Dovetails are interlocking carved wood joints used in cabinetry to connect two pieces of wood — drawer fronts and sides, cabinet or cupboard corners. The technique produces a sturdy, long-lasting link. Analyzing these joints helps determine the age of old furniture. It’s known as a “dovetail” joint because the flat-bottomed triangular form of the wood insert appears like a dove’s tail. Whether that tail is fat, slim, symmetrical or utilized sparingly reveals a clue to the origins of this piece.
The Pharaoh’s Footstool
Egyptian pharaohs were buried with fine furnishings and chests of rare and valuables spices to accompany them to the afterlife. Boxy shapes with joined wood angles were linked by dovetailing, a fact that contributed to the intact state of the grave goods when the pyramids and burial chambers were excavated. The massive horizontal stone lintels at Stonehenge were linked by dovetailing, more curved than triangular. A 17th-century Chinese canopy bed at the Victoria and Albert Museum is held together with dovetailing. The usage of this joinery technique stretches back into prehistory, but its usefulness remains important. Today, dovetail joints are machine made, and that fact is what helps to pinpoint the era of this chest of drawers from the attic. Machine-made dovetails tend to be heavier than graceful, asymmetrical hand-cut joints.
Telltale Dovetail Detail
Woodworkers cut dovetail joints in the latter part of this 17th century in England, with small delicate saws and wood chisels. The marks are usually visible, especially on the inside or bottom of a piece. The joints were less fragile at first — fairly wide and dull, cut crudely with rare exceptions. However, the design developed into a really thin, precise and fragile-looking combined. In the late 1890s, scalloped dovetails were the rage, but the trend shifted back to this traditional triangular shape after a couple of years. Hand-cut dovetailing was the default until 1860 when uniform machine-cut joints were introduced. But nice cabinetmakers persisted in fitting their joints by hand until the early 1900s, and cabinetmakers in Europe cut dovetails by hand nicely into the 1930s.
American woodworkers played around with all the ancient dovetailing theory and devised a version of the own in 1870. Eastlake and Victorian-style wood furniture, especially if furniture, displays a round dovetail known as a “pin and cove.” It might be cut out of a pattern, so that an apprentice could do a decent job producing them — a nice market for a busy cabinetry shop. The design never caught on outside North American and was gradually abandoned in favor of this traditional dovetail. Meanwhile, state carpenters were turning out sturdy and polished dovetailing in their handmade pieces — but preferred two or three big dovetails, fairly symmetrical, over the more fragile and numerous joints where master carpenters took pride.
The strength of this joint is the reason for its long recognition. It was also free, in societies where hand-forged screws or nails were luxuries that might rust, expand and break your bedpost, tabletop or chest of drawers. Cabinetmakers carefully ripped the “pins” to fit smoothly and snugly into the “tails,” but they also slicked some glue in the joint before fitting the 2 pieces of wood together. An analysis of adhesive remnants could be the key to precisely defining the era of a hand-cut dovetailed antique.