Rabbet Joints: What They Are and How to Cut Them

Rabbets and dados are some of the most common ways to join together two pieces of wood in cabinet making, and they can be cut using a dado blade on a table saw like the step-by-step method below. 

Don’t let the blade name confuse you—a dado blade, or dado stack, is used to cut both dados and rabbets. You’ll also often hear carpenters use the phrase “dado out” which refers to how the dado blade carves a recess into the material no matter which type of joint you are making.

What is a rabbet joint?

A rabbet is a recess cut into the edge of a workpiece. The piece that extrudes is called the tongue. A rabbet joint is the result of joining a rabbet to another piece of wood, typically to construct shelving and cabinet boxes. Rabbet joints are great for building drawers, cabinets, and lighter items like a picture frame. They can be cut with a table saw, table mounted router, or hand held router with a rabbet bit or straight bit.

A rabbet joint is stronger than a typical butt joint—which is simply two straight edges joined together—because a rabbet provides more of a mechanical connection. Cutting the rabbet creates more surface area where the wood can be glued and therefore creates a stronger joint than simply nailing or gluing together two straight edges. For an even stronger rabbet joint, opt for a double rabbet joint where rabbets are cut into both edges of the adjoining workpieces.

Rabbet joints vs. dado joints

Rabbets and dadoes are both used all the time in carpentry, and they can even be combined to create a rabbet and dado joint. A dado is a three-sided channel cut into a workpiece. The channel, often referred to as a dado cut, receives another piece of material measured and cut to fit snugly inside the channel to create a dado joint. To make a rabbet and dado joint, the dado cut receives the rabbet to make a joint that is stronger and more rigid than a standard through dado. 

A dado joint is a very strong type of carpentry joint commonly used across a variety of woodworking projects—especially cabinets and shelving that need to be able to hold heavy items. The three sided channel (vs the two-sided surface of a rabbet) allows for even more surface for the adjoining piece of wood to make contact which in turn makes a stronger finished project.

The type of joint you choose will impact the finished look and the strength of the joint so consider where the cabinet or shelf will be installed and whether it will need to hold heavy duty or lightweight items.

How to cut a rabbet in 4 steps

A table saw with a stacked dado blade is a convenient and precise way to make joinery cuts of all types. A dado stack is like a sandwich of saw blades with ⅛ inch kerf saw blades on the outsides and ⅛ – 1/16 inch chippers on the inside. You can adjust the width of the dado stack to the width of your cut and thickness of the material by adding or subtracting the inside blades.

If you are working with a smaller table saw or simply aren’t comfortable making wider cuts in one pass, make multiple passes to get the width you need. If you only have a router table or a hand held routing tool, make sure to purchase the appropriate router bit for making rabbet cuts.

1. Set up the dado stack

When working inside of the saw, always make sure it is unplugged. Swap out the regular saw blade to a dado stack. The dado blade width should be a little over the thickness of the ¾ inch plywood, or whatever size plywood you are using. Cutting teeth should be facing toward you and offset the teeth from blade to blade. Check the blade for square and adjust as necessary.

2. Set up a sacrificial fence

Lower the blade completely and clamp a sacrificial fence to the rip fence to ensure that the cut goes through the entire thickness of the wood (and a little bit into the sacrificial fence). This will ensure a nice, clean cut in one pass.

3. Run a test cut

Switch from a tape measure to a metal ruler for more accurate measurements and set the dado blade to ½ inch depth, or adjust as needed for the size of your workpiece. Note: You should never make the depth of the rabbet cut deeper than a ½ inch into the thickness of the wood or it will weaken the joint and no more than ⅓ is considered best practice. Run a few test cuts and measure to confirm that there is a ¼ inch ledge, or whatever is desired for your project.

4. Make rabbet cuts

Dado out the backs of all four pieces and only the tops and bottoms of the side pieces. Cut with the pieces face down so that the cuts are on the inside of the cabinet. If you are following Ken’s measurements, the depth will be ½ inch in order to leave a ¼ inch of space for the tongue. Once you have a few rabbets cut, check the joint for fit and adjust your fence as needed.

MT Copeland offers video-based online classes that give you a foundation in construction fundamentals with real-world applications, like building cabinets.

Classes include professionally produced videos taught by practicing craftspeople, and supplementary downloads like quizzes, blueprints, and other materials to help you master the skills. 

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Ken Decost

Ken DeCost is a cabinet maker based in Boston, MA. Growing up in a family of tradesmen, Ken began to develop his carpentry skills from a young age. Over the last ten years he has honed his expertise in high end cabinet making. In 2017, he became the Director of Millwork for custom home builder, NS Builders. Here he has assembled a skilled team that aligns to his level of high standards and excellence. From traditional to ultra modern, complex curved work to hand stitched veneering, he continues to push the limits of perfection and craftsmanship.

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