Custom Built Wood Furnishings


My rant on dovetails, their use and misuse.

Posted on September 30, 2011 at 2:10 AM

I am going to use dovetails in my spice cabinet. *I am going to spend hours dovetailing*. I estimate when I am all said and done, there will be somewhere close to 100 dovetails in the overall project. Almost all of them will be in the drawers, half-blinds for the front of the drawer, and through dovetails for the rear of the drawers. Now I have not finalized the drawer layout yet, but I am thinking 5 banks, 11 drawers, average 8 per drawer and that’s 88, plus the carcass that’s another 20 ish (again, not yet decided, this will come about during the layout phase), so that’s just over 100.

In my previous spice cabinet, I used through dovetails in the carcass, so that means when I put on the moulding on the top, the tops of the tails are visible from the top. I used pine that I dyed dark drown, so they don’t really stand out, no problem. I have decided to change that this time. I am going to use half-blinds, that way the top will be solid maple figure, and the moulding will cover the DT’s. I don’t want the dovetails to distract from the wood. And that brings me to my first point. Using the dovetail in a design.

I firmly believe that the proper use of design can make or break the final look of a project. You can make it very complex and intricate, and even do every step very well without mistakes. But if the design is not solid, it is still not going to look right. The same can be said for dovetails.

When I first started hand cutting dovetails, I had it in my mind that dovetails were the apex of woodworking, and if I could incorporate hand cut dovetails in my woodworking, everything would be that much cooler. I was wrong. It dawned on my one day: No matter how good my dovetails are, there are times when they should not be seen. Not only should they not be seen, but even their use in certain situations can ruin the look of a project. One of the features of dovetails, is that they are very busy to the eye. You cant help but to look at them, and if you have something else going on, like inlay or stinging, or moulding.. Basically anything else that you want to be seen, then the use of dovetails will essentially take away from the project. Dovetails compete for your attention, and they don’t share well with other features. See below, this is a small music box that I made, I used contrasting woods, the dovetails work, they are the ONLY feature. Then the cherry Bible box below it… I used half blinds, so that I had a clean front and nothing to distract from the inlay. If I had also wanted to inlay the sides, I would have used mitred corners.


Using dovetails properly takes time, and lots of research. Look at lots of historical and antique pieces.

Second point. LISTEN EVERYONE!!! I HAVE COME TO PROCLAIM THE TRUTH!! DOVETAILS ARE NOT THE CENTRE OF THE WOODWORKING WORLD!!! Did that shake your world? Did I just turn it upside down? The hand cut dovetail is sometimes held in such high regard, that everything else gets passed by. There are countless DVD’s, books, magazine articles, all dedicated to this one process. WHY? Why? Because there is such a fascination for them. Its like they have this mystical power over hand tool woodworkers. Everyone oh’s and ah’s at the dovetails.. well, Im here to tell you, its just a simple magic trick. Just like good dovetails cannot rescue a poor design, they also cannot cover for poor workmanship. You can practice and practice all you want, you can become the worlds best dovetailer, but if you don’t have the other skills that go along with them, what’s the use? And that brings us to my third point..

Third Point: It is not as hard as you have likely been lead to believe. Oh, trust me, you can screw them up so many ways, and if you don’t have the BASIC skills, you are not going to do it well. But that is what DT’s are comprised of… basic skills. Do you have trouble when you are cutting your dovetails with the saw keeping the line? You don’t need more practice cutting dovetails, you need more practice sawing. Do you have trouble chopping your waste or pairing? You don’t need practice chopping dovetails, you need to practice basic chisel skills. Do you mess it all up when you are transferring you pins to tails, or tails to pins? Well… again, more practice marking. Dovetails are the combination of a bunch or skills. And if you fall apart on one of them, it will show in the end.

Ok, so I think I have beaten down on DT long enough. I started hand cutting dovetails just under three years ago. In that 3 years, I taught myself how to do it, I learned ALL the mistakes the hard way. And I figured it out. I prevailed. And in the last 3 years, I estimate that I have cut somewhere around 3000. I love cutting DT’s, its fun, its relaxing, they look really cool. BUT… I have learned that there is SO MUCH MORE to woodworking than focusing on one little aspect. They are worth taking the time to learn how to do, and how to do them properly.. but this goes with just about everything else in woodworking. Hand planes, hand saws, sharpening… these are all skills that I have started to value more and more

I am going to spend hours dovetailing…. And when you look at the final project… you are not going to see a single one of them. Well… until you open a drawer and look at the side. But then again… who cares what the side of a drawer looks like? Oh wait… I do.

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