When did woodworkers start using finger joints?

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Forum topic by KellyS posted 07-05-2011 07:11 PM 7845 views 0 times favorited 6 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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78 posts in 3769 days

07-05-2011 07:11 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question

I always like looking at the “Wood Tool Chests” on ebay for inspiration. I think old tool chests are way cool! Speaking of that, a guy tried to pawn a really cool chest on Pawn Stars last night.

So, to my question, and I’m not trying to call anyone out when I bring this up, I’m just curious to know when woodworkers really started using finger joints as a joining method. This post says the tool box is a late 1890 Tool chest, but is it? It’s more of a curiosity thing than anything else. It seems like to me, most woodworkers in the 1890’s probably did most things with handtools, not to say you couldn’t cut the joints with hand tools, I’m just sure it would be a little more tedious to do. It seems like a good dovetail joint might be more period correct and quicker to do with hand tools. The hinges look wrong too, I would think they would be something more along the lines of a larger strap hinge or something. It’s still a very pretty looking chest to me, but not sure if it’s really a 1890 chest, could be just the handles are.

Sorry if this is a stupid question, and I’m not trying to call anyone out or make anyone mad if your the one selling the chest.

-- He who dies with the most tools wins!.....Just wait, I'm going to win!..ERR my wife will at least.

6 replies so far

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 4664 days

#1 posted 07-05-2011 07:33 PM

Actually, dovetails are a big current fad, although they have been around for centuries. Everybody is doing them and their popularity is being driven by the woodworking media and community. That’s a good thing.

Don’t assume that woodworking automation wasn’t available in the 1890’s.
I’ve seen many examples of mortising machines and joint cutting machines that were either hand-cranked or powered by steam, water wheels or treadmills.

The quixotic notion that “hand-tools” requires no use of guides, jigs, automation or industrialization isn’t accurate. My family has been in the furniture, woodworking and timbering business in this country (USA) since the 1700’s (North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and the West Coast). In terms of automation, the 1890’s wasn’t that long ago.

You’ll see finger joints in many styles of furniture, including Japanese, Greene and Greene, Mission, Arts and Crafts, Pennsylvania Dutch, Shaker, etc.

-- 温故知新

View TomHintz's profile


207 posts in 3935 days

#2 posted 07-05-2011 07:48 PM

I was mentored in woodworking by a retired cabinetmaker that was 70-something in the early 70’s when he lived across the alley from me (and got me started in all this!) and he had retired from a cabinet shop that his father also retired from after his father got him started in cabinet making. I say all this because I asked my mentor at one point how long the box joint (his term for finger joints) was around and he said that his great grandfather used them all of the time and that goes back at least to the turn of the century.
That’s all I got.

-- Tom Hintz,

View BobTheFish's profile


361 posts in 3089 days

#3 posted 07-05-2011 09:26 PM

you’d be surprised by how old some joints are. Dovetails, I just recently found out, are almost ass old as the ancient egyptians, and once were used to join the sides of buildings. Mortise and tenon are ancient as well. On the other hand, it’s a modern innovation to showcase joints, now making them decorative elements, as previously they were often hidden. Most of the decorative elements in older furniture were also in place as a means to hide “mistakes” due to the handcrafted nature of projects.

As for the comment above about tools, I remember reading somewhere that marquetry and veneer work used to be highly regarded due to the difficulty of procuring micro-thin pieces of wood. It wasn’t until the invention of a mechanical saw for such purposes in the 1700’s (I think it was the 1700’s and it was the bandsaw, but need some fact check on that) that it started to become more mundane..

View Rick  Dennington's profile

Rick Dennington

6683 posts in 3731 days

#4 posted 07-05-2011 09:28 PM

The Romans used box joints and dovetails. Noah used them when he built the Ark. The Egyptians used them, along with mortise and tenons…..that should cover it…..

-- " The secret to staying young looking.....hang around old people.." R.D.

View KellyS's profile


78 posts in 3769 days

#5 posted 07-05-2011 11:22 PM

Sorry, I didn’t really mean to ask such a silly question. I’ve only been woodworking for about 4 years or so, so I really haven’t taken notice until now about the methods used. I realize the industrial revolution started years before this chest was produced, and even googled the invention of the table saw, so I understand that machinery and tooling were around before this box was produced, but I guess I was looking at it from the standpoint of not everyone could afford such tooling and equipment. I have a transitional plane that I understand was made in the 1920’s, made even after the iron Baileys were introduced and that they were made because people couldn’t afford the all iron planes. Wow! It’s hard to imagine where we’ve come from sometimes and put it into perspective. My great grandparents lost their farm in Alabama during the depression because they couldn’t come up with 20 dollars to pay the bank. I guess that’s why my dad has a hard time understanding how I can pay 30 dollars for a round of sporting clays just for fun with nothing to show for it but a good time. Ahh, I’m digressing.
I think that is what impresses me the most about these tool chests is that you know the time they put into them. I guess I would still be impressed knowing they used relatively modern machinery to make it. I know what effort I’ve put into such projects with half the results. I guess it goes to show you that the best equipment in the world doesn’t make up for lacking in the skill department.
Thanks for the comments. I thought it would be interesting to get a little history lesson.

Thanks for your input.

-- He who dies with the most tools wins!.....Just wait, I'm going to win!..ERR my wife will at least.

View Loren's profile


10477 posts in 4185 days

#6 posted 07-05-2011 11:46 PM

That box may date from the 1890’s but it was made in a real
millwork shop or factory, not by a independent craftsman.

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