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What Is a Dovetail Joint?

What is a dovetail joint?

The art of handmade wood furniture making is supported by a number of important skills that are almost art forms in and of themselves. One such skill is that of joinery. Joinery is the practice of joining two pieces of wood to ensure proper structural integrity and aesthetic beauty. The most difficult joint to create is the dovetail joint and here at The Painted Furniture Co we use them in droves.

Dovetail joints are truly appreciated by furniture connoisseurs for two reasons. First, they require tremendous skill to make. Second, they are the most solid and structurally sound of all furniture joints. They are also among the oldest, with examples dating back to ancient Egypt and China. Experts suggest the dovetail joint could predate recorded history.

It's All in the Name

A dovetail joint is so named because of what it looks like. Every such joint has male and female ends. The male end is shaped similar to a dove's tail. It fits into a mirrored female end. What gives the dovetail joint its superior strength are the multiple points of contact along the joint.

Multiple connections along a dovetail joint create a tremendous amount of friction between the two pieces. By itself, the friction provides quite a bit of strength. Add some wood glue at each intersecting point and you end up with a joint that is extremely strong. So strong, in fact, that dovetail joints handcrafted by skilled furniture makers do not require any mechanical fasteners.

Five Types of Dovetail Joints

There are both woodworking and non-woodworking dovetail joints. In the woodworking category, there are five used most often. The first four are for creating corner joints. They are commonly used to construct drawers. The fifth dovetail joint is most often used to build shelves.

Here are the five types of dovetail joints:

1. Through Dovetail

The through dovetail is the first dovetail joint furniture makers learn to make. Though making it is complicated, the through joint is the easiest of the five to master. It is so named because you can see the joint clearly through the grain of the wood.

If you were to pull out a drawer joined with a through dovetail, you would clearly see the joint on both sides of the corner. On the one side would be the wider dovetails of the male end; on the other side would be the narrower pieces of the female end. Note that these would only be visible on the outside of the joint. All you would see inside the drawer is a straight line where the pieces meet.

The through dovetail is commonly used for joining the pieces of a drawer.

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2. Single-Lap / Half-Blind Dovetail

Next is the single-lap dovetail. It is also known as the half-blind because its aesthetic effect only covers half the joint. To create a single-lap, the craftsman creates the female end by cutting notches into the wood – all while leaving a thin layer of material across the front of the piece.

Next, the male end of the joint is constructed as normal. When the two pieces are joined, the extra material on the female end of the joint makes it invisible from the front. You can only see the joint by looking at the side. As you might imagine, this type of joint is typical for making drawers. The front of the drawer would boast the extra material so that joints are not visible when the drawer is closed. This is one of the most popular types of dovetail joints we use here at The Painted Furniture Company.

3. Double-Lap Dovetail

The double-lap dovetail is similar to the single-lap except for the fact that a thin layer of extra material is also left on the male end. That extra material does not completely hide the joint, but it does make it more difficult to see. This joint is commonly used on larger cases, chests, and bookcases. Its tell-tale signature is a slight shadow where the two laps come together.

4. Secret Mitre Dovetail

Sometimes, the level of craftsmanship desired for a piece requires that all dovetail joints be fully hidden. That's when furniture makers turn to the secret mitre dovetail. This particular joint features extra material on both ends so that when the joint is fitted together, the dovetails cannot be seen even the slightest.

When constructed correctly, the secret dovetail creates a very tight joint on both the inside and outside of the corner. Only a single, straight line can be seen. This is the most difficult of all dovetail joints to create. It is also the sturdiest and most aesthetically pleasing.

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5. Sliding Dovetail

Finally, the sliding dovetail is used to join two pieces of wood where the intersection occurs somewhere within the field of one of the pieces.

The best way to understand this is to think of shelves joined to vertical pieces with a joint rather than hardware. It is called a sliding joint because the male end has to be slipping into the female end and slid along its length before the rest of the piece can be built around it.

Dovetail joints are a sign of skilled craftsmanship. All of the craftsmen at the Painted Furniture Co have mastered the dovetail joint in its many forms. To them, it is the standard for making beautiful, handmade wood furniture pieces that will last a lifetime.

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