What is a Dovetail Joint?

By June 11, 2011

If you open a well-built handmade desk or dresser, you may find a distinctive tail-and-pin design in the corners of their drawers.  That design is more than cosmetic; it’s the source of the strength and longevity of the venerable dovetail joint.  Furniture built using this method to join two pieces of wood has been found in the tombs of Egyptian mummies and Chinese emperors.  Today, this ancient technique is still a hallmark of excellence in woodworking.  If you’re thinking of commissioning custom furniture, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the basic features, appearance, and benefits of dovetail joinery, a technique that will help your furniture endure (whether or not you intend to be buried with it).

Mario Rodriguez’s article in Fine Woodworking, “All About Dovetail Joints,” offers an excellent guide for understanding the construction and workings of the dovetail joint.  Examples of the work of CustomMade artisans will help illustrate these techniques and demonstrate the quality craftsmanship you can always expect from CustomMade woodworkers.

Tail and Pin

“Dovetails are probably the strongest method for joining two pieces of wood, surface to surface, with the grain running in the same direction.”  Once joined, the wood pieces cannot be twisted apart and can only be pulled apart, with great difficulty, from one direction.  The dovetail joint can hold wood together without any additional fasteners, even glue.

The toothy grin-like, tail-and-pin joining of two pieces of wood is the key to this strength.   Take a look at the drawers of this Shaker chest by Watershed Fine Furniture.

The flared triangular projections cut from the light colored poplar sides of the drawers are the tails, which do indeed resemble the shape of a bird €™s tail feathers.   The narrow projections cut from the darker colored black cherry drawer faces are the pins.

There are four basic varieties of dovetails: full, half-blind, full-blind, and sliding.

The Full Dovetail

Full dovetails (also called plain or through) expose the end grain of each piece of wood and have the greatest strength.   This joint is used to construct furniture carcasses, blanket chests, and small boxes.  In this close-up of a dovetailed box by Scott King Furniture, you can see the dark colored end grain of each piece of apple wood exposed on both sides of the full dovetail joint.

The Half-Blind Dovetail

Half-blind dovetails expose the end grain of only one of the joined wood pieces. This method is frequently used in the construction of custom drawers, which leaves the front clear of exposed end grain and the characteristic tail-and-pin look visible only from the sides when the drawer is opened.  The Shaker chest’s drawers in our first example are constructed with half-blind dovetails.  This mesquite chest of drawers by artisan and instructor Frank Strazza of Homestead Heritage Furniture, which won “Best in Show” at the 2006 Texas Furniture Makers Show, also features half-blind dovetails.

The Full-Blind Dovetail

The full-blind (or secret) dovetail is used infrequently, because the tail-and-pin joint is hidden from all sides, but what the artisan sacrifices in appearance is returned in additional strength for the joint.

The Sliding Dovetail

So far we’ve seen dovetail joints holding together two pieces of wood at their edges.  What about securing a piece of wood to the plane surface of another?  Sliding dovetails are similar to a tongue-and-groove joint: “a tail-shaped tongue slides into a pin-shaped groove.”  The graceful, ballerina-inspired legs of this tea table by Jim Coffey, Furniture & Cabinet Maker, are attached to the walnut and jatoba tabletop with sliding dovetail joinery.

The Handmade Difference

There are jigs available that allow a woodworker to cut dovetail joints mechanically.  You can still benefit from the strength of the joinery, but you might find “the end result appears static and too uniform,” whereas a piece like this poplar hand-cut tote by Paul Gorman Furniture features uniquely rendered full dovetail joinery that is only possible by hand.  The entire tote box was made using only hand tools.

Hand-cut dovetailing is the sign of a master artisan.  This method requires great skill and patience.  Watch this video featuring “The Dovetail Doctor,” Gary Rogowski, contributing editor for Fine Woodworking, instructing a reader and aspiring woodworker in the art of the hand-cut dovetail.  You’ll also learn about “the Zen of Sawing” and the solution to the age-old, intractable controversy: should you cut the tails or the pins first?