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?
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
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 Gorman, West Yorkshire, UK
email : Username is amgron
It was only with the Arts & Crafts movement that joinery, including
dovetails became visible elements of a piece - and took on the
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
- with the edges of the ends of the tenons chamfered - with or
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
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
dovetails. In fact, the Lock Miter joint is only seen if the top and
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 -
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?
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
Journey, Not The Destination - the value placed on the doing, the
piece being merely a post card about the trip. Why people who buy
place so much significance on them as signs of quality when they
distinguish a machine cut dovetail from a handcut one - is beyond me.
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 Gorman, West Yorkshire, UK
email : Username is amgron
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
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?
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
Jeff Gorman, West Yorkshire, UK
email : Username is amgron
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?
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.
I thought it was
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
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
also didn't care if the stock for a piece was exactly 3/4" thick -
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.
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?
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
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
to be pushing 100 years old. Everything is till holding together
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Now back to the normal rants on this channel.
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,
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
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
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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