Dovetails, Part 1

If you’re like me, the dovetail is the quintessential joint of fine woodworking. Many historical pieces of furniture that still exist today use the dovetail joint. Although dovetails may seem intimidating at first (and even second!) glance, I will break it down into its basic components. I’ll also explain all the terminology you’ve probably heard before, but may not have fully understood.

Why Dovetails?

The dovetail joint is one of the strongest methods of joinery available to a woodworker. Its strength is provided by its interlocking features and the large amount of long grain to long grain glue area. Not only that, but it’s an aesthetically pleasing joint that has nearly infinite variations in size, style, shape, and colors.

The Dovetail has a long track record of being a sturdy and reliable joint. The  origins have been traced all the way back to 3,000 BC, where it was used by the ancient Egyptians. It was also employed by the Roman Empire in both furniture and buildings. 

Dovetail Vocabulary

There are three terms you should become familiar with when talking about dovetails: tails, pins, and baseline. The two boards that make up any dovetail joint are the tail board and the the pin board. 

It’s easy to remember which is the tail board – just think of the tail feathers of a bird. The tails fan out at an angle and the cuts are perpendicular to the face of the board. The pin board contains the protrusions that fit between the tails; the cuts are at an angle to the face of the board. Finally, both boards have a baseline. This is where the boards ultimately meet, with the two baselines forming the inside corner of the joint.

Roughed Out Tail Boards
Roughed Out Tail Boards

There are many variations of the dovetail joint, some of which include through, half-blind, mitered, inlayed, and houndstooth. Within each of these variations the craftsman can vary the wood species used for color contrast, the angle of the tails, the spacing between tails, the width of the tails, etc. As you can see, the options are nearly limitless.

The Tools

Cutting your first dovetail joint by hand requires a very basic set of tools. At a minimum, you need a chisel, hammer, square, pencil and a handsaw. You will often see a bevel gauge or dovetail marker recommended for layout, but it’s not essential. For those tasks, a simple shop-made template is effective.

Tools for cutting dovetails
Tools laid out, ready to cut some dovetails

Careful layout is essential to a good dovetail joint; if you rush the layout process, you’ll be unhappy with the end result. The actual method of cutting a dovetail joint is frequently debated – tails first or pins first. Ultimately, find what works best for you and stick with that.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll walk you through my process for cutting dovetails.

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