thoughts from an occasional dovetail-er

I can go years between dovetails – so it’s often as if I’m learning it again. Here’s some of what I did today cutting the half-blind dovetails for the bottom drawer on my cupboard. One nice thing about most 17th century English/New England drawers is that they have exactly one tail and one housing (I’ve never understood why it’s a “pin”.) I didn’t shoot the layout – so this section starts with just two saw cuts. I don’t know why I cut these with the board down on the bench. It was hard to see and uncomfortable too – should have propped the drawer front up vertically. I have one more drawer to go…so I’ll get a chance.

two saw cuts is all

Cut chopping the bulk of the waste out it has to be down on the bench. Step one:

freshly sharpened chisels help

And step two:

back & forth

It’s always discouraging to make a dovetail that’s too loose. But it’s easy to go too far the other way & make it too tight. In the case of an oak drawer side and front, that can mean splitting the drawer front. I stood the drawer front up vertically so I could see better and tested the joint.

easy does it

It’s so tempting to hit it harder and drive it together. But at this point, the drawer side still had a ways to go and it felt too tight.


So I took it back apart & pared the rear edge of the tail –

paring the back of the joint

This way it only gets tight right as the joint is knocked all the way in. This joint below has some layout issues, but the joint is fine. All it will need at assembly is some glue and two wrought nails through the tail into the end of the drawer front.

I wish they were all like this

I took it back apart and planed the rabbet in the drawer front that the drawer bottoms tuck behind.

rabbet plane

5 thoughts on “thoughts from an occasional dovetail-er

  1. We thought, when we wrote the cupboards article in 2001 [twenty-two years ago!], that this cupboard is something of an oddity and an outlier. It is, I think, the earliest New England case piece to have dovetails at the both the front and the rear of a drawer. Never quite understood it.

  2. Hi Peter,
    Much 17th and early 18th century furniture made in the Delaware River Valley with lapped dovetails have saw kerfs that form the dovetail housing in the drawer front extending well past the scribe line for the thickness of the side. On small drawers, such as those found in spice boxes, the kerfs almost meet in the middle of the drawer. They can only have been cut with the drawer placed face down on the bench as you show, or better, placed at an angle in a vise as I show in this blog post.
    The obvious reason for this is it makes cleaning the waste from the dovetail housing easier.
    When set at a convenient angle I find it not uncomfortable and easier to follow the two lines. Make a slight kerf on the inside of the face for the saw to follow, then place the saw at the correct angle and complete the cut. I never cut lapped dovetails any other way.


  3. I remember visiting Leeds Castle and being really surprised by the form of the visible drawer joinery on a table of Henry VIII’s, it breaks so many modern rules (one tail, visible bottom groove, tail corner flipped, pinned… but there it is.

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