have.
For those who are completely new to woodworking, one last thing to note is that Porter-Cable includes a really helpful set of on-board instructions that include tips and troubleshoots. Many customers have commented about how nice these are to have for quick reference and how they’ve helped beginners ensure quality work, so we thought we’d make a quick mention of it here as well.
Overall, we think the Porter-Cable 4216 Super Jig is the ultimate dovetail-joint-making package. It’s durable, stable, easy to use, and gives you more opportunity for customization than any other dovetail jig on the market.
A good bang for your buck
If Porter-Cable’s Super Jig was a little more money than you were originally looking to spend, the General Tools 861 Pro Dovetailer 2 would be our recommended solution to look into. It’s quite a bit more basic, but still provides a secure base for crafting perfect dovetails – and at a fraction of the price, it presents a great bang for your buck.
Like our previous pick, General Tools’ jig requires no tricky setup process. It’s extremely minimalist by design, and since it’s crafted using a single piece of aluminum, there’s really nothing to mess around with even if you wanted to. Clamping it down to your work surface is simple using the integrated twist clamps at the rear, which gives you a reasonably secure station, just not quite at the level of the Porter-Cable, which has more clamps and locking bars.
Since the dovetail template is carved right into the body, this jig is as easy to use as it gets. With that said, this design does also presents a few limitations. For beginners, it’s nice to have a self-aligning template – in other words, the design helps to ensure both ends of your dovetail match up evenly every time. However, this also means you don’t have the ability to change out templates for different dovetails styles – you have to stick the same template every time. For some, this might not be an issue, but if you ever plan to advance your woodworking skills beyond the beginner stage, you’ll want the ability to change out templates and create more intricate work (like what Porter-Cable offers).
While on the subject of customization and versatility, it’s important to mention two things: working space and route depth. As far as working space is concerned, the Pro Dovetailer 2 only provides room for boards 6″ and under. This makes it perfect for those commonly working with smaller projects, but if you ever plan to create joints on a board larger than 6″, you’ll need to do things by hand, or you’ll need a different jig. In addition, this jig also features a router depth gauge. This is helpful in allowing you to set how deep you want your joints, but customers have warned to be careful when tightening down the gauge’s screw, as it’s made with plastic and easy to break.
While it doesn’t offer the same level of quality or versatility as our top pick, the General Tools 861 Pro Dovetailer 2 is still a great dovetail jig for those who only care about basic functionality. The price is certainly quite a bit cheaper, but we’d still consider the Porter-Cable a better overall value because of how much is included with the kit.
A highly versatile jig for professionals
If you’re a professional woodworker who is constantly working on unique projects, the best dovetail jig would undoubtedly be the Leigh Super Jig. Thanks to its adjustable template, this jig offers unmatched versatility to create any type of custom dovetail you want. With that said, that also makes it quite a bit harder to use, which is the reason it ended up as our third choice instead of first.
In the beginning of this guide, we mentioned that versatility was a desirable feature in choosing the best dovetail jig. A jig that offers the ability to change templates and create different joint styles is always better than one that restricts you to a single style. With that said, there is a point where too much versatility crosses the line of convenience and just becomes straight up complication for certain users. Leigh’s Super Jig walks this line, making it incredible for those who love customization, but potentially frustrating for those who don’t. Let’s explain.
The entire concept of jigs is to speed up processes that take a long time. In this case, creating a dovetail by hand is difficult and time-consuming, so a jig is supposed to make things easier and faster. However, with this particular model, you may not be shaving off as much time as you’d hope. Leigh’s Super Jig offers adjustable fingers (the pieces of metal you trace around with your router to produce pins and tails), which means you have infinite control over size and style of your joints. With that said, it also means you have to do a lot of setup and measurement for each configuration you design. If you don’t mind the time spent, then this is by no means a deal-breaker – in fact, this is an excellent opportunity for custom woodworkers who love intricacy and precision. But it’s definitely something to keep in mind if you’re primarily buying a jig for the time-saving aspect.
Now that we’ve gone over this jig’s capabilities, the rest is simple. Given that Leigh is a reputable tool brand, it goes without saying that this tool is built with impressive quality. It’s very nicely machined and has a series of cam-action clamps and bars just like the Porter-Cable model, which keep it tightly secured to your work station. It does require some assembly, but Leigh includes a comprehensive how-to DVD to teach you everything you need to know (since we’ve established that this jig is a little more on the complex side). Something extra-nice about this jig, which is pretty hard to find, is the availability of more working space – you can choose between a 12″, 18″ or 24″ length. This gives you plenty of opportunity for small and large projects alike.
If you find your creativity limited with conventional dovetail jigs and you’re looking for something on the more comprehensive side (and don’t mind the price tag or complicated setup), Leigh’s Super Jig is the best dovetail jig to go for.
How we picked our top three
While jigs all share the same purpose (to make the dovetail process easier), different brands go about this solution in different ways. We were focused on finding the best jigs for both beginners and experts alike, so we judged models in the following areas.
Although most woodworkers will get a similar image in their mind when the word “dovetail” is mentioned, there are several types of dovetails, and each has its own quirks and procedures for producing. Many dovetail jigs only produce through dovetails (dovetails that span the entire width of the board), but there are more versatile jigs available that will also produce half-blind and other types so that you have the ability to work on a wide array of different projects. These are the jigs we wanted to go after. Half the beauty in woodwork is creativity, and versatility is always something you’d rather have and not need as opposed to needing it and not having it. With that said, we made sure the three picks in our guide spanned the entire range of functionality to allow you to choose the level of versatility you personally care about.
Ease of setup and use
The whole point of a jig is to make dovetails easier, and if they’re a complete pain in the neck to set up or work with, it sort of defeats the purpose. While doing our research, we made sure to read instruction manuals and also read through customer reviews of each particular model to identify which ones were easiest to assemble and simplest to work with. Obviously, these models scored higher than those that had difficult assembly or complicated day-to-day use.
Another important factor we looked at was stability. After all, without stability, precision goes down the drain – and we all know the level of precision required to repeatedly craft perfect dovetails. To measure each jig’s stability, we not only looked at the materials used to make the jig, but we also looked at the design of the base plate, the number and location of the clamps, and of course, customer reviews. Reviewing all of these areas allowed us to get the most collective understanding of each jig’s sturdiness, which we then scored and rated accordingly.
Things to consider before buying
Like all tools and accessories, there are things to consider before buying just to make sure you choose the right model for your personal usage. We’ve written up a few points to think about before shelling out the money on a dovetail jig.
How much versatility do you want/need?
If you have only one type and measurement of dovetail that you tend to stick through with all of your projects, you may not need the most versatile jig out there. A simple single-template model will probably do the trick. On the flipside, if your projects are constantly changing and often require different types and sizes, a simple model isn’t going to cut it. You’ll want something that gives you the ability to customize. In our opinion, it’s always better to go with a versatile jig. Reason being: it’s always better to have the ability to adapt and not need it, rather than needing to adapt and not having the ability. Versatile jigs are just more practical.
How often will you use your jig?
This question kind of goes along with the one above. If you don’t currently make dovetails often and you don’t see yourself making them often in the future, spending a ton of money on a jig probably isn’t worth the expense. However, if you are making dovetails all the time, it makes sense to invest more money into a jig that’s built to last through years of work. When asking yourself this question, also consider the aspect of setup time. If you’re going to use your jig often, make sure you choose one that doesn’t require a ton of work to setup, otherwise you’ll spend more time assembling and disassembling it than actually working with it.
What’s your budget?
This is a big one. Tool costs can add up, and every budget is different. In our opinion, tools (and tool accessories) should always be looked at as a long-term investment – so if you can swing it, we’d recommend spending a little extra to get a quality-built product. Sure, it might be a slightly higher price up front, but we’re talking about an accessory that will easily last a lifetime if you buy the right one.
The benefits of using a jig over making dovetails by hand
Dovetails are highly regarded in part by their beauty and structural strength, but also for their complication of mastery. Using the traditional process, dovetails are hand-measured and cut with a saw, then cleaned up with chisels and sandpaper. This method has produced some of the best looking joints ever made, and it is definitely still preferred by many woodworkers.
With that said, using a jig takes out a good portion of the measuring and nearly all of the work of actually cutting the tails and pins, significantly speeding up the process while making it easier to consistently create precise dovetails. To use a jig, all you have to do is secure it to your work surface, clamp your project board to the jig, slip a dovetail bit in your router, and trace around the template for tails and pins. This not only saves a lot of time, but it makes jigs an excellent learning tool for beginners who are still learning to master the fine art of joint-making. Furthermore, using a jig that allows custom templates and experimenting with different dovetail router bits can add to the learning process while also giving you a huge advantage in the “custom projects” department.
Again, if you’re an old school woodworker, dovetail jigs might not appeal to you at all. However, if you embrace modern technology in your shop and go for technical speed and precision, a dovetail jig will save you a ton of time and still produce beautiful, strong joints.
Other thing you’ll need to get started
Unfortunately, a jig alone isn’t going to magically give you a perfectly manicured set of dovetails – you’ll need to prepare a few other things to get the job done.
Dovetail jigs are made for routers, so it should go without saying that you’re going to need one of those if you’re planning to use a jig for all your dovetail work. The goods news is, routers and jigs are generally universal. In other words, no matter which router you currently have (or plan to buy), nearly all of them will work with any dovetail jig, and vice versa. Like any tool, we’d recommend doing the proper research before buying a router – these are extremely versatile tools and investing in a good one can open a lot of doors for you in terms of other woodworking techniques.
Dovetail router bits
The router bit is what differentiates whether a dovetail jig produces dovetail joints or box joints while following the template. Dovetail bits are triangular and have a wider base than narrows out at the top to create the classic dovetail shape. Most dovetail jig kits will come with at least one dovetail bit (some kits include even more) to get you started, but if you really want to expand your options, investing in a set with several different angles and lengths can go a long way with creating unique joints.
A sturdy work surface
A stable work surface is always important no matter what you’re working with, but in the case of using a dovetail jig, there are a few reasons why we mention this. First, jigs are usually machined from either aluminum or steel, which can get pretty heavy and compromise your table if it’s weak. On top of that, given the fact that creating dovetails requires precision, an unstable work surface can literally ruin your work if the jig is moving around on you as you’re routing through the template. If your router table or work surface is pretty heavy-duty, you likely won’t have an issue. However, if you’re unsure about the integrity of your work surface, you may want to consider reinforcing it.
Wrapping it up
While router jigs aren’t necessary to achieve perfect dovetails, they sure do speed up the process and make it a heck of a lot easier. Dovetail jigs will allow anyone from novices to experienced woodworkers to integrate dovetails and box joints into their projects without adding a ton of time to the project. After researching the different jigs on the market, we’d say our top picks offer the best balance of quality, versatility, and value for the average woodworker. There are a few more expensive options out there with more features, but most of them seem to be geared towards extreme professionals.
• All About Dovetail Joints by Fine Woodworking