What Are Dovetail Joints?
As you go about your day, think about how many times you use a drawer. They’re everywhere! They hold your toothbrush and toothpaste, your socks and shirts, your silverware, kitchen tools, and even office supplies! They help you stay tidy and organized while being abused day in and day out. In the end, people yank them open and slam them shut countless times throughout their lifetime. Most of us take it for granted that they’re up to the task, but have you ever thought of how drawers stay together? Drawer joints need to be particularly strong, and there are many wood joinery techniques. This article is going to explain the dovetail joint, and why it’s one of the best ways to join together two pieces of wood.
What is a Dovetail Joint?
A dovetail joint is a woodworking technique that has been commonly used for thousands of years. People have found evidence of this technique in furniture discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs as well as those of early Chinese Emperors. A dovetail joint is made from a set of hand cut interlocking wedges that fit together, joining two pieces of wood without the need for additional dowels, screws, or nails. It is a type of wood joint that takes great skill and is very difficult to master. Dovetailing is considered a hallmark of high-quality wood furniture and dovetail jointing also happens to be a key feature in most Amish-made furniture.
How to Make Dovetail Joints
Dovetail joints are a coveted skill for a serious woodworker to master. Throughout history, these joints were hand cut, which is incredibly difficult to do. Today, most people use a table saw or router to cut the wood and make the dovetailing job a little easier. Dovetail joints are made up of two parts called pins and tails. When a master craftsman wants to marry two boards together, they cut a series of pins on one board and matching tails on the other. They are trapezoidal in shape, resembling the tail feathers of a dove (hence the name dovetail). These pieces are then fitted together, creating an incredibly strong bond that is almost impossible to pull apart. This is known as tensile strength. Dovetail joints have the greatest tensile strength of any wood joints used in woodworking.
What are the Benefits of a Dovetail Joint?
There are several reasons why people prefer dovetail joints over other wood joint types, especially for making items such as drawers, jewelry boxes and other box-type projects.
There is no getting around it, dovetail joints are extremely strong and are known to withstand the test of time. Walk into any antique store and check out a desk, dresser or table. Chances are good that you’ll find these dovetail woodworking joints there doing their thing. Not only does the dovetailing create a natural locking mechanism, it offers a much greater surface area for applying wood glue. These joints are so strong that often if a dovetailed drawer does fail, it’s never because of a joint failure.
No Need for Additional Fasteners
Because of the interlocking characteristics of the dovetail joint, there is no need for any other types of fasteners. Nails and screws can cause wood to split or crack, weakening the joint. A well-executed dovetail joint is stronger than any nail will ever be.
Difficult to Pull Apart
When the tails and pins are cut into the wood, they are assembled by sliding them together. Once that is accomplished, it is impossible to merely pull the two pieces of wood apart. Think of what happens when you fit together two pieces of a puzzle. The pieces snap into place, but when you try and pull them apart, they stick together. A dovetail joint works the same way. Tugging on it only increases the tension of the tail inside the pin, creating a stronger bond. This is why dovetail joints work even without glue. However, most woodworkers choose to add glue as it solidifies the bond into a more permanent state.
They Look Beautiful
Dovetailed drawers are not just practical; they’re also decorative. The beauty of a well-made, hand cut dovetail joint is a wonder to behold. Bringing together two pieces of wood with the absence of any metal fasteners allows the beauty of the wood to really shine through.
Types of Dovetail Joints
There are different types of dovetail joints to choose from, depending on the look one is trying to achieve. The most basic type is a joint known as a Through Dovetail, where the joints can be seen from all sides. Woodworkers most often use that type of joint in cabinetry making and creating frames and boxes. A Half-Blind Dovetail provides a more finished look by hiding the joint so it can’t be seen from the front. This is the most popular way to attach the fronts of drawers to the sides. If you want a completely clean look, you can upgrade to a Secret Mitered Dovetail Joint. Seen mostly in high-end cabinetry, it’s a dovetail joint that is completely hidden from both the inside and outside corners.
Dovetail Joints in Furniture
We have many articles on our site heralding the virtues of high-quality, solid wood furniture. The lifetime value of such furniture far outweighs the initial cost of acquiring it. One major reason these pieces last as long as they do is because of the way they are crafted. For example, take this Belmont 4-Drawer Credenza. Made out of your choice of hardwood with the stain of your choice, all four drawers feature half blind dovetail joints with full extension drawer slides. It’s a perfect accent piece for any office. Another wonderful addition to any office is the 42” Post Mission Flattop Desk. This gorgeous desk is made from your choice of oak, maple or cherry wood, features 3 drawers with half blind dovetail joints and features a letter-size file drawer. All of our bedroom sets feature dressers and nightstands with these high end half blind joints as well.
What it all Means
No one ever thinks about a joint until it fails, and then we curse it until the cows come home. Who hasn’t pulled open a drawer only to have it fall apart, leaving you cringing at the noise of the contents scattering as they hit floor? That’s why is so important to invest in high-quality furniture. Dovetail drawers are beautiful to look at, the couplings are super strong, and you’ll never have to give them a second thought. The quality and care that goes into hand cutting the pins and tails, and hand assembling these solid pieces is second to none. The next time your shopping for furniture, peek inside and look at how it’s made. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Does it have dovetail joints? A bit of investigation now saves a lot of headaches later on.