Timeless Technique

History of the Dovetail Joint

Contributed by Ron Alalouf

I grew up unassumingly like most young boys spending time in my parent’s basement around my father’s workbench.

From the first days of getting comfortable with my own hammer to fond memories of the smell of my grandfather’s old solid steel drill, I took to my father’s hobby of working with wood, marquetry, and the skill it took to make 2 items join in an apparently seamless and aesthetic fashion. I was always fascinated at the level of deceiving complexity furniture and carpentry had, part of the reason I am sure I landed in the field of Architecture.

One of the details that always intrigued me was the Dovetail joint. Today they make a host of jigs to allow anyone to create the perfect dovetail joint, but it wasn’t always that way. Amazingly most of the older furniture and craftsmanship still exists while today’s furniture is almost an instant write off the day the box arrives at your home or office.

In today’s modern times with current technology and advances in larger than life engineering there are very few carpentry techniques, concepts, or tools that have survived the test of time. Everything from hand tools and their newest portable power packs to new iterations of grandpas tool box as part of what seems to be a continuously competitive market for the newest gadget, all under constant evolution in an attempt to create the best set of tools for the modern day craftsman.

However, all the tools in any current big box hardware store cannot replace the simplicity and craftsmanship of some of the oldest techniques used and that remain in active use today.  One of the most recognized and admired techniques in carpentry, is the dovetail joint also known as the swallow-tail or fantail joint. Most commonly used and most often seen in furniture, cabinets, this technique has also been used in log buildings and traditional timber framing. It's unique configuration of oddly shaped trapezoidal shaped parts allows the connection to be extremely secure and stronger than the various alternatives while requiring no mechanical fasteners.

Most antique furniture utilized some fashion of a dovetail joint, either in the drawers or internal framing or both allowing not only construction that has lasted over hundreds of years but an often added aesthetic and character to the piece. Pieces included some from the first dynasty of ancient Egypt as well as within the tombs of the early Chinese emperors. Over the years the manner in which the dovetail joint was executed allows modern day historians to date furniture adding to the history and beauty of the dovetail joint. 

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  • My Father's Workbench
    My Father's Workbench
  • The Dovetail Joint
    The Dovetail Joint