Do I use dovetails or another style of joinery here?

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Forum topic by Corson posted 08-21-2019 02:53 PM 395 views 0 times favorited 6 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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3 posts in 28 days

08-21-2019 02:53 PM

Topic tags/keywords: joinery dovetail handtool

Hi all,

First post. I have run into a design problem on a project I am knee deep in. I am building a shelf and I have some constraints created by other parts being finished and unchangeable.

I started building this shelf with dovetails on the sides, partially cause I wanted some sort of joinery on this project as a detail, and partially because I thought it would handle the across the grain movement of the 13” wide shelf well. The shelf has only two sides, a back, and a single divider. See the last pic for a mock up.

I didn’t realize at first that this would orient the long grain in a weak direction, I found that out when I almost split the side of the shelf in half while chiseling /admittedly/ too hard. You can see where i’ve glued it back together in the pics.

My question is: Will the dovetails be fine if I finish cutting them appropriately and not too tightly, or would you choose to build this shelf with a different style of joinery, and if so, what would that look like?

Thanks in advance for any and all feedback,


6 replies so far

View tywalt's profile


83 posts in 642 days

#1 posted 08-21-2019 03:21 PM

Your grain orientation of both the sides and shelf looks correct to me. I would carry on with what you have knowing that sides that thick will be prone to split while fitting them given how short they are. Without a “bottom” to your design, I would make sure your back piece is securely joined to both the sides and shelf with a dado or maybe mortises – if it isn’t already cut to final dimensions – to prevent wracking.

-- Tyler - Central TX

View jdh122's profile


1093 posts in 3296 days

#2 posted 08-21-2019 03:54 PM

Like Tyler said, the grain orientation is right for a dovetail joint. Just be more careful with your chiselling…

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View Corson's profile


3 posts in 28 days

#3 posted 08-21-2019 04:03 PM

Thanks for your responses Tyler/Jeremy,

Luckily I do have enough spare material in that back piece to play with. If I rabbeted/dadoed the shelf surface and sides all round, then glued in the back piece that wouldn’t create any undue stress correct?

I am relatively new to the finer subtleties of hand work, and these are my first attempt at legitimate dovetails on a real project, so splitting the side pieces scared me off for a week or two to be honest, but deadlines approach…


View Fred Hargis's profile

Fred Hargis

5683 posts in 2971 days

#4 posted 08-21-2019 05:29 PM

If you’re worried about cross grain movement with the back piece, it looks to me like it’s only 2 1/2” wide (?). I normally don’t worry about cross grain until I’ve got a piece that’s over 4” wide. Yours will move, but not enough to cause any problems. Not so with the center divider, however. It will stretch across the width of the shelf. It will need to be fastened in some manner to allow movement. That could be just fasten at one end, use elongated holes with wood screws, sliding DT or something like that.

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

View Corson's profile


3 posts in 28 days

#5 posted 08-21-2019 07:37 PM

Alright, thanks for that heads up Fred. I like the sound of a sliding dovetail, I’ll have to look up more closely how to approach that. One step at a time.

View tywalt's profile


83 posts in 642 days

#6 posted 08-21-2019 08:05 PM

Corson, a rabbit or dado along the inside of the sides and shelf would be fine to secure your back (with glue of course) and I wouldn’t think twice about doing it myself on this piece. As Fred mentioned, a sliding DT would work well for the center divider.

... I hesitate to mention this because I don’t want to start the wood movement debate, but you could likely get away with just a dado for that center piece too. Fred is right that the proper way to do that is with something that allows movement (like a sliding DT), but if this thing is living in a climate controlled home, you won’t be arrested by the Wood Movement Police for attempting it.

-- Tyler - Central TX

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