Strong, Stronger & Just Showing Off

Good joinery is often the difference in a piece becoming trash sometime in the future, or staying around and being used for hundreds of years. We all know what good joinery is, but how good is good? When does joinery move into the great category? Does joinery ever move beyond that into the “just showing off” area?

In the many years I’ve been building furniture, I’ve seen and reproduced a few rail-to-leg connections. In the category of good, I’d rate a dovetail socket in the leg and a matching dovetail in the rail as being a good joint. It’s better than a mortise and tenon because if the glue fails, a dovetail keeps the piece standing, whereas a mortise-and-tenon joint could slip apart.

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A dovetail joint such as shown in this drawing of a Kentucky sugar chest is a good joint.

I’ve seen a similar design used in Queen Anne lowboys, but there is a small variation that makes the joint a bit stronger. The difference is that the rail is wider than the leg post, and that extra width wraps behind the leg. I suppose there is added glue surface, but the wrapping of the post increases the rigidity of the joint and that helps keep the case from racking.

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The extra width wraps behind the leg to add strength against racking; this design also allows you to use a mortise and tenon to install drawer kickers.

I’m in the process of drawing a copy of the desk used by George Washington while the country’s capital was in New York. The  joinery is a bit more robust than what is show in either of the two images above. (Plus, the legs are not tapered.) It’s in this joint that I think the maker could have been showing off his woodworking abilities. Not only does the wider rail wrap around the leg post, but there is a second dovetail that joins into the case side.

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Not only does the rail dovetail into the leg post, it joins the case side with a small dovetail, too.

OK. The extra dovetail does increase the overall strength of the case, but is it necessary or was the maker showing off? What do you think?

— Glen D. Huey

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3 thoughts on “Strong, Stronger & Just Showing Off

  1. Think of this as a piece of American-style Campaign Furniture. The Army and the Government were periodically on the move. If this is so in this case, then the double dovetail would have been a necessity.

    1. Mitch,

      You’ve been reading too much from Chris Schwarz lately. The George Washington desk is too high style to be related to campaign furniture – it was a Presidential desk, not a General’s desk. A KD joint of this design, however, could have been useful to campaign furniture. One wonders if something similar was found on furniture that was designed to be broken down and carted around.

  2. I would think that the joint in the case side, because of the grain direction in the case side, would be prone to breaking off any part of the case side which doesn’t extend into the leg as part of a tenon. If it was visible I would say the maker was showing off. Since it isn’t, I would doubt the maker’s judgement.

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