Dovetails – The master’s signature joint? Hmm…….
It is right to praise the dovetail. It is probably the most used and most appreciated joint in all of woodworking joinery. It comes in many types; blind, half-blind, through, sliding and rising. And nowadays, this joint has taken on an aura of craft arcanery that craftsmen from past generations would have never assigned to it.
In an era of hide glues, the dovetail joint was used for its structural value. Carcasses were held together with dovetails because of their inherent ability to help square up surfaces being mated and to provide increased contact area to be glued.
In recent years, a popular myth has been promoted, the notion that somehow the handcut dovetail is the signature joint of a master woodworker. This, simply put, is a completely wrongheaded notion. Remember, that the handcut dovetail joint was a common method of joining large carcass segments. The idea of the master of the shop, or even a journeyman joiner cutting and chiseling dovetails for days on end is simply preposterous (remember this was a time before routers, jigs and fixtures). The master was worried about creating design details and finding new customers. The journeyman was carving fans and applying cockbeading. If truth be told it was the apprentice who cut and chiseled the overwhelming majority of dovetails. All one has to do is recognize that traditional designs invariably utilized moldings to cover structural dovetails and, more often than not, when these moldings are removed the quality of the dovetails beneath them were obviously not done with artistic compentency in mind.
Exposed dovetails being utilized as an artistic design element in fine furniture joinery is a fairly recent phenomenom (after 1900). And as Porter-Cable, Leigh and Keller put carcass dovetailing within most every woodworker’s capability, the popularity of the artistically displayed dovetail has grown exponentially.
But to give credit where credit is due, remember that the handcut dovetail was the almost exclusive property of the apprentice. Sweeping, sharpening, planing (‘ere lad, square this up an’ then bring it back to me) and then the simplest joinery – this would have been the apprentice’s curriculum. Laying out and cutting well fit dovetails would have been very much considered to be a core or gateway skill. A good skill for all woodworkers to possess, then and now.