Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Dovetails are for the birds

Labor day is my cue that it's time to get back in the shop and I am turning my attention to something I have been thinking about for some time: my ambivalence about dovetails.

Admitting to ambivalence about dovetails almost seems like heresy.  Anyone with respect for the hand tool woodworking tradition has to honor this iconic joint; in some ways it symbolizes the craft.  Learning to cut it is a rite of passage.  There is no denying its tremendous mechanical strength and durability.  It is generally accepted as a sign of quality work.

So, what's the issue?  In part, it's that I am an iconoclast out of sheer orneriness.  A whole dovetail industry has developed, with hand tool professionals competing to see who can cut one the fastest as a means of selling this saw or gizmo or whatever.  The power tool industry has gone completely nuts selling ridiculously complicated and expensive jigs.  Even though you don't have to play those games, I find the whole thing off-putting.

But there's more to it than that.  The dovetail joint just doesn't look that great to me; on one side it's indistinguishable from a box joint, but even the other side doesn't bowl me over.  There's a reason half-blind dovetails were commonly used.  On a drawer, you only see the actual dovetail in a secondary wood when it is open.

The mechanical strength is indeed impressive, but I've learned that there are plenty of alternatives that are more than adequately strong and have other advantages.  Even when they are weak, there are ways of making them strong.  Take the miter joint, for example, which can be made sufficiently strong for many applications with splines.  Look at my personal favorite, the Greene and Greene variant of box joints.  They are strengthened with screws covered by ebony plugs.  In my version of these elegant joints, I use pins to add mechanical strength in lieu of screws and the joints are extremely strong.  I have made box joints and then just drilled a hole through them for a dowel.  Fast and easy.

Boxes made with miter joints look nice because there is no end grain and they have the additional advantage of making it fast and convenient to install the bottom by just plowing a groove on all four sides.  You don't have to use slips, hassle with a stopped groove or put a plug in exposed ends of a groove.  Modern adhesives result in splines that are more than strong enough in many applications.

Just to make one thing clear:  if you like dovetails, the consensus is clearly on your side and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  I'm clear on the fact that I am the outlier on this subject.  However, if you have your doubts too, there is nothing wrong with that either.

I've had these heretical thoughts for some time, but there has always been a suspicion that they are just a rationalization, a cover for my embarrassing secret:  I'm just not that good at cutting dovetails.  I think it's partly because I am ambivalent about them that I haven't really devoted myself to becoming proficient and it's partly because the endless stream of videos I've watched and articles I've read on the subject haven't really gotten me there.  I think that the whole practice, practice, practice thing misses something.  You need to practice with good technique and my techniques just weren't that good.

I decided that before I could dismiss dovetails as "for the birds" I would have to convince myself that I am proficient at making them.  Since the articles and videos didn't get me there, I decided to figure it out on my own or, more accurately, use my intuition to pick and choose from what I have watched and read.  To my astonishment, it worked and that's what I will write about next.  Don't worry, I wouldn't dream of foisting a dovetailing tutorial off on you, just, "When I put away the books and videos, didn't bother practicing, thought about it and experimented, I learned some surprising things."


  1. Interesting take on dovetails. I taught myself how to do them because I considered them to what you say they are. 5 years later and I'm still learning how to do them.
    I liked the alternatives, especially the Greene and Greene one. Next to dovetails, I like box joints almost as much. Miters are still an evil thing for me.

  2. Interesting point of view. I'm with you - there are other joints out there which also look nice and provide good stability . Miter joints for boxes are pretty cool and the whole box is easy to make (even with hand tools) as you have already described.

  3. I also like the look of Greene and Green joints but looking forward to your dovetail revelations!

  4. "I think that the whole practice, practice, practice thing misses something."
    Agreed, because cutting dovetails is a skill that requires the help of a good teacher.

    "I would have to convince myself that I am proficient at making them."
    You're contradicting yourself. Why would you need to try to be good at them if you already set out that other joinery methods are equally good? It's like saying sanding is better than handplaning, but I need to be good at planing before I could assert that opinion. Or, using power tools is great but I need be good at hand tools before telling the world power tools make great woodworking.


    1. Richard,

      This might appear contradictory but, to me at least, it isn't. I want to make sure that my ambivalence regarding dovetails results from an aesthetic and woodworking judgment and not a rationalization because I am not that good at cutting them. I want to be able to say, "I can cut them well but I choose not to."

      With regard to your sanding vs. handplaning example, if somebody told me sanding is better than handplaning but I knew they couldn't plane very well, their opinion wouldn't mean very much to me.

      There is another reason to learn to cut dovetails well even if you aren't going to use the joint. There are so many skills involved that you learn a great deal. As I'll explain in later posts, I learned things that are very worthwhile even though I won't use them in making dovetail joints.

  5. I read once that while dovetails were commonly used for carcases in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were usually covered in the final product by moulding or other pieces of the construct. It wasn't until the 20th century that the exposed dovetail came into view. Personally I love the look and I also love the challenge of cutting and fitting them. But good for you for doing your own thing. I'll look forward to reading about what you learned from your own experimentation.

  6. I agree that you should make the type of joints or work that you feel like.
    Dovetails are a fine joint, but they are not the "it and all" of woodworking. I find it much more important to reach some nice proportions in whatever project is being built.
    Few people besides other woodworkers will ever notice if a dovetail or a mitre is being used. But they will surely see if the proportions of e.g. a chest are all off.