Dovetail Discussion

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Forum topic by richgreer posted 01-26-2012 05:22 PM 5272 views 0 times favorited 34 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 3585 days

01-26-2012 05:22 PM

The dovetail joint is a popular, traditional joint for certain applications. If properly done, it is a very strong joint. Many consider it the strongest joint for corners of boxes or drawers. I agree, but I also think there are several other joints that are adequately strong such as: miter joint with splines or biscuits, box joint or a rabbet joint with pegs/dowels. FYI – I usually prefer miter joints with a hidden spline or biscuit(s), but I have done them all, and others, at least once.

Many people like dovetails for the way they look. I have mixed feelings about that. A dovetail can distract from from the inherent beauty in the wood by drawing attention to the craftsmanship. OTOH, I appreciate the look of a well done dovetail.

Dovetails can be half-blind or through. They can be hand cut or cut with a jig and router. Some are cut with a band saw and I have even seen some cut with a mortising machine. The pins and tails can be evenly spaced or variably spaced.

I have never made a very good hand cut dovetail. I need more practice to “get it right”. I like to cheat by using a Leigh jig to cut through dovetails that are not evenly spaced. I can create what looks like a well done, hand cut dovetail. They allow me to feel like I am imitating what early woodworkers, whom I greatly admire, did without power tools. Confession – I have even nicked up a few of these dovetails with chisel to “confirm” that they are hand cut.

Many jigs only produce evenly spaced, half-blind dovetails. I’m not very interested in them. They are trying to imitate the machine cut factory dovetails. What’s the point? Hand crafted furniture should look like hand crafted furniture.

There are some pretty fancy dovetails available now, primarily from using the Incra positioning system on a router table. I speak of double dovetails, dovetails that connect to a corner post and variations on these themes. Those can be very attractive if done well. Personally, I would not do one unless I was working with wood that is dull and uninteresting. If the wood is attractive, I don’t want to distract from the beauty of the wood.

Final dovetail thought – I have not mentioned sliding dovetails, but I will say that I think they can be great functionally. For me, they are often part of the solution to the question, “How to I allow for wood movement?”

How about you? How do you feel about dovetail joints?

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

34 replies so far

View Bullhusk's profile


10 posts in 2848 days

#1 posted 01-26-2012 05:54 PM

I guess I disagree with you on the point of “hand crafted dovetails should look like hand crafted dovetails.” IMO, anything made in a home shop or garage is handcrafted regardless of how you get to the end product.

I took a board, cut the board, manipulated the board, glued the board and finished the board…. To me, that’s hand made….

But I also think that dovetail’s are awesome on any project…. just my flavor I guess.

-- -- Ryan --

View Don Butler's profile

Don Butler

1092 posts in 3906 days

#2 posted 01-26-2012 06:04 PM

I admire dovetail joints in other’s work, but I lack experience, practice, so I usually go to other solutions I’m comfortable with.
I would like to own a Leigh jig, but I can’t justify the expense because I have no jobs that require dovetails.


-- No trees were damaged in posting this message, but thousands of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 3585 days

#3 posted 01-26-2012 06:06 PM

You have your opinion and I have mine and we can discuss it, and even disagree, in a polite and respectful way. I think that is great!

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

View crank49's profile


4032 posts in 3481 days

#4 posted 01-26-2012 06:39 PM

I do like the way dovetails look when they are in a place where they should be, and would be expected.

I must admit, I have seen some projects where, in my eye, beautiful wood was wasted by glaring through dovetails. It makes the piece look like “forget that wood, look at what nice dovetails I can make.” In those situations, the dovetail is no more attractive than a finger joint.

Sometimes I would rather look at a piece and think, “What beautiful wood, I wonder how it was joined without any visible jointery?”

Like, who would want to see dovetails on the face of beautiful, perfectly fitted, book matched crotch grained drawers? They would be a terrible distraction.

View a1Jim's profile


117722 posts in 4088 days

#5 posted 01-26-2012 06:43 PM

I guess I just view dovetails as another form of joinery but I know many regard the use of them on drawers as a sign of good workmanship in what ever piece their make particular drawers . I think the look good and hand cut dove tails do say good workmanship (at least on the drawers) but their not the be all and end all to woodworking. I have about 5different dove tail jigs and none of them make dove tails that look hand cut. I say unless your selling what you make use what joints you like.

View DS's profile


3301 posts in 2931 days

#6 posted 01-26-2012 07:20 PM

There are companies that make only drawer boxes. They have specialized equipment that speed up fabrication of dovetail drawer boxes.

I’ve seen a few CNC dovetailers and they are VERY impressive.
They use a computer table and lasers to measure the stock and calculate the dovetails. Take ANY board and stick it in the slot and it comes out dovetailed perfectly. Put the next peice in the second slot and it makes the mating half. (About two seconds per part) They have multiple cutting heads and can cut half a dozen pins at once and spaced to any configuration you can program.

This type of technology is truly a game changer. I can buy dovetailed drawers for a fraction of what I can make them for and at a very high quality. Sure, I have the jig and the router and even the dovetail saw and chisels. But mostly, I support my local drawer shop.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View danr's profile


154 posts in 3695 days

#7 posted 01-26-2012 07:28 PM

Hi Rich,

I do not use any form of a dovetail jig. I have a small, cheap, template style jig, used it once, just because I was curious. I have not cut a large number of dove tails by hand but the ones I have done have been a very satifying experience. I love to use a good back saw and sharp chisels for half blind dove tails. (call me strange but I love it).

I agree with you…. dovetails on drawers are great but other solutions are great for this too. I choose how to join the drawers together depending on what I am building.

A lot of times I make my drawer sides from 1/2 inch BB ply, the front and back from 5/8 poplar, use 3 or 4, 2 inch long screws and glue to secure it at the corners, and then place a walnut plug in the screw hole. I think this looks great, its fast and easy and I will bet you that this is very bit as strong as any other option. I should also mention, that for the method I describe above, the drawer front is “applied” to the front of the drawer box after the box is completed. For an “inside fit” drawer, I will used the hand cut, half blind dove tail or the “drawer rabbit”.

For the last couple of years I have been building Greene and Greene style items, so on these drawers I use the box (or I like to call it “the Big Knuckle joint”) and I show it off. I am always amazed at how people almost always comment on the exposed knuckle joint on the drawers.

Thanks for the discussion topic.

View Joshuah's profile


152 posts in 3204 days

#8 posted 01-26-2012 07:47 PM

I have just decided to get into dovetailing. I do not plan to do it on every project, but I like to have as many skills in my tool belt as possible. It is nice to beable to look at jointing wood and be able to do more than just 45s with mitered keys.

That being said I did not have to go spend the money on any jigs and I already had all the chisels needed for the job. After buying a relatively inexpensive Veritas dovetail saw I was knee deep in sawdust and instantly gained respect for every handcut dovetail I had just glanced at in the past without a second thought.

In the future I will buy a dovetail jig for my router, but no matter what I don’t think I could do the normally spaced dovetails, those may just be a little boring for all the time spent on every joint.

But all that aside I do agree with a1Jim and every piece of wood and project has a jointery style that wood fit best and that is not always the dovetail.

-- -Joshuah

View Gene Howe's profile

Gene Howe

11852 posts in 3939 days

#9 posted 01-26-2012 08:07 PM

For me, I really like to see them on drawers in furniture. On fairly short drawers, I like the one large dovetail. I just like the way it looks.
On some of my boxes, I have used a dovetails to reinforce mitered corners.
Early on, I used to dovetail darned near every thing I could because I had a Craftsman jig and I just thought it was cool. The jig is gone now. I have never hand cut a dovetail.
So far, There has never been a crying need for a sliding dovetail. I can see the utility, but I’ve just never done it.
Recent articles testing the strength of dove tails vs box joints seemed to favor box joints. Although for most applications, is it a difference that makes a difference? Besides, dove tails look better….IMO.

-- Gene 'The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.' G. K. Chesterton

View CharlieM1958's profile


16284 posts in 4729 days

#10 posted 01-26-2012 08:14 PM

I know I’ve posted about this before, but since you asked:

Several years ago, I read an article in one of the major woodworking magazines by a popular woodworking authority (unfortunately, I can’t recall the magazine or author at the moment, but I think it was Chris Schwartz). The point of the article was how dovetails have sort of taken on a life of their own that was never intended by the old-time craftsmen who originally used them.

Before modern glues and fasteners, dovetails were used not for their looks, but simply because they provided a strong and reliable joint. They were often done “quick and dirty”, and hidden with a molding of some sort. Only when dovetails started to be used less and less (because there were easier methods to obtain an equally strong joint) did they begin to be thought of as a sign of old-time hand craftsmanship and quality.

Today, according to the author, dovetails are almost a form of woodworking snobbery. To many woodworkers, a piece can’t be considered high-quality if it has, for instance, drawers that are not dovetailed.

I personally have no great love for dovetails. I have a decent jig and know how to use it, but I generally find setup more trouble than it’s worth. Part of me says every woodworker should know how to hand-cut them, so I’ll probably get around to learning one day. But, overall, I think people get too wrapped up in the “mystique” of the dovetail joint.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 3464 days

#11 posted 01-26-2012 08:21 PM

I can see three good reasons for using dovetails. None involve necessity.
1. Traditional authenticity. Because it is a reproduction.
2. Specific design calls for them.
3. Just shown’ off.

Here are a couple of what I think are great examples:

This is a Dan Moshiem box and what I regard as one of the most beautiful solid wood boxes ever posted on LJ. (My opinion, of course.) This could fall into any one of the three reasons above, and I’ll leave it to Dan to clarify his reasons, but the dovetails work beautifully on this box. I love it.

Dovetails are nice on drawers. Whether for beauty or authenticity; either way is fine with me. Sometimes a drawer dovetail can be a lot more. Andrew Crawford does not usually use dovetails, except occasionally on box drawers. But when he does… he uses them to support his overall design.

In this image Andrew is just showing off with these case dovetails, and does it marvelously. This is truly gilding the lilly, as the wall-hung watercolor box these joints are used on is already so spectacular that the hand cut dovetails are really just another “oh, yeah, dovetails” sort of detail. These were not done quickly, and they certainly were not necessary for strength.

Earlier comments above have emphasized the importance of using dovetails where they are appropriate. I couldn’t agree more. The idea that they are a mark of quality, is only true when they are used wisely. Used in the wrong place, they just detract from the overall result. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples where the project would have benefitted from some other kind of joinery. I’m not going to show any examples of these.

The idea that dovetails are necessary for strength probably only applies to a box that is designed to hold a hundred pounds of cast iron water pumps while dragged behind a pickup truck. But most boxes do not benefit from their use in my opinion. Same for box joints. Your mileage may differ.

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

View Marc5's profile


304 posts in 3852 days

#12 posted 01-27-2012 03:14 AM

I was one of those people who put dovetails on everything for a while because I got caught up in the notion that it was the only joint that truly showed your skill. WRONG! As I continue to do different projects I find I get the same satisfaction from a simple reinforced miter joint or assembling drawer using metal or wood dowels in lieu of half blinds. Honestly I did some walnut drawers using 1/4” brass rod and they looked really cool. Remember, it takes a level of skill to properly execute all joinery correctly with or without machinery. I see it as Jim does, they have their place, and when needed, I will hand cut them. If you have a jig go right ahead and use it, I would if I had more than 2 drawers to do or had one laying around, but I don’t, and such is life.

-- Marc

View PittsburghTim's profile


232 posts in 2832 days

#13 posted 01-27-2012 03:35 AM

I have tried to cut them by hand with marginal success. I believe that I could master it with practice, but I have a full-time job and would rather spend my woodworking time creating things. I have just purchased a Leigh jig and hope it can allow me to create these joints as I do look at dovetailed joints as a mark of quality.

-- She asked me, "Who are you going to please with that?" I said, "Me."

View Jorge G.'s profile

Jorge G.

1537 posts in 2986 days

#14 posted 01-27-2012 04:03 AM

Well, here is my story. Like many I thought the dovetail was a required skill for fine craftsmanship. So I practiced, and practiced and practiced. Now I can make hand cut dovetails in any possible combination, so now that I can make them I realize they are not useful at all unless they are part of a design. With the quality of today’s glues, any interlocking rabbet joint for drawers is just as good and a lot faster to make.

On the other hand, and in my opinion I think that mastering hand cut dovetails is essential, simply because there is no jig that will allow you a 1/16 or 1/8 separation between tails and pins, sometimes the design requires you use thin clearances, where a wide dovetail would not look good, a good example is the box posted above.

Anyhow, to end the rambling, I am over the dovetail fetish, I use them when appropriate, but I am no longer stuck with them.. :-)

-- To surrender a dream leaves life as it is — and not as it could be.

View Frank's profile


19 posts in 2822 days

#15 posted 01-27-2012 02:57 PM

I guess it truly is all about the journey huh? I believe that the key to any design in furniture is 90% proportions, When we make visible, bold dovetails they have to be somewhat proportioned in stature and design unless they are the “star” of the piece. All different flavors of ice cream right? I also believe that sometimes we tend to forget the reason this joint was developed. It not only was a resin or glue joint with really decent glue surface area, but it was also a mechanical joint that was depended on for stability and reliability regardless of having glues or pitch resins etc. A lot of these Craftsman used little or no glue whatsoever due to the natural locking nature of this crafted joint when well fitted. Art is beautiful, however I have to agree that sometimes we cross the line of creativity and enter the realm of ” What the heck is THAT!”

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