The dovetail joint (DT) is one of the most beautiful joineries in woodworking – if you want it to be.
Because you can select either blind, half-blind, or visible options.
After finishing your first dovetail, you’ll probably want to show it off. And you’ll have every right to be proud of your craftsmanship because of all the woodworking joints, dovetailing is one of the hardest to complete with precision.
But if you can do it right, this joint is sure to last just about anything you throw at it.
Here’s everything you need to know about dovetails before you find yourself in a project over your head.
The Pros and Cons of Dovetails
Like any joinery, the dovetail joint comes with its own advantages and disadvantages – it’s not ideal for every project.
Not only is dovetailing easy on the eyes, but its design makes it naturally resistant to wear and tear – even without glue.
- Extremely strong
- No metal fixtures, screws, or fasteners needed
- Provides a large surface area for gluing
- Visible and blind options
- Will hold together without glue
- Interlocks two pieces of wood
- Difficult to pull apart
- Looks amazing
If you’re working with a finite amount of wood, be careful: executing this joint properly is a huge challenge. A small mistake can vastly reduce the joint’s advantages.
- Difficult to design and cut
- Leaves no room for error
- Gaps or mismeasurement will reduce the joint’s strength (and all other advantages)
Selecting the Best Woodworking Joint for the Job
Still have your heart set on mastering this ancient joint?
Great. Even staying within the realm of dovetailing, you have many options to choose from so you’re sure to select the best woodworking joint for your project.
Not feeling so confident? Try your hand at a few box joints first to get the hang of interlocking joints before you advance to the DT.
This is the most common type which you will see throughout many pieces of cabinetry, boxes, and several other items. In this woodworking joint, the interlocking fingers are completely visible although occasionally covered with a veneer.
Adding a concealing finish is less common these days because craft workers want to show off their skill and consumers love the beautiful feature.
Detailed, high-quality, and handcrafted woodwork is rare today, so it makes sense why the through dovetail has grown in popularity.
The half-blind DT eliminates the need for adding a false-front to drawers. In this joint, the interlocking fingers are not visible from the front.
This joint is a little more difficult to carry out than through dovetailing.
Secret Mitred DT (Full-blind)
You’ll often “find” secret mitred joints in picture frames and other carpentry where an invisible joint is preferred.
Of all woodworking joints (and all dovetails), the secret mitred is in the highest class because it offers supreme strength with a completely flesh and smooth surface.
Secret Double-lapped DT
This joint is almost identical to the secret mitred but it includes a thin portion of grain on one end of the joint.
The sliding dovetail joint is very different from the rest because there is only one large interlocking section.
With this versatile joint, you can attach pieces of wood at a right angle or in a perpendicular fashion rather than end-to-end.
The sliding DT is often found in musical instruments, table frames, shelves, drawers, and cabinets.
3 Things to Know About Dovetailing
The dovetail joint is one of the most fascinating and revered of all the joineries. Here are a few things you should know about dovetails.
1. It’s an Ancient Method
Experts believe dovetails predate written history. Explorers have found this joint in Egyptian tombs dating back to the First Dynasty as well as tombs of ancient Chinese emperors.
2. It Isn’t Exclusive to Woodworking
You can find these ancient joints throughout many applications outside carpentry such as
- Rifles and weapons: attaching iron sights
- 3D printing: to form large objects with several small pieces
- Masonry: particularly lighthouses and other structures in dangerous areas
- Cast iron, aluminum, and other metal work to avoid permanent fixation through welding
- Clockmaking: fixing broken teeth
- Jet engines: connecting turbine blades to the turbine disc
3. It Goes by Several Names
This joint is commonly called a “dovetail” due to its appearance.
In Europe, you might hear this joint called a “swallowtail” or “fantail.” It also goes by “pin and cove” or “tail and pin” in the carpentry community.
Did We Mention They’re Strong?
Not only are dovetails strong, but with excellent craftsmanship they can last over a century.
Carpenters of the past often turned to this type of woodworking joint for strength and durability prior to the discovery of steel or accessible metal fixtures.
Now, dovetailing is truly an art form rarely found in modern and mass-produced wood pieces.