Dovetails joints, often simply called dovetails, are a favorite among craftsmen, especially in the woodworking trade. Used to join materials together, most commonly for furniture or drawers, dovetails require no hardware to fasten them in place yet are incredibly strong and durable. Their strength comes from the large surface area created by cutting a series of dovetail-shaped fins and a corresponding set of tails that are slotted together then glued into place. Once glued, dovetail joints are resistant to being separated and can endure significant wear and tear. Dovetails have been a part of human craftsmanship for thousands of years, and various dovetail designs are even used to date furniture to certain periods that favored particular styles.
There are several different types of dovetail joints, including those that are intended to show off the talent of the woodworker by leaving the joint in plain view upon completion of the piece, to those that are hidden to create a more streamlined look. Both use similar techniques.
Dovetails can be cut by tools or by hand. Modern jigs can be guided by electric routers to make the process fairly automatic and quite precise. This method is used for mass-produced furniture. True artisans, however, take pride in their hand-cut dovetails.
To create what is called a dovetail, where the tails and pins are slipped into place with the grain showing from both pieces of wood, the steps are fairly simple, if somewhat delicate. First, both ends of the wood to be joined must be planed until they are completely square. Next, using the thickness of the boards as your measure, mark the end of each board to be cut so that when you finish your dovetails and slide them together they create a smooth edge.
There is much debate over whether the tails or the fins should be cut first. While either method works, many woodworkers suggest that the easier way is to cut the pins first, then trace the outline of the pins onto the tail board. If the tail piece is cut first, the tail outline must be traced onto the grain end of the pin board, making it harder for some to determine where to cut accurately.
Either way, the most important step is to ensure accurate cuts, so that the pins and tails slide together with no gaps in between. Once glued into place, the dovetail is an attractive and durable joint that adds value to any piece of furniture or cabinetry.