Dovetails: Never & Always


I’m building a sugar chest for an upcoming article for 360 Woodworking – actually, I’m building a miniature sugar chest that has all the same joinery as a full-size version. (I wanted to do something different). Working on the case, I realized that the words “never” and “always” should not be used in a sentence with dovetails, unless it’s to say that you should not use these words together.

For example, the angle of the dovetail is not always a 1:6 or 1:8 slope, or even a 14° slope. If you look at dovetail joints on antique furniture, you’re likely to see anything from just more than 45° to just less than 90° – at 90° the joint is really a box joint.

I’ve also read that dovetails are oriented with the pins in the case sides and the tails in the top and bottom and never should they be switched. Wrong. It is the job of the furnituremaker to determine how best to use the joint. Many times you see the orientation described above, but there are times when the pins and tails are switched to achieve a better hold – if a chest (usually smaller in size) is constantly picked up by its top, it would be better to have the tails in the case sides.

There are a few other “rules” that need to be tossed aside, and the case of this sugar chest proves why. Never mix through and half-blind dovetails on a case. This chest does. That’s right. The back joinery is through dovetails and the front is joined using half-blind dovetails.

Take a look at this sugar chest case on which I followed the dovetail layout from the original piece. It has both pins and tails on the sides – pins at the back and tails at the front. Always have all pins in the sides or in the top and bottom, and never the two shall mix – even if you read it in an old woodworking book – is wrong. Sorry. Here’s historically accurate proof showing otherwise. (The layout of pins and tails was done this way to present a clear front for the inlay work.)

So much for rules and making furniture. It’s best to always use your head to determine the orientation of your dovetails, and never worry about the slope of the pins and tails.

— Glen D. Huey

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2 thoughts on “Dovetails: Never & Always

  1. Hi Glen Sorry to be late on this.
    I find the idea of a miniature sugar chest intriguing. What scale are you using?
    On the angle for the dovetails – I would think the thickness of the wood should be considered. Very thin material would benefit from a sharper angle.
    Thanks Don

    1. Don,

      The overall size of my chest is about 40 percent of the original. I didn’t, however, change each and every measurement. As an example, my case sides are 1/2″ thick, which is thinner than the original, but not by 60 percent.

      I’m still considering the dovetail angle on thin pieces, but my thinking is that it’s not a big deal. A steeper angle, in thin woods, would be more prone to breaking off along the grain, in my opinion. This may be worth a bit of testing in the shop.

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