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Dovetail Discussion

by richgreer
posted 01-26-2012 05:22 PM

34 replies so far

View Bullhusk's profile


10 posts in 2300 days

#1 posted 01-26-2012 05:54 PM

I guess I disagree with you on the point of “hand crafted dovetails should look like hand crafted dovetails.” IMO, anything made in a home shop or garage is handcrafted regardless of how you get to the end product.

I took a board, cut the board, manipulated the board, glued the board and finished the board…. To me, that’s hand made….

But I also think that dovetail’s are awesome on any project…. just my flavor I guess.

-- -- Ryan --

View Don Butler's profile

Don Butler

1092 posts in 3358 days

#2 posted 01-26-2012 06:04 PM

I admire dovetail joints in other’s work, but I lack experience, practice, so I usually go to other solutions I’m comfortable with.
I would like to own a Leigh jig, but I can’t justify the expense because I have no jobs that require dovetails.


-- No trees were damaged in posting this message, but thousands of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 3037 days

#3 posted 01-26-2012 06:06 PM

You have your opinion and I have mine and we can discuss it, and even disagree, in a polite and respectful way. I think that is great!

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

View crank49's profile


4030 posts in 2934 days

#4 posted 01-26-2012 06:39 PM

I do like the way dovetails look when they are in a place where they should be, and would be expected.

I must admit, I have seen some projects where, in my eye, beautiful wood was wasted by glaring through dovetails. It makes the piece look like “forget that wood, look at what nice dovetails I can make.” In those situations, the dovetail is no more attractive than a finger joint.

Sometimes I would rather look at a piece and think, “What beautiful wood, I wonder how it was joined without any visible jointery?”

Like, who would want to see dovetails on the face of beautiful, perfectly fitted, book matched crotch grained drawers? They would be a terrible distraction.

View a1Jim's profile


117060 posts in 3540 days

#5 posted 01-26-2012 06:43 PM

I guess I just view dovetails as another form of joinery but I know many regard the use of them on drawers as a sign of good workmanship in what ever piece their make particular drawers . I think the look good and hand cut dove tails do say good workmanship (at least on the drawers) but their not the be all and end all to woodworking. I have about 5different dove tail jigs and none of them make dove tails that look hand cut. I say unless your selling what you make use what joints you like.

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View DS's profile


2894 posts in 2383 days

#6 posted 01-26-2012 07:20 PM

There are companies that make only drawer boxes. They have specialized equipment that speed up fabrication of dovetail drawer boxes.

I’ve seen a few CNC dovetailers and they are VERY impressive.
They use a computer table and lasers to measure the stock and calculate the dovetails. Take ANY board and stick it in the slot and it comes out dovetailed perfectly. Put the next peice in the second slot and it makes the mating half. (About two seconds per part) They have multiple cutting heads and can cut half a dozen pins at once and spaced to any configuration you can program.

This type of technology is truly a game changer. I can buy dovetailed drawers for a fraction of what I can make them for and at a very high quality. Sure, I have the jig and the router and even the dovetail saw and chisels. But mostly, I support my local drawer shop.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View danr's profile


154 posts in 3148 days

#7 posted 01-26-2012 07:28 PM

Hi Rich,

I do not use any form of a dovetail jig. I have a small, cheap, template style jig, used it once, just because I was curious. I have not cut a large number of dove tails by hand but the ones I have done have been a very satifying experience. I love to use a good back saw and sharp chisels for half blind dove tails. (call me strange but I love it).

I agree with you…. dovetails on drawers are great but other solutions are great for this too. I choose how to join the drawers together depending on what I am building.

A lot of times I make my drawer sides from 1/2 inch BB ply, the front and back from 5/8 poplar, use 3 or 4, 2 inch long screws and glue to secure it at the corners, and then place a walnut plug in the screw hole. I think this looks great, its fast and easy and I will bet you that this is very bit as strong as any other option. I should also mention, that for the method I describe above, the drawer front is “applied” to the front of the drawer box after the box is completed. For an “inside fit” drawer, I will used the hand cut, half blind dove tail or the “drawer rabbit”.

For the last couple of years I have been building Greene and Greene style items, so on these drawers I use the box (or I like to call it “the Big Knuckle joint”) and I show it off. I am always amazed at how people almost always comment on the exposed knuckle joint on the drawers.

Thanks for the discussion topic.

View Joshuah's profile


152 posts in 2656 days

#8 posted 01-26-2012 07:47 PM

I have just decided to get into dovetailing. I do not plan to do it on every project, but I like to have as many skills in my tool belt as possible. It is nice to beable to look at jointing wood and be able to do more than just 45s with mitered keys.

That being said I did not have to go spend the money on any jigs and I already had all the chisels needed for the job. After buying a relatively inexpensive Veritas dovetail saw I was knee deep in sawdust and instantly gained respect for every handcut dovetail I had just glanced at in the past without a second thought.

In the future I will buy a dovetail jig for my router, but no matter what I don’t think I could do the normally spaced dovetails, those may just be a little boring for all the time spent on every joint.

But all that aside I do agree with a1Jim and every piece of wood and project has a jointery style that wood fit best and that is not always the dovetail.

-- -Joshuah

View Gene Howe's profile

Gene Howe

10343 posts in 3391 days

#9 posted 01-26-2012 08:07 PM

For me, I really like to see them on drawers in furniture. On fairly short drawers, I like the one large dovetail. I just like the way it looks.
On some of my boxes, I have used a dovetails to reinforce mitered corners.
Early on, I used to dovetail darned near every thing I could because I had a Craftsman jig and I just thought it was cool. The jig is gone now. I have never hand cut a dovetail.
So far, There has never been a crying need for a sliding dovetail. I can see the utility, but I’ve just never done it.
Recent articles testing the strength of dove tails vs box joints seemed to favor box joints. Although for most applications, is it a difference that makes a difference? Besides, dove tails look better….IMO.

-- Gene 'The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.' G. K. Chesterton

View CharlieM1958's profile


16274 posts in 4181 days

#10 posted 01-26-2012 08:14 PM

I know I’ve posted about this before, but since you asked:

Several years ago, I read an article in one of the major woodworking magazines by a popular woodworking authority (unfortunately, I can’t recall the magazine or author at the moment, but I think it was Chris Schwartz). The point of the article was how dovetails have sort of taken on a life of their own that was never intended by the old-time craftsmen who originally used them.

Before modern glues and fasteners, dovetails were used not for their looks, but simply because they provided a strong and reliable joint. They were often done “quick and dirty”, and hidden with a molding of some sort. Only when dovetails started to be used less and less (because there were easier methods to obtain an equally strong joint) did they begin to be thought of as a sign of old-time hand craftsmanship and quality.

Today, according to the author, dovetails are almost a form of woodworking snobbery. To many woodworkers, a piece can’t be considered high-quality if it has, for instance, drawers that are not dovetailed.

I personally have no great love for dovetails. I have a decent jig and know how to use it, but I generally find setup more trouble than it’s worth. Part of me says every woodworker should know how to hand-cut them, so I’ll probably get around to learning one day. But, overall, I think people get too wrapped up in the “mystique” of the dovetail joint.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 2916 days

#11 posted 01-26-2012 08:21 PM

I can see three good reasons for using dovetails. None involve necessity.
1. Traditional authenticity. Because it is a reproduction.
2. Specific design calls for them.
3. Just shown’ off.

Here are a couple of what I think are great examples:

This is a Dan Moshiem box and what I regard as one of the most beautiful solid wood boxes ever posted on LJ. (My opinion, of course.) This could fall into any one of the three reasons above, and I’ll leave it to Dan to clarify his reasons, but the dovetails work beautifully on this box. I love it.

Dovetails are nice on drawers. Whether for beauty or authenticity; either way is fine with me. Sometimes a drawer dovetail can be a lot more. Andrew Crawford does not usually use dovetails, except occasionally on box drawers. But when he does… he uses them to support his overall design.

In this image Andrew is just showing off with these case dovetails, and does it marvelously. This is truly gilding the lilly, as the wall-hung watercolor box these joints are used on is already so spectacular that the hand cut dovetails are really just another “oh, yeah, dovetails” sort of detail. These were not done quickly, and they certainly were not necessary for strength.

Earlier comments above have emphasized the importance of using dovetails where they are appropriate. I couldn’t agree more. The idea that they are a mark of quality, is only true when they are used wisely. Used in the wrong place, they just detract from the overall result. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples where the project would have benefitted from some other kind of joinery. I’m not going to show any examples of these.

The idea that dovetails are necessary for strength probably only applies to a box that is designed to hold a hundred pounds of cast iron water pumps while dragged behind a pickup truck. But most boxes do not benefit from their use in my opinion. Same for box joints. Your mileage may differ.

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

View Marc5's profile


304 posts in 3305 days

#12 posted 01-27-2012 03:14 AM

I was one of those people who put dovetails on everything for a while because I got caught up in the notion that it was the only joint that truly showed your skill. WRONG! As I continue to do different projects I find I get the same satisfaction from a simple reinforced miter joint or assembling drawer using metal or wood dowels in lieu of half blinds. Honestly I did some walnut drawers using 1/4” brass rod and they looked really cool. Remember, it takes a level of skill to properly execute all joinery correctly with or without machinery. I see it as Jim does, they have their place, and when needed, I will hand cut them. If you have a jig go right ahead and use it, I would if I had more than 2 drawers to do or had one laying around, but I don’t, and such is life.

-- Marc

View PittsburghTim's profile


230 posts in 2285 days

#13 posted 01-27-2012 03:35 AM

I have tried to cut them by hand with marginal success. I believe that I could master it with practice, but I have a full-time job and would rather spend my woodworking time creating things. I have just purchased a Leigh jig and hope it can allow me to create these joints as I do look at dovetailed joints as a mark of quality.

-- She asked me, "Who are you going to please with that?" I said, "Me."

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 2438 days

#14 posted 01-27-2012 04:03 AM

Well, here is my story. Like many I thought the dovetail was a required skill for fine craftsmanship. So I practiced, and practiced and practiced. Now I can make hand cut dovetails in any possible combination, so now that I can make them I realize they are not useful at all unless they are part of a design. With the quality of today’s glues, any interlocking rabbet joint for drawers is just as good and a lot faster to make.

On the other hand, and in my opinion I think that mastering hand cut dovetails is essential, simply because there is no jig that will allow you a 1/16 or 1/8 separation between tails and pins, sometimes the design requires you use thin clearances, where a wide dovetail would not look good, a good example is the box posted above.

Anyhow, to end the rambling, I am over the dovetail fetish, I use them when appropriate, but I am no longer stuck with them.. :-)

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is β€” and not as it could be.

View Frank's profile


19 posts in 2275 days

#15 posted 01-27-2012 02:57 PM

I guess it truly is all about the journey huh? I believe that the key to any design in furniture is 90% proportions, When we make visible, bold dovetails they have to be somewhat proportioned in stature and design unless they are the “star” of the piece. All different flavors of ice cream right? I also believe that sometimes we tend to forget the reason this joint was developed. It not only was a resin or glue joint with really decent glue surface area, but it was also a mechanical joint that was depended on for stability and reliability regardless of having glues or pitch resins etc. A lot of these Craftsman used little or no glue whatsoever due to the natural locking nature of this crafted joint when well fitted. Art is beautiful, however I have to agree that sometimes we cross the line of creativity and enter the realm of ” What the heck is THAT!”

View rogerw's profile


262 posts in 2652 days

#16 posted 01-27-2012 08:41 PM

Like PittsburgTim I too would rather create something than spend my time learning, and then perfecting, dovetailing skills. About 10 years ago my son gave me an HF gift card and one of the things I bought was a dovetail jig. I found the learning curve frustrating at best, tossing it in the cabinet till next time I drag it out with utter determination. But as always it would get tossed back where it came from.

Myself, I am also fond of interlocking rabbets. They’re easy, quick, and strong.

-- >> my shop teacher used to say "do the best at everything you make for your mom because you're going to see it for the rest of your life!" <<

View Clint Searl's profile

Clint Searl

1533 posts in 2324 days

#17 posted 01-27-2012 09:33 PM

With available glues and alternative joint geometries, dovetails are joinery affectations, but can be integral to the design, as shown in Roger’s earlier post. I’ve used them a few times for visual interest to highlight the joint as in this sofa table.

-- Clint Searl....Ya can no more do what ya don't know how than ya can git back from where ya ain't been

View PurpLev's profile


8534 posts in 3611 days

#18 posted 01-27-2012 09:38 PM

dont forget “full blind” dovetails.

As for strength, a miter joint even with splines is not as strong as a dovetail and as proof – take the glue out of the equation- a mitered box will not survive, while a dovetailed box will. I do agree with you that DTs are not always appropriate. I like them for their mechanical strength, but it is not required in all cases, for appearance full blind dovetails are the best – they carry the mechanical strength of the joint and the clean appearance of a miter joint.

just my $0.02

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 3037 days

#19 posted 01-27-2012 10:47 PM

I have heard of full blind dovetails but I have never seen one. (That was not intended to be a joke, but it is kind of funny.)

More accurately – I don’t know how full blind dovetails are made. Can anyone point me to a source?

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

View Smitty_Cabinetshop's profile


15279 posts in 2581 days

#20 posted 01-27-2012 11:02 PM

want to learn, thought it would be last year but alas…

-- Don't anthropomorphize your handplanes. They hate it when you do that. -- OldTools Archive --

View doordude's profile


1085 posts in 2946 days

#21 posted 01-27-2012 11:12 PM

i like dove tails of any kind. i would like to practise more,so i could show off more,as dan moshiem has in his box it will be along time comming though…

Rich, i was watching a tommy mac show where he was building a stool. and visited a school,showing different dove tails. and show’d the mitered blind dove tail as an example, but didn’t show how to do it. it was cool looking.

View jim C's profile

jim C

1472 posts in 3061 days

#22 posted 01-27-2012 11:17 PM


Here you go.

Talk about a lot of work! Wow

View JimF's profile


144 posts in 3256 days

#23 posted 01-27-2012 11:28 PM

Chris Schwarz, on his blog for Popular woodworking, has written twice on the full blind dovetail. The earlier post was 1/12/12. He also referenced an article by Glen Huey in the November 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking.

-- Insert clever tag line here

View Lenny's profile


1593 posts in 3490 days

#24 posted 01-28-2012 12:09 AM

Hi Rich. Great topic and a well-written post. It has generated good (and may I add, civil) discussion. Being more of a power tool type woodworker, I have only made dovetails with a jig and router and, I believe, in all instances the dovetails were for drawers. Like many, I hope to one day try my hand at the hand-cut method. I am about to embark on a small project (a box of sorts) in which I plan to try the double dovetails you mentioned. This will be via the Incra LS Positioner and will definitely be for aesthetics only.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View canadianchips's profile


2600 posts in 2960 days

#25 posted 01-28-2012 12:35 AM

This is just to eerie !
After 35 years of working with wood, last night and today was the FIRST time I made dovetails. I have a GENERAL jig that I bought 12 years ago (New in box till last night) Spent 3 hours trying to get one set of corners right (The jig was there, the manual was NOT) Today I woke up early and did it. It seems ever time you change thickness of material this JIG needs attention. PAIN in the poop hole !
I always made my drawers using dado’s, it worked very well and I had the tools to do it. NO fidling around !
I do respect the people that can do dovetails. Good ones are very nice. I am just saying I need practice ! LOTS of practice. !

-- "My mission in life - make everyone smile !"

View canadianchips's profile


2600 posts in 2960 days

#26 posted 01-28-2012 03:51 AM

I know, NO pictures it didn’t happen.
My first dovetail.
With the cost of machine, router,router bit, “opportunity cost ie INTEREST” this one corner cost me about $325.
And it ain’t even a good one !

-- "My mission in life - make everyone smile !"

View Scot's profile


344 posts in 3359 days

#27 posted 01-28-2012 04:39 AM

I too learned the “old fashioned” way to cut dovetails years ago. I rarely used them because as has been stated numerous times already, modern glues pretty much made them obsolete. However, the high end dovetail jigs open up a whole new world of possibilities as far DESIGN is concerned, the precision that these jigs offers allows us to to incorporate new design features into our projects that are sometimes stunning effects. However, as the old saying goes “Wine is good, too much makes you stupid”. I have the Porter Cable Omni jig, I don’t use it so much for function as I do for form (Hopefully sparingly).

And just another thought to add as far as the “old craftsmen hand made furniture” goes; The old craftsmen made furniture by hand BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T HAVE POWER TOOLS !

OK I’m done.

-- If the old masters had power tools, they would have used them. So get off your damn High Horse.

View William's profile


9949 posts in 2805 days

#28 posted 01-28-2012 04:50 AM

I think an interesting article pertaining to this discussion can be found here.
It’s an interesting test that was done testing the strength of dovetail jonts as compared to finger joints.


View canadianchips's profile


2600 posts in 2960 days

#29 posted 01-28-2012 05:07 AM

Good link William. Now I am sick, that guy only paid $50 bucks for his busy bee jig, SAME jig as my General International. Only $12 for bushings. I have been HAD !!!!!! lol
But he did do his drawers the way I always do.

-- "My mission in life - make everyone smile !"

View William's profile


9949 posts in 2805 days

#30 posted 01-28-2012 05:21 AM

If you have some extra time, check out some more of that guy’s site.
He has some very interesting reading there.
As well as some very interesting projects you can buy plans for. I would have never thought of making some of the equipment he has out of wood.
He adds something new each week.


View fishcad's profile


5 posts in 2218 days

#31 posted 03-29-2012 04:45 PM

I am new to a dovetail jig (on my first test joint) and I’m getting loose joints. The manual says if the joints are loose as shown in the photo from the manual to make the cut deeper. Seems to me that if both pieces are cut deeper the joint will still be loose. I’ve tried making deeper cuts but I still have the gap. Additionally the gaps are not equal as shown in my photo. I’m using a Porter-Cable 4212. Does anyone have any comments?

View DS's profile


2894 posts in 2383 days

#32 posted 03-29-2012 05:38 PM

The deeper you cut, the wider the tails get.

Tweek the cut on a scrap joint until it is set up.
Then buy a new router so you never have to change that set up again ;-D

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View AKSteve's profile


475 posts in 2266 days

#33 posted 03-29-2012 05:53 PM

I am glad I read this! I was going to do a sliding Dovetail joint on my Bench, but I saw that write up on the strength and decided to do a thru mortise and tenon instead, thanks !

-- Steve - Wasilla, Alaska

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 2438 days

#34 posted 03-30-2012 02:25 PM

I think an interesting article pertaining to this discussion can be found here.
It’s an interesting test that was done testing the strength of dovetail jonts as compared to finger joints.

While I really enjoy Matthias’ gizmos, I believe his test is flawed. On one side he has finger joints on the other side he has half blind dovetails. He should have used through dovetails for the testing. You have to compare apples to apples. Notice the wood splits at the long grain not at the joint itself. This is to be expected with a half blind dovetail with pressure being applied to the side not back to front as it would be when you are pulling a drawer.

As smart as he is, I do not accept his premise that modern glues have made the dovetail joint obsolete, not with the test he presents.

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is β€” and not as it could be.

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