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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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This Joint Is Dead

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

The dovetail joint is dead. Over. Yesterday's news. Except for a few woodworkers, no one cares. Cue the requiem, pay your respects, toss some dirt in the hole and walk away. Boring, passé, good riddance… at least from a marketing perspective.

Sure, it is a naturally strong wood joint. Sure, it looks good. But the days of proudly pointing out the dovetail joints in the corners of a drawer are about as interesting to everyday people as discussing the relative merits of 10W30 oil versus 10W40. Who cares?

If you need some proof of this, one need go no further than the local furniture store. Without being labeled a stalker or pseudo-spy, try to inconspicuously observe a salesperson pitching a prospective customer. You will be surprised at what you hear.

In a mock bedroom suite, the salesperson shows a young couple a nightstand. He opens the top drawer and I thought, "Here it comes… he is going to point out the dovetail drawers." No, instead, he and the customers were focused on the built-in USB charging port inside. They moved on to the chest of drawers. The salesperson opened each drawer. He brought attention to the velvet lining in one saying, "This is where you will store your jewelry." The next drawer had in-built dividers and he pointed out, "A great way to keep your socks organized." He pulled the top middle drawer out all the way and I would have bet money this was when he would point out the dovetail joints, but I would have been a bit poorer. He showed the couple a coax cable connection inside the back of the chest and how they could hook up a television without all those unsightly wires.

There were nice dovetail joined drawers under the bed, too. Great for storing heavy blankets and stuff, but the sales person's pitch centered instead on the full-length stainless steel ball bearing self-closing drawer slides.

Could this have been an anomaly? I walked within a hundred feet or so of a lady with a store ID badge, and predictably she was on me like a flash. I feigned interest in finding a buffet. "…lots of heavy dishes and silverware to store, so I need something really sturdy." Efficiently and with professionalism she took me to the right area of the store and began to show me different dining room furniture.

There were styles and features galore. Every single buffet, whether tall, short, long, or wide, cheap or expensive, had dovetail drawers and not once… not one single time… did she mention that feature. The drawers could have been butt-joined boxes… her interest was in showing me other features.

Frankly I was a bit shocked. Twenty years ago the dovetail joints in a drawer would have been one of the first things a salesperson would point out. Perhaps it was just this store. So I went to a different store and the exact same thing occurred. Finally, at my fourth store, obsessed now with what happened to the allure and panache of a good dovetail joint, I singled out a more mature salesperson and after hearing his pitch asked, "Why didn't you point out the dovetail joints in the drawers?" His answer was enlightening… "Well, all drawers have those now… it's no big deal."

Turns out, for the most part, he is right. The cheapest kitchen cabinets at the big box store… you know the ones… one-piece doors milled from MDF, four-dollar drawer slides, wafer thin backs and white vinyl covering instead of paint… you guessed it… have dovetail joined drawers.

Figure 7 - The machine-made dovetails on a cheap “big box store” cabinet that
costs less than $150... note the slides... I can buy these for less than $4/pair!

In the little "home goods" section of a discount store, a wooden occasional table for $79 had a single drawer with dovetailed corners. A local high-end furniture store advertises their exquisite engineering by talking about how their door panels will never rattle because they use space balls. Space balls? This is more important now than dovetail joints? I guess so.

Figure 8 - We woodworkers know this is a box joint (and not a very good one),
but I overheard a customer call this a "dovetail"

How did we get to this point? Simple, really. Overexposure. When dovetail joints were a hallmark of quality and pointed out by salespeople, manufacturers realized the feature was a differentiator, so they all eventually got automated machinery to turn out dovetails by the gazillions. It's the same in every industry.

A new smart phone gets a new glass face that is scratch and shatter resistant. Cool. Pretty soon every other phone has it, so in short order, it's no big deal. Then someone makes a thinner smart phone. Big deal for a while till everyone's smart phone gets thin, then the allure is forgotten. Big screen? Everyone soon puts out a big screen. Not only are these once-super features forgotten, but they are considered "common." And guess what? They get cheaper. Like last year's phone, the dovetail joint has gotten "cheap." Sorry.

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