Ever get lonely? Ever feel like you’re under appreciated? Ever wonder why that guy you work with gets all the chicks and nobody seems to notice you? I bet that’s how box joints feel.
If the dovetail is the Cadillac of joinery, the box joint is the Ford Fiesta. It’s old, slow and smells a little funny, and nobody wants to show it off. Do a Youtube search on “box joints”. Actually, I’ll save you some time and do it for you… Yup, just what I thought. There are a few videos about jigs, but nothing even close to what you’ll get if you search “dovetails”. You’ll never see guys making videos about how fast they can cut box joints with a hand saw and a chisel. You’ll never have a master woodworker endorsing a little scrap of wood and selling it as a “box joint marker” (Yes, I’m talking to you, Mr. Crossman. We’re not fooled by that wooden marker. We can cut a scrap of wood and save twenty bucks!). Veritas and Lee Nielson will never design a series of box joint cutting saws and special box joint chisels.
Are you pikin’ up what I’m throwin’ down here? I’m saying that the box joint doesn’t get enough respect. And I think Rodney Dangerfield would agree.
The dovetail was invented by a guy who wanted to fill his drawers with rocks and jerk them open without ripping the front off. Then one day he was building a hope chest for his niece and decided that a butt joint wouldn’t be strong enough. He got out his hand saw and started to make a box joint. Five minutes later he shouted some Olde English profanity and gave up. (“Thy mother art of ample girth!”) It was too difficult. So he reverted to the joint he used all the time because he was primarily a drawer maker, and the dovetailed chest was born. From there it was a steady decline for the humble box joint. Dovetails migrated to all sorts of applications and became the superstar of the woodworking world.
Along the way, nobody stopped to ask the most simple of questions: Why? I mean, dovetails are nice, even beautiful. But they are a bit chaotic, aren’t they? The traditional American version alternates wide tails with narrow pins. One side of the joint exposes big, rectangles of end grain, while the other is a series of triangles without their points. They don’t match. I actually find the pins side of a dovetail joint to be a bit ugly. Why do you think they invented the half-blind dovetail?
The box joint, on the other hand is a neat row of squares, every one the same. Both sides of the joint match in a delicious checkerboard pattern. And only Commies don’t like checkers.
Dovetails are seen as the mark of a skilled craftsman, but box joints are more difficult to hand cut. A dovetail only has to be precise on one side of the joint. Take the “tails first” process for example. You can cut one side of a tail at 7 degrees, the other side at 7.5. The next tail can be 6.5 degrees on both sides. It doesn’t matter because the tails angle in opposite directions, confusing the eye and hiding slight imperfections. Some people don’t even mark their angles; they just guesstimate and cut the tails free hand. Any error will be transferred to the mating piece when you trace around the tails with your pencil. As long as you cut that second piece precisely to the pencil lines, you’re golden!
A box joint requires absolute precision all the way through. The eye is more likely to see any variations. Every finger has to be ripped parallel with the next, every cut perpendicular to the board end. And both sides must be independently accurate. Make a mistake on one finger and the whole thing can be thrown off.
Box joints are stronger than dovetails. Yes, you heard me right… they are stronger. Tests have time and again proven this fact.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love dovetails. But I also love box joints and I think it’s time to give them the respect they deserve. Yes, they may not have the high end prestige of the Cadillac. Like a Fiesta, they may be slower, less flashy, harder to start in the morning, and they rarely make the ladies do a double take. But they are more efficient, more compact, last forever, and with the proper amount of polishing, they may impress at least that girl next door with the hunched back and a limp.
So, keep using dovetails on your drawers and other traditional applications. But when you’re making boxes, cabinets or anything you want to last forever and look nice to regular people instead of just fru-fru, hoity-toity woodworkers, use more box joints!
This weekend (Sunday morning) we’ll be doing an episode of Blue Collar Woodworking about cutting box joints, and you’ll see what I believe is the most versatile and accurate adjustable box joint machine out there. So don’t forget to watch!
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