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Understanding Dovetail Joints

The Story of Dovetail Joints by Bill Stankus, originally published in Wood News Issue 21, Summer 1988.

The classic woodworking joint known as dovetails is one of the best methods ever devised to hold wood together. The named dovetails comes from the fact that the shape of the joint's surfaces flair out like a in a manner suggestive of the tail of a dove. The interlocking joints for the two board edges are called tails and pens. It is easiest to see this when the two boards are not mated together because the tail piece does look like a row of bird tails and the pin piece is best seen as a row of angled locking surfaces.

The origins of the dovetails are so far back in history of Europe, Asia and the Middle East that is impossible to speculate as to when and where it came to be. However, it is easy to construct a reasonable scenario as why it came to be. Until the advent of quality glues and mechanical fasteners the only guaranteed way of keeping furniture (or other items requiring framework) together was to create some sort of way for one board to interlock with another. Added to this was the fact that glues could be considerably unreliable (not water resistant) and that working of the wood required hand tool usage. Furthermore, ancient and modern craftsman alike have wanted their wares to resist the ravages of wood movement brought on by temperature, humidity, seasonal changes and age. And to answer these problems there are two board groups of woodworking joints: the mortise and tenon group and the dovetail group.

The mortise and tenon group includes a diverse range of joints, such as, the simple mortise and tenon (either in round or flat stock, through, blind or wedged); the double mortise and tenon; fox-wedged; haunched; open; oblique; mitered;; notched; and pinned; to name a few.

Generally, the mortise and tenon group can be thought of as a way of joining together wooden frames or carcasses. Examples of furniture type of constructions are chairs, door frames, stick carcass construction, timber and frame houses and barns, window and picture frames.

The Multiple Mortars and Tenon is a version of the solid carcass joinery that is well suited for cabinets, chest of drawers and other similar constructions.

The dovetail group is equally as diverse including such examples as the through (or common) dovetail; half blind; half lapped; sliding; stopped; single dovetail; end to end; asymmetrical; angled; blind; twisted; and cogged.

However, the dovetail group lends itself to a wider selection of wood sizes than the mortise and tenon group. Dovetails are possible in almost any length, thickness or with of wood.

As useful as the mortise and tenon is, it is the dovetail that has become the symbol of fine craftsmanship. Perhaps the mortise and tenon is not regarded as highly by the general public because it is generally hidden in the wood and because the dovetail is much more visible. For example, if dovetails are used to construct a chest of drawers out of highly figured walnut, the visual impact of the dovetails and beautiful wood together will certainly be more than the sum of the parts. Master craftsman, as well as those with no woodworking background would have positive feelings for this chest of drawers because of the joinery and the wood. And that is how symbols of the fine craftsmanship are created.

The relationship of dovetails and craftsmanship is not without merit. The skills necessary to use dovetails in woodworking are rather specific. First, one must know what type of dovetail joint a project may require. Secondly, one must know how to lay it out, cut it, glue and clamp it and then do final clean-up.

Before electricity came about (that period is now referred to as The Era of Traditional Woodworking), dovetails were cut with saw and chisel. The skills necessary to previsualize the dovetail layout and then to saw and chisel it out were learned by apprentices from masters over long periods of training time. In fact, apprentices were sometimes required to make their own tool chest including drawers using a variety of dovetails as part of their rites of passage out of apprenticeship.

As power machines (water, steam and electricity) entered the workshop it wasn't long before all sorts of massive contraptions were cutting dovetails. However, these machines were principally for mass production. And these goods looked mass produced and bland in their uniformity. The inflexible machine turned out work that had repetitious, uniform dovetail shapes and spacings. In the smaller workshops variable shaped and spaced dovetails were still cut by hand and those who believed that machines were creating impersonal and graceless woodworking turned to the smaller workshops as symbols of all the "right" ways of woodworking.

Fortunately for all of us we can have a perspective on this history. Even though the dovetail is still thought of as a symbol of craftsmanship, we can use it for all of the best reasons: it is attractive, resist wood movement and is very strong.

Dovetail design

The other aspect of the dovetail group that must be discussed is that of design. Design is probably the hardest word in woodworking to define (or at least to be agreed upon). It can be thought of as personal or of some school or movement. And in any case the definition can still be rearranged to suit any need for whim. Generally, design can be thought of as a plan with a style. With that simple definition in mind it can be seen that dovetails have been part of just about every woodworking style except nailed plywood! Traditional, Shaker style, modern, Early American, Scandinavian, Japanese, Chinese and ancient Egyptians are but a few of the designs where dovetails can be found.

Unlike the early times when dovetails were looked upon as something to cover over with moulding and trim, today's style is to proudly show the dovetail. Today's Craftsman is very fond of showing off natural beauty of wood. In fact, one of the main factors of today's interest in wood is the usage of natural colors and patterns. It certainly isn't accidental that meticulously crafted joinery is used in harmony with the elegant appearance of natural wood.

Setting aside the business of specific design styles, the hardest part for the novice is to be able to previsualize what a project will look like before even beginning construction. The second difficulty is the layout work. Which board has the pins and which has the tails? Where does the pin began at the edge of the board? How many dovetails should there be on a board? At what angle should the dovetails be laid out? How big or small should the dovetails be?

The common answer to these questions is to say that only through experience will the knowledge and skill be developed. However, that's a bit like telling young artist that he can't have a chance at a gallery show because he hasn't had a gallery show yet. How does one know where the entry point is unless there is some hint. (Learn more about Dovetail Design from Mark Dugenske originally published in Wood News Issue 14, Summer 1984)

The Leigh Dovetail Jigs

Until modern times, the making of dovetails has mostly been with hand tools. And using hand tools is quite acceptable. In fact, never before in history have so many woodworkers had access to the variety of international tools as they do now in the marketplace. But therein lies the problem. Education, training, and practice are so important to to usage that there is no way to overstate it. For example, to properly use Japanese hand tools the range of things to know is staggering. There are a wide selection of saws, chisels and planes of varying styles and qualities. Then there is the business of tool maintenance: sharpening, setting chisel handles, and maintaining hollow ground chisel and plane iron backs, to name a few. Furthermore, the mixing of different systems doesn't always work. A case in point would be the sawing of the tails and pins with a thin kerfed Japanese saw and then using a British method for cutting out the waist area with a coping saw. The problem here is that the kerf from the Japanese saw is too narrow to accept the coping saw blade.

The point is this, to use these wonderful hand tools requires a whole lot more than the purchase price. And that specific problem relating to dovetails and the typical modern woodworker is time. Do you have the time necessary to simply practice saw and chisel cutting? How much effort have you expended to learn sharpening tools to razors edge? And if you are not cutting dovetails on a fairly regular basis do you have time to relearn all the required skills of saw stroking, sawing straight down a scribed pencil line or chiseling true to the set mark. And finally, even if you are satisfied with your techniques, is cutting dovetails by hand the best use of your time?

Fortunately, there are modern options to problem solving in this woodworking world of ours. To compliment the selection of great hand tools is the Leigh Dovetail Jig. Although there have been many other router dovetail jigs to come along, none have satisfied the woodworker's need for efficient dovetailing, like the Leigh Dovetail Jig. The Leigh Jig provides virtually all the flexibility of hand cutting dovetails with machines speed and precision. By using it and a router, one can efficiently and quickly cut that tails with a minimum of start-up fuss. The Leigh Dovetail Jig is adjustable, controllable and it allows for repeatable accuracy time and time again. In fact, you may have been avoiding dovetails simply because of the time it can take to make them. Now, thanks to the Leigh Dovetail Jig, finding new and creative projects will be the first step into the world of quality dovetail construction. Enjoyable technology, beautiful woodworking.

Continue reading with Bill and his 11 great Dovetail Hints and Tips!

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