18th Century Woodworking and Dentistry?

One of the many things I like about Woodworking Magazine is the thought provoking little quotes sprinkled about in each issue.
Here's one that got me thinking
"We need 18th century woodworkinhg tools and techniques about as much as we need 18th century dentistry" - Dr, Andrew Friede woodworker
It was on the same page of an article "True Dovetails" which notes that dovetails were used because it was the best way to hold drawers and the like together - when strong, reliable, wasn't available. And they weren't perfect - just good enough to do the job - and were covered up anyway.
So I'm wondering why so many people aspire to cutting perfect dovetails when there are so many alternatives today - lock miter router bits, dowling and mortising jigs, . . .? And even a half way decent set of dovetails, maybe with a little wedge of wood for a loose fit, has more than enough holding power to keep a drawer front connected to the drawer sides.
If you only have a hammer, everthing looks like a nail - or in this case, maybe a peg or wedge. How much of what we do "the traditional way" is really the only way to do it, or any better than the available alternatives?
Just wondering?
charlie b
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I think it is worth working on the basis that a well-fitting dovetail is simply a means of holding parts together while the glue sets. Yeah, it looks impressive too!
It has the advantage of only requiring cramping to ensure the setting of the of the tails into their sockets. Hence when making, say, a plain dovetailed box, we only need about four (minimum two) cramps when gluing up.
In theory at least, once glued up, we should be able to remove the cramps and leave the glue to set.
Jeff
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Jeff Gorman, West Yorkshire, UK
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Jeff Gorman wrote:

It was only with the Arts & Crafts movement that joinery, including dovetails became visible elements of a piece - and took on the mystique of quality.
Before A&C came along, to a large extent in response to the "industrializing" of furniture making - and apparently some pretty sloppy joinery - joinery was hidden behind veneer or molding. Even well executed joinery had been hidden behind veneer and molding prior to the Industrial Revolution.
A&C made joinery a design element and celebrated the honesty of good craftsmanship by leaving much of it plain to see. Through tenons - with the edges of the ends of the tenons chamfered - with or without pegs which were also chamfered - became one of the hallmarks of Stickley furniture (even though the exposed ends of "through tenons" and "pegs" often were applied "caps" - to cover screws used to hold things together).
Somewhere along the way, dovetails became impressive - to buyers - seen as a sign of quality and craftsmanship. The fact that they may have been cut by a machine, and an automated machine doesn't seem to matter.

But a Drawer Lock or Locked Miter joint has the same advantages and similar or greater strenghth as through or half blind (aka half lapped) dovetails. In fact, the Lock Miter joint is only seen if the top and bottom edges are exposed.
So - given that more modern joinery methods are readily available and given that excellent modern glues are as well. to say nothing of the time they can save or skill required, relative to handcut joinery - why put such high value, warranted or not, on dovetails, or true mortise and tenon joinery or true through mortise and tenon joinery?
I'm sure a good dentist in the 18th century had to have a great deal of knowledge and skill to do his work well. But would you want to have him do a filling on, or an extraction of, one of your teeth? Will silver amalgum fillings someday become highly valued by future denstists or their patients?
Perhaps the answer to Why Are Dovetails So Prized? - has to do with The Journey, Not The Destination - the value placed on the doing, the resulting piece being merely a post card about the trip. Why people who buy furniture place so much significance on them as signs of quality when they couldn't distinguish a machine cut dovetail from a handcut one - is beyond me.
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From what I've seen, almost all joints alternative to dovetails (or comb joints) involve short grain.
The should be Ok if you can get them together without breaking the joint and the rest of the construction braces the joint.
OK therefore for industrial production, but few hand workers manage without trial assemblies, wherein the risk of mishaps occurs.

Certainly a good point Charlie!
Why people who buy

Lack or a fully rounded education?
Jeff
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Jeff pointed out a couple of important issues with alternatives to dovetails - hand or machine cut.
There's the "short grain" issues and the "potential hazards of dry fitting before glue up". Both can compromise the strength/ integrity of the joint as well as the look of the joint.
Let's take the second one first - the dry fit hazard. Even with a well cut, perhaps over snug, set of dovetails - forcing the joint together and then taking it apart to apply glue - can result in breaking off some wood - usually where it'll be visible - or "bruising" one or more edges - again, usually where it'll be visible. It can get worse with a lock-mitered joint since there may be delicate "finger" elements of the joint and a knife edge on the end of both parts which can be dinged or "bruised" while taking the dry fit joint apart. With a splined miter, or a "feathered" miter the risk of those things happening is lower - but you still have that easily bruised knife edge on the end of each mitered part which can get get "bruised" if you try and pry the dry fit joint apart.
The "dry fit" issue is independent of the type of joint. If the joinery is done properly they're put together ONLY ONCE - at glue up. I doubt I'll ever have the confidence, or the skills required for that confidence, to put any joint I've made together only once, at glue up.
The "short grain" issue is probably the best justification for using dovetails. Dovetails are pretty hardy, compared to say a locked miter joint - with its delicate "fingers" or mitered joints of any kind because of the knife edge thing. The LAST thing you want to have to deal with at glue up time - is a piece of a joint breaking off or bending/splintering, between the two parts being joined.
Been There. Done That. Got The T-Shirt. Once was enough.
So let's for the sake of discussion, agree that a dovetail joint is the best joint for relatively narrow things - like jewerly boxes and drawers. Do you really need two, three or four tails, with corresponding pins (or half pins on the end) - or will two half pins and a tail do it? Are the additional tails then merely decorative - or overkill?
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In solid wood there is a need to control the tendency of the sides/top of a wide cabinet to distort..
In most climes, some more than others, the wood is trying to shift all the time, so the restraint from a set of glued dovetail pins should help to restrain any tendency to cup.
I think that in the two half-pin one tail situation, there would be too much reliance on glueing end grain.
Thanks for the detailed exposition of the fault of various non-dovetail corner joints.
Jeff
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Jeff Gorman, West Yorkshire, UK
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charlieb wrote: ...

--
I think it's nothing more than the alternative is so often nothing but a
square butt joint w/ a brad or two...as compared to that, the dovetail,
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dpb wrote:

But what if the handcut dovetails were done well enough to hold the drawer sides to the front of the drawer better and for longer than a butt joint and nail or staple - but had visible gaps and some broken off corners . . .? Functionally they'd be better, but aesthetically?
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charlieb wrote:

What if? What's the question? (That is, I think it's too open-ended and hypothetical to be really meaningful but I'll posit some of what/why...)
If it's a new piece, of course the perception is the workmanship isn't that great w/ a crudely done or damaged dovetail. For an antique it would be either "character" or "value-limiting" depending on just _how_ antique and whether it were a country carpenter or a classic colonial piece.
In a typical new store showroom it would simply be rejected entirely as a manufacturing defect unless the customer were one who was bargain-hunting and the dealer would knock down the price drastically. I think still many would recognize the superiority of the joint in the piece as compared to the stapled box but there would be the damage perception to overcome.
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dpb wrote:

I thought it was To BE Or Not to BE What's the question?

This started out basically asking "Why do things the way they were done in the 18th century when there are modern alternatives that are as good, and more often better, or modern, more efficient and more accurate methods of making "traditional" joinery?
The comparative example was dovetails as a method of joining two pieces of wood at right angles.
Turns out dovetails, however they're made, may be the best method for joining two pieces of wood at right angles - for drawers. Add glue and dovetails are perhaps the best joinery for this application.

Put the word "provincial", with or without "french" in front of it and you can get away with some "country carpenter" quality joinery. And if you put Louie followed by some roman numerals, you can hide the joinery completeley - behind plaster and/or gilding.

So as long as the poor workmanship isn't visible? THAT sure would make doing dovetails easier, only having to worry about keeping the "show parts" nice and tidy.
Jeff raised an important issue - that joinery often not only has to hold two pieces of wood together - but also control wood's tendency /nature to want to continually move - in multiple ways (cup, bow, twist, crook). And when not allowed to have some controlled movement - wood will literally tear itself apart. Ask any green wood turner.
And when you think about what 18 century woodworkers were working with, I suspect it wasn't "kiln dried" - though I'm betting they had better wood to start with right off the log - and were more selective in which pieces of the log they used - and how it was sawn. They probably also didn't care if the stock for a piece was exactly 3/4" thick - but more concerned that all the parts that were supposed to be the same thickness were damn close to being the same thickness. They could, however, adjust their joinery to accomodate slight differences since they weren't mass producing parts then assembling.
charlie b
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...
Another thing that I haven't seen mentioned in this thread is that in the 18th century the wood wasn't subjected to central heat... as such it didn't experience the extreme swings wood in today's home experience. As such there were some construction practices used in the period that would be frowned upon today, e.g., screwing table tops in a cross grain fashion firmly to the supporting frame with pocket screws.
There have been some writings to support the notion that over long periods of time, say 80-100 years plus, that wood's seasonal movement actually breaks down the wood until it becomes stable. Ever notice how lifeless old salvage boards seem when you work them?
John
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John Grossbohlin wrote:

I supect that air conditioning wsasn't a problem back then either ; ).
I grew up in what was formerly known as The Panama Canal Zone, the Zone to locals, now just Panama. My folks had furniture made in India and "Red China", though the latter was labeled "Free China" or "Taiwan". Gorgeous pieces - hand carved teak and rosewood - all done with traditional joinery - and none of the joinery visible.
The furniture was built for a warm humid climate since that's the climate where it was made. THEN we got air conditioning - and some of the pieces began to be affected - joints opening up, drawers not fitting, tops splitting - in the India made pieces. The Chinese pieces stayed together, perhaps because they were rosewood - and the joinery had some accomodation room.
I have a Silver Chest - from China - that my father inherited. It's got to be pushing 100 years old. Everything is till holding together nicely though the gap between the doors is perhaps a little wider than when it was made.

I've had a chance to work with some old - old growth - redwood - from a 110-125 year old milking barn, Some of it behaved perfectly - and some still had some movement in it. Could have been just some tension wood pent up despite the age.
As for screwing tops on - I think that may be because you can - with plywood - framed or edged in solid wood to hide the ply. Once you develop bad habits they're hard to break.
Which brings us back to "Traditional Methods" which ones are still applicable today and which ones should be Put Out To Pasture?
Woodworking certainly is fertile ground for inquiring minds.
charlie b
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An OT reply:
On vacation to St Augustine, FL in 1991. Did the Tourist bit and had a great time visiting the Old City. When I was there, this was a 'Living History village' showing old crafts and tradesmen shops and living conditions. As this type of thing goes I give it B grade. Not Williamsburg, but on par with others I have seen. IIRC, craftsmanship of decade just prior to 1776. When I was there the, staff was very friendly and talkative.
Anyway, one of the small buildings was suppose to show the simple life and possessions of a Spanish common sailor. (St. Augustine was a Spanish fort at this time in history.)
But here's the link: an example of a small chest used by a common sailor for his few possessions was built using nails. "NAILS? Common Sailor? How could he afford THAT?" I blurted out. IIRC, the reply to my outburst of incredulous amazement of wrong history was: "Dovetails in the mind of so many Americans (of USA) visitors is equated with high end, very expensive furniture. Nails are equated with cheap, inexpensive, factory made woodworking. We went with nominal expectations of our visitors instead of historical accuracy since so few common sailors chests survive."
While I tried to point out that well made, tight fitting, uniform dovetails are indeed used, and made, by the high end Carpenter's shop and the master craftsman there in, poorly made, non-uniform, broken pieces on the dovetails tail was still used by the average sailor to make his own chest from what ever scrap wood he could find on a dockyard.
A sailor would of course know the theory of a dovetail, and he would only have access to the tools of a common sailor, and thus his attempt at a dovetail would be crude and ill fitting. But the dovetails would still work. The greatest thing about a dovetail is that it still works as a joint even when very crudely, and amateurishly (or is the correct word apprentice-ishly) made.
In addition, the Spanish and English used some sort of tar soaked rope / cord (Caulking Cord?) to be pounded between planks of the ship; Waterproofing the ship. Wouldn't it make some sense that a common sailor would use the same technique to water proof the sides and bottom of his small chest? Using, of course, scrap caulking cord. Poorly made dovetails with wide gaps and this tar / pitch soaked cord would make more sense than a poorly paid sailor purchasing a few nails from the blacksmith.
Now back to the normal rants on this channel.
Phil
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A variety of reasons, and they're not just about cutting dovetails:
o)    Working with hand tools is safer than working with power tools. I'm not saying you can't hurt yourself with hand tools, but it takes a lot more effort to take off a piece of your body.
o)    When you are working with power tools (which I own and use) a certain amount of your cognitive process should be dedicated to making sure your hands are away from the spinning blade, stuff isn't going to kick back at you, your clothes/hair/etc. aren't going to get caught in something. When working with hand tools, you can focus more on the woodwork and a bit less on the safety.
o)    There's the Zen aspect to it. It can be nice doing the work without needing hearing protection from the noise made by a router spinning at 20,000+ RPM.
o)    Making hand cut dovetails is a skill you have to earn. You can't just throw money at it like you can by buying a dovetail jig, router, etc.
o)    There's the sense of accomplishment. When you have done things right and they fit together well you can look at your work and think, "A machine didn't do that--I did it."
o)    A sense of connecting with the past.
o)    More enjoyment. Working with hand tools by nature is slower than working power tools, so there's more time to just enjoy what you're doing.
o)    Portability. Ever now and again, I find the need to do something when I'm not at my own shop. If I can do that something with hand tools, it means there's a lot less stuff I need to take to the remote location.
o)    Dovetails and other types of hand cut joinery aren't necessarily just about function. Sometimes they're also part of the form.
o)    Sometimes it's just more expedient to do things with hand tools than it would be to do them with power tools.
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Michael Faurot wrote:

Uh, you're arguing Normite vs Neander, not dovetail vs other joint. I use dovetails regularly, cut with a machine spinning 30,000 RPM. "Dovetail" <NOT EQUAL> "hand cut".
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