Zhuhai and Meixi village #1: In search of the perfect handcut dovetail

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Blog entry by chscholz posted 06-14-2007 09:29 PM 5517 reads 1 time favorited 9 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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So what is it, the ultimate handcut joint? The ultimate joint will require precision, flawless execution and many years of training. Many of us Western woodworkers would probably say the dovetail.

Two weeks ago I had the chance to see one of the best executed examples of handcut dovetails I have ever encountered. It was in a side-area of the flower room of the Meixi village museum. Meixi was a small village in the Pearl river delta, today it is a suburb of Zhuhai, essentially the Northern continuation of the city of Macao.

I found the dovetails in two chests in a dimly lit room, one standing on the floor, the other on top a cabinet.
Two chests with perfect dovetails in <I>Meixi</I> Village Museum.

The Chinese literati had a distinct preference for wired gnarly wood, huang hauli mu (literally yellow flowery pear wood) or zitan (red sandal wood NOT a relative to the ordinary sandal wood), the harder the better, the denser the better and one might tend to think the more difficult to work with the better. But since huang hua li and certainly zitan do not come in large boards, the chests might be made of yu mu (Northern Elm), a favorite softwood of the ancient Chinese.

ince the owner of the village, a wealthy businessman, lived in the village before the late 1840, my guess is that the chests are about 100 to 150 years old. Most likely and typical Chinese tradition the chests are built completely without nails or pegs and none of the joinery has ever seen a drop of glue. Not too bad for a chest that went through the up and downs of modern Chinese history (makes me wonder how many of these chests were used as firewood).

Here are closeups of the dovetail joint.
Detail of the dovetail in <I>Meixi</I> Village Museum.Closeup of dovetail joint located in <I>Meixi</I> Village Museum.

It might be instructive to note that dovetail joints play a minor role in Chinese furniture construction and Chinese woodworkers consider dovetail joints to be one of the easy types of joints.

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

9 comments so far

View Karson's profile


35111 posts in 4365 days

#1 posted 06-14-2007 09:45 PM

Nice joints and beautiful chests.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware soon moving to Virginia †

View StevieD's profile


9 posts in 4153 days

#2 posted 06-14-2007 10:32 PM

Wow to have the patience and tools sharp enough to preform such a task.Maybe it will come as might wisdom if one lives longenough

-- Steven Big Timber Mt.

View mot's profile


4911 posts in 4001 days

#3 posted 06-14-2007 10:45 PM

Interesting story, thanks. Just out of curiosity, besides the artistic joints that are done, what did the Chinese feel was a difficult joint to cut?

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View Bob Babcock's profile

Bob Babcock

1804 posts in 4051 days

#4 posted 06-14-2007 11:30 PM

Excellent story…beautiful chests. I love the diversity of the posts on LJ….we get to laugh with Mot and David and the “Cybertool Share” and we get deep thought provoking stories from passionate people. You just got buddied Chris….keep em coming.

Good point Mot…exactly what is a hard joint?

-- Bob, Carver Massachusetts, Sawdust Maker

View frank's profile


1492 posts in 4171 days

#5 posted 06-15-2007 01:26 AM

Hi Chris;
—-great story you have put together here, and the pictures add clarity to your story! Also those are some nicely cut dovetails in the two chests. Do you get to China often, and then I would expect that entrance into Macao is fairly easy through Hong Kong?

I am wondering also about the finish on the chests, especially the one on top in your first picture, since there is such a high sheen coming off.

Welcome here to LJ and I’m glad to see you’ve come out of the woodwork, and I might add, keep these stories on ‘wood joinery’ coming….
Thank you.

-- --frank, NH,

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 4264 days

#6 posted 06-15-2007 03:39 PM

That’s some very fine, & beautiful craftsmanship.
Also a great job of photography.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View jockmike2's profile


10635 posts in 4211 days

#7 posted 06-15-2007 07:23 PM

Just absolutely beautiful[, true artisans to last this long is unbelievable. jockmike

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View chscholz's profile


36 posts in 4041 days

#8 posted 06-16-2007 02:45 AM

Thank you for the warm comments.
I’ll try to address a few of your questions:
  • The most difficult common joint: This is probably the double mitered tenon joint for rounded legs. I will post pictures as time permits.
  • Finish of the Chinese furniture: Tung oil originates in China, shellac was mentioned somewhere as well as wax. Black or red lacquer was commonly used for softwoods. About a year ago there was a show lacquer carving on the Chinese equivalent of the history channel. Bamboo brushes to polish wood are mentioned in the literature. According to Wikipedia, some form of sandpaper was known in China since the 13th century; no mentioning what it was used for though. In general historians, curators and collectors of Chinese furniture seem to focus on form, function and philosophy and not so much on tools and methods.
  • Frequency of travel: In average every other year. The supposedly are building a bridge between Hong Kong and Zhuhai. Until this is fiished it is easiest to fly into Guangzhou and take the bus to Zhuhai. The main bus terminal is a short taxi ride from Macao. Just came back from a trip, am sifting through pictures trying to work things into stories. I promised Wiktor Kuc copy for his internet magazines Old Tools Shop and WKFineTools. The main stumbling blocks are 1) time and 2) the fact that I have not found a good pro-bono copy editor.
  • Photographs: Just updated the pictures (mostly perspective and color correction); those are just grabshots, too much hassle to bring a tripod and lighting gear along.

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

View chscholz's profile


36 posts in 4041 days

#9 posted 07-03-2007 05:01 PM

Extended article has been published at

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

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