Joining Forces: The Art of Dovetailing in Antique Furniture

If you're a fan of antique furniture, you've likely come across the term "dovetailed" before. Dovetailing is a traditional method of joining two pieces of wood together and is named so because it resembles the tail of a dove. The earliest examples of this method of joining is in furniture entombed with First Dynasty Egyptian mummies, about 5000 years ago. Dovetails are also found in ancient Chinese and Indian furniture as well from around the same period. Its persistence in furniture manufacturing demonstrates the strength of the joint. What, exactly, is a dovetailed joint? And why is it a good indicator of age and quality in furniture? We are going to take a closer look at exactly those questions. 

Dovetailing is a technique in which two pieces of material are joined together by interlocking tails and pins. There are many different types of dovetailing that have been used over the years, but they all have the same purpose of producing a durable joint. There are exposed, hidden, slide, half blind, secret mitred, and more types of dovetails. No reason to worry though! The easiest place to look for dovetails on furniture is the drawer, if available. These dovetails anyone can find and can be a simple and easy way to approximate the age and quality of the piece.

Example of basic dovetailing 

Country Dovetails - one or two larger tails. These were more common in home made furniture. 

Country dovetails on a 1700s Welsh chest of drawers

Rooster Tail - long skinny dovetails. These are found in furniture of the 1700-1800s. They took no small amount of skill since they were so thin.

Rooster Tail joint on an 1820s chest of drawers

French Dovetail - resembles more a key and lock situation from the top of the drawer, this dovetail may not look like what we are commonly familiar with but still does the most important job of making a durable joint.

Cove and Pin - Created by Charles B. Knapp. He rethought the dovetail and also created a machine that would cut it.

Cove and Pin Dovetail

The modern dovetail started out being hand hewn but quickly became machine made in the late 1800's to today. The first image is of a modern dovetail. While the second is of the Cove and Pin. As with all new technology, the invention of the dovetailing machine was not appreciated by everyone. However, since it was more precise and faster than a master craftsman and his chisels, it quickly took over. In America, machine made dovetails were the only dovetails in the 1900s.

There were other methods of furniture joining being used even in the 1700-1800s, such as mortis and tenon, lap, and dowel. These joints were less stable but much easier to make since they did not require the same precision.

As the 1900s rolled on, furniture became more and more expensive due to availability of wood and new methods were required to keep the costs down. The late 1950s and especially the 1960s saw the increased use of particle board and plywood with veneered surfaces. Dovetails can not be used in particle board and so the mortis and tenon, lap and dowel joints came back into favor. Formica, a plastic veneer that typically is printed with a wood pattern, became hugely popular. It looked like wood, it was very durable, and in comparison to real wood, it was cheap. Today we have particle board and plywood furniture covered in wood printed paper veneer to replicate the solid wood look.

Do companies still make dovetailed, solid wood furniture? Yes. But today that furniture is very expensive. A solid wood table costs several thousand dollars where a particle board formica veneered table is only a couple hundred. 

Antique furniture may need new drawer stops or perhaps a freshening up of the polycoat. For durability, nothing beats dovetailed joints and those are only found in those lovely antique pieces or high quality expensive modern pieces. We invite you to explore our collection of antique furniture and discover the beauty and strength of dovetailing for yourself.