A dovetail joint is made up of a series of pins cut to extend from the end of one board interlocking with a series of tails cut into the end of another board. It is highly regarded for
- its resistance to being pulled apart (tensile strength) which is why it is commonly used to join the sides of a drawer to the front
- its attractiveness, allowing a feature to be made of the joint itself with an infinite number of variations
Although it is technically a straight forward process, hand-cutting dovetails requires a high degree of accuracy to ensure a snug fit and so can be difficult to master. The pins and tails must fit together with no gap between them so that the joint interlocks tightly with no movement. Thus the cutting of dovetails by hand is regarded as a mark of skill on the part of the craftsperson.
There are 3 main types of dovetail:
With a through dovetail (also known as plain dovetail) joint, the end grain of both boards is visible when the joint is assembled.
Through dovetails are common in carcass and box construction, and are used to attach the sides of a drawer to the back.
Traditionally, the dovetails would have often be covered by a veneer. However, dovetails have become a signature of craftsmanship and are generally considered a feature, so they are rarely concealed in contemporary work.
The joint is particularly attractive when two different, contrasting woods are used, and by varying the size and spacing of the pins and tails the woodworker is able to create an individual looking joint.
Use through dovetails for:
- Carcass and box construction
- Attaching the sides of a drawer to the back
A half-blind dovetail is used when the end grain is not to be visible from the front of the item.
The half-blind dovetail is exactly as the name suggests – half of the dovetail joint is visible, while the other half of the joint is hidden.
With a half-blind dovetail the tails are housed in sockets in the ends of the board that is to be the front of the item so that their ends cannot be seen from the front. The joint can be seen from the side however, which still allows scope for producing an attractive joint. Half-blind dovetails are generally considered one the highest expressions of the woodworking craft, and if you’ve ever tried to cut one by hand you’ll know why.
Half-blind dovetails are most commonly used to fasten drawer fronts to drawer sides. When you pull the drawer front to open the drawer, you are pulling the tails tighter into the joint which makes it an extremely strong joint. On a drawer front a half-blind dovetail can either be flush with the drawer front, as illustrated, or can be rabbeted (not shown).
Use half-blind dovetails for:
- Attaching drawer fronts
- Any time you do not want the joint to be visible from the front
The sliding dovetail is a method of joining two boards at right angles, where the intersection occurs within the length of one of the boards, and not at the end.
This joint provides the interlocking strength of a dovetail. The sliding dovetail is an ideal joint for joining shelves to a case piece, legs to a pedestal table, and a variety of other furniture components that require strong, mechanically locking joints.
Sliding dovetails are assembled by sliding the tail into the socket. It is common to slightly taper the socket, making it slightly tighter towards the rear of the joint, so that the two components can be slid together easily but the joint becomes tighter as the finished position is reached.
The tapered sliding dovetail is an ideal joint for joining shelves or partitions to a carcase. The sliding dovetail joint provides a strong connection, and the additional taper makes it easy to assemble the joint without binding during glue up. In some orientations, the taper can also help keep the joint tight with gravity.
Use sliding dovetails for:
- Joining shelves to cabinet sides
- Joining legs to a pedestal table