Why does a table stand? How does a drawer maintain it’s shape and integrity? Most furniture is held together by a combination of mechanical fasteners and structural adhesives. Nails, screws, and brackets brace corners support shelves and keep furniture structurally secure. Adhesives give strength and durability to joints of varying shapes and sizes. If you want two different pieces of wood to stay connected you need to create a strong joint but you also want it to look nice too. One of the most common and aesthetically interesting forms of joinery is the dovetail.
A dovetail is created by the interlocking joint of two boards, it is found in the construction of drawers but also seen on the construction of chests and cabinets. The name of the dovetail comes from the trapezoidal shape of the cuts needed to make the joint. The tail resembles the shape of a bird’s tail and so this joint was named the dovetail.
The dovetail joint has been used for centuries. The Ancient Egyptians used it and it is still employed by fine craftsmen today. Dovetails are cut by skilled cabinetmakers using a precision saw and wood chisels. Small angle cuts by the saw are followed by the sharpened chisel to avoid splintering of the wood. One board has the tails and the other board has pins that must be measured out precisely for a secure fit, once the boards are interlocked, the finishing touch is some glue to cement the bond for centuries to come.
The dovetail took off in the William and Mary period which was around the 1600’s and to the very early 1700’s. Most furniture before that time was constructed as simple boxes known as coffers with open shelving and cabinetry storage. The widespread use of the dovetail lead to reliable, long lasting drawer construction. The early dovetail was often big and irregular. Simple country furniture had large tails sometimes and just a single tail and pin were used. Finer pieces of furniture would have at least 3 precise smaller tails. As the practice was improved more tails were added and the tails became smaller.
As useful as the dovetail joint was, it was hard to make. It was made by hand. The 1800’s was a time of advancement and mechanization for woodworking machinery. Rotary saws were being developed and blacksmiths were no longer making nails one by one in a forge. By the end of the civil war furniture factories were adopting assembly lines. The precision required for hand-cut dovetails slowed furniture production and many clever machinists looked for ways to mechanize and speed up the process.The very first machine cut joint was known as the Knapp Joint. Charles Knapp started production of his Knapp machine in 1867. His joint, also called a pin and cove joint was only used for brief period running from 1870 to 1910. The Knapp Joint was replaced by machine cut dovetails Dovetails are still mass produced in factories today. Hand cut dovetails, are more of hobby these days and are used in replicating authentic fine antique furniture. We have fine case piece made by Israel Fineberg that was made in the 1940’s using hand cut dovetails.
A hand cut dovetail can be differentiated from a machine cut dovetail with close inspection. A machine cut piece is uniform in size. Each pin and each tail are the exact same size and shape. A hand cut tail and pin has some variety in size and shape. Learning about joinery is a great way to learn the story of your fine furniture. When your are shopping for furniture pull out drawers and explore. If you see a joint you cant identify, let us know, we might me able to help figure it out. You can call us at 802-445-3043 or send us an email at camelotfurniturebarn(at)gmail.com.