Old Dovetails

March 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Woodworkers tend to obsess about dovetails. It isn’t all completely irrational. Dovetails have long been a mark of fine craftsmanship, symbolic of the time, effort, and personal attention that goes into making a hand-crafted piece. A beginning woodworker might fixate on making perfect dovetails. Some of that obsession may be warranted, but it’s easy to take it too far, i.e. hinder the woodworker from actually building things.

The photographs above show a sampling of drawers from four different antique cabinets and chests in our house. All were likely built in the latter 19th/early 20th century. The dovetails on each were clearly hand cut based on their irregular spacing and variations in the tail slopes. All show significant wear – 100+ years of use will do that. But they show another similarity – none were cut perfectly. They show gaps in the side walls and the baselines – the same horrific gaps we agonize over when we make our own. On a few I can clearly see a little filler was even used to fill the gaps. Not the filler we buy today in a small can, but most likely saw dust that was pushed into the cracks during finishing. Taking a little saw dust and lightly sanding over your joints when applying shellac creates a slurry of wood “paste” that makes a nice gap filler.

I don’t know the origins of any of these antiques except one, a chest made by the Larkin Soap Manufacturing Company. For the others, I’m not sure if they are examples of mass-produced pieces, or represent the unique work of an individual craftsman. My guess is the former. And if true it illustrates the notion that the dovetail is a production joint. It is not some esoteric aspect of cabinet making that takes years to master. Even with imperfect execution, a dovetail joint will hold for generations.

In my opinion woodworkers often focus too much on the wrong type of dovetail, namely the through-dovetail. Adam Cherubini has been singing this song for a while now. What exactly do we build that uses a though-dovetail? Boxes – yes, chests – yes, and after that? Maybe the backs of drawers, but the strength of a dovetail certainly isn’t needed there. Drawer fronts use half-blind dovetails. If you build just one cabinet with drawers you may cut more half-blind dovetails than all the through-dovetails you’ve made in your entire life (assuming you rabbet the back of the drawers). And half-blind dovetails have the advantage of being blind to us most of the time (really they should be called 4/5-blind dovetails). Until I decided to write this blog post I never looked closely at the dovetails in our antiques. If they were through dovetails they would be staring at me constantly, forcing me to look for their imperfections. But hidden away in the cabinet, they look perfect.

I am certainly not advocating poor craftsmanship nor am I diminishing the value of good practice. Followers of James Krenov will constantly strive for perfection in their work, never settling for “good enough.” And that’s a good thing. But when all that perfectionism comes at the expense of actually doing woodworking, it becomes counterproductive. I would never advocate sloppy work, but a proper balance must be struck between process and results.

I am not a dovetail aficionado. I need to develop a practicing routine just like everyone else to become more proficient. The “Dovetail a Day” training routine Chris Schwarz wrote about years ago would certainly develop good skills. That regimen advocates a dovetail a day for 30 days, or however long it takes you to do 30 test boards. I’ll probably try something similar to that, but will probably make sure at least 2/3 of the practice sets are of the half-blind variety. And at the end of the 30 dovetails, if they still aren’t perfect, that’s ok. It certainly won’t prevent me from building something with dovetails.

More:
Rob Campbell, of The Joiner’s Apprentice blog, started the dovetail a day routine a little while back, partially in preparation for building the schoolbox from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker. I believe his first post on the subject was here, and subsequent posts follow his progress. And although he wasn’t completely satisfied at the end of his 30 dovetails (though they don’t look too bad at all), he did what he should have done – he kept moving forward and he built the schoolbox.

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§ 2 Responses to Old Dovetails

  • rob campbell says:

    To perhaps justify my obsession, while also wholly agreeing with your post, I raised money for tools and materials by promising School Boxes to my sponsors. I wanted them to look pretty decent, even if as you say they might be among the last through-dovetails I ever do. At the same time, I don’t think making chests and boxes for the rest of my life would be a terrible fate: people (especially non-woodworkers) love them, and they are utterly useful. Perhaps even moreso than many of the pieces of “fine furniture” i see woodworkers swooning over. It also seems to me that the discipline and hand-eye-coordination of learning to create tight dovetails is applicable to all kinds of other operations.

    Great post, and I have noticed the same thing on our antique dressers and trunks. Still, I have a feeling whomever made them COULD have done better, if they were doing it for fun and not in a dark, overworked shop that was likely frigid, filthy, and perhaps a little too close to the local tavern.

    • Eric Bushèe says:

      Rob,

      I’m with you on “fine furniture”. The antiques in our house – and the ones I grew up with – are wholly utilitarian in nature. Looking at this type of furniture my whole life is why I’m drawn more to Shaker than Federal-style pieces. But as you say, even with non-fancy furniture, you strive to do your best. And if you choose dovetails for your joinery, your goal should be to do them as best you can. And yeah, the good folks who built our antiques could have done better as well.

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