Dovetail....Need I Say More?

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Blog entry by HighRockWoodworking posted 05-19-2010 12:56 AM 1425 reads 0 times favorited 5 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Dovetail… is there another word in woodworking that brings more reaction and sense of nostalgia? The word alone has come to mean craftsmanship and brings back memories of the past. For myself I picture an old master in his shop taking time to layout and mark each tail, meticulously cutting with smooth strokes of the saw, marking and cutting the pins for a tight fit, and then adjusting the cuts with a razor sharp chisel to make sure the joint comes together perfectly. The amazing part is that same scene could have been found in ancient Japan, Europe, or any number of other places all around the world and in almost any time period.
Woodworkers have used the dovetail as one of the primary jointery methods for so long it impossible to tell the origins. The techniques and tools vary slightly, for instance Japanese saws cut on the pull as opposed to the European saws that cut on the push, but ultimately the final results are most often the same.
I don’t remember when or where but once as a child my father and I were looking at a set of cabinets and after inspecting them for sometime he looked at me and simply said “look they have dovetail draws”. I understood that what he meant by that simple statement was that they were well made. Since that day I always check for dovetailed draws on cabinets or furniture and feel that they are an important part of woodworking. I have known woodworkers that never use dovetails and build beautiful well crafted work, but it is still thought of as the stand alone technique for craftsmanship.
Ask most any none woodworker (and even some woodworkers) their thoughts on dovetails and they will probably tell you that they are attractive and make your work look better, yet many old world masters craftsmen hid their dovetails behind trim and moldings. Jointery was looked at as a necessity for making strong and durable work that would hold up over time. Glues of the past did not always hold up over the years, especially around moisture, so it was necessary to create joints that would allow the wood to hold it self together. The dovetail creates an incredibly strong and durable joint by locking the end grains together.

Today with most everything being mass produced, dovetails are looked at as a symbol of quality and taking the extra time to do something right. Because of this many modern woodworkers tend to lean towards simple and clean in their work allowing the wood and jointery to speak for the beauty and quality. Learning to visualize, layout, and cut proper dovetails can take a lot of practice and time to perfect but the feeling you get when joining two boards together that first time provides a great sense of accomplishment and by many is considered a right of passage into fine craftsmanship.
Today dovetails can be manufactured into mass production, although I feel they tend to be too symmetrical and patterned. You can even buy a dovetail jig for use with a router that can be adjusted to varying width tails and pins to make very close to hand cut look. I see nothing wrong with using this type of jig. As a matter of fact I have one myself and have great results with it, but I do believe that learning to layout and cut by hand teaches skills that are invaluable.
The point is that whether you like the aesthetics, strength and durability, or just being part of a long tradition, dovetails have been around as long as woodworking itself and will be around for my generations to come. As for my self, well I tend to fall into all of the about.

Stop by my site for more post and please leave a comment while you are there.

Chris Adkins

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-- Chris Adkins,

5 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile


117115 posts in 3600 days

#1 posted 05-19-2010 02:44 AM

Allways well thought of

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View MyFathersSon's profile


180 posts in 3336 days

#2 posted 05-19-2010 02:52 AM

Nothing to add to that but—AMEN

I use a lot of different techniques for drawer cases depending on the project.
Shoot—the drawers in this desk Im sitting at—are pieces of .25” mdf butt jointed and glued with TBII.

But if I am buidling a project I want to feel proud of—for someone I care about and want them to know that I do.
It’s going to have dovetails.
Yes – I use a jig—but I do hope some day to make myself take the time to developt the skill to hand cut.
Thanks for the inspiring words.

-- Those who insist it can't be done - should politely refrain from interrupting those who are doing it.

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 3897 days

#3 posted 05-19-2010 05:23 PM

I picture an old master in his shop taking time to layout and mark each tail, meticulously cutting with smooth strokes of the saw, marking and cutting the pins for a tight fit, and then adjusting the cuts with a razor sharp chisel to make sure the joint comes together perfectly.

Its interesting, I’ve heard other people say this before. But I don’t think thats how the “masters” worked at all. In fact, it was probably the apprentice who did a lot of the dovetailing in a lot of furniture due to how tedious and repetitive the work is, and it was done fast. Remember, these guys had to make money.

Have you ever seen Frank Klausz cut dovetails? Its quick and dirty. Cut cut cut, chop chop chop, DONE. No measuring, no taking time to layout and mark each tail, no smooth strokes, no adjustment needed with a chisel, nothing “meticulous” about it. He received his education by the very masters you are talking about and I suspect his work methods are a better representation of what woodworking was really like over 100 years ago.

I agree though that as a woodworker there is just something about dovetails that makes them the holy grail of fine woodworking. I have been spending a lot of time reaching for that grail myself lately (dovetails).

-- Happy woodworking!

View HighRockWoodworking's profile


182 posts in 3002 days

#4 posted 05-19-2010 05:35 PM

Good point Blake. I am sure you are right that “the old masters” did not problably do most of the production work no more than myself as a construction project manager actual drive nails. And yes I have watch Frank Klausz cut dovetails…. that is just crazy! I am afaid I would have two boards that looked like they had been used as crash-test-dummies!

Thanks for the picture looks great!

Chris Adkins

Follow me on Twitter!

-- Chris Adkins,

View Blake's profile


3443 posts in 3897 days

#5 posted 05-21-2010 05:26 PM

Yes I cut those by hand :)

-- Happy woodworking!

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