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A dovetail joint or simply dovetail is a joint technique most commonly used in woodworking joinery including furniture, cabinets, log buildings and traditional timber framing. Noted for its resistance to being pulled apart (tensile strength), the dovetail joint is commonly used to join the sides of a drawer to the front. A series of pins cut to extend from the end of one board interlock with a series of tails cut into the end of another board. The pins and tails have a trapezoidal shape. Once glued, a wooden dovetail joint requires no mechanical fasteners.
The dovetail joint probably pre-dates written history. Some of the earliest known examples of the dovetail joint are in furniture entombed with mummies dating from First Dynasty of ancient Egypt, as well the tombs of Chinese emperors. The dovetail design is an important method of distinguishing various periods of furniture.
In Europe the dovetail joint is also called a swallow-tail joint or a fantail joint.
The dovetail joint is very strong because of the way the ‘tails’ and ‘pins’ are shaped. This makes it difficult to pull the joint apart and virtually impossible when glue is added. This type of joint is used in box constructions such as drawers, jewellery boxes, cabinets and other pieces of furniture where strength is required. It is a difficult joint which requires practice. There are different types of dovetail joint and when cut accurately they are very impressive and attractive. The joint is strong especially when used with a good quality glue such as PVA (woodworkers adhesive) or cascamite. The marking out and cutting procedure is outlined below.
The photograph at the top of this page shows a through dovetail (also known as plain dovetail) joint, where the end grain of both boards is visible when the joint is assembled. Through dovetails are common in carcass and box construction. 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.
A half-blind dovetail is used when the craftsman does not wish end grain to be visible from the front of the item. 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.
Half-blind dovetails are commonly used to fasten drawer fronts to drawer sides. This is an alternative to the practice of attaching false fronts to drawers constructed using through dovetails.
The secret mitred dovetail joint (also called a mitered blind dovetail) is used in the highest class of cabinet and box work. It offers the strength found in the dovetail joint but is totally hidden from both the inside and outside corners by forming the outer edge to meet at a 45-degree angle while hiding the dovetails internally within the joint.
The mitered corner dovetail joint is very similar in design, but it has just a single dovetail and is used for picture frames and other similar joins.
The sliding dovetail is a method of joining two boards at right angles, where the intersection occurs within the field of one of the boards, that is not at the end. This joint provides the interlocking strength of a dovetail. 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 full-blind dovetail obscures the mechanics of the joint altogether. This variant is used in fine work when the craftsperson requires the strength of a dovetail but without the visual intrusion of the interlocking pins and tails. Two versions of this joint are the secret double-lapped dovetail and the full-blind mitred dovetail. The former presents a very thin section of end grain on one edge of the joint, whilst the latter does not. When used in drawer construction, a "full-blind dovetail" is sometimes referred to as a "French dovetail."
Dovetails are most commonly, but not exclusively, used in woodworking. Other areas of use are:
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