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What are Dovetails?

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  • Written By: Katharine Swan
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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    2003-2016
    Conjecture Corporation
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Next time you are in an antique store, a used furniture store, or even a thrift store, open a drawer on an older dresser, desk, or bedside table. Look at the outside corner of the drawer, where the front piece of the drawer joins with the side piece. You might see tail-shaped teeth here; these are called dovetails.

Dovetails are used to attach two pieces of wood so that they form a corner, without using nails. The dovetails are shaped so that the two pieces of wood fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Glue is used between the dovetails to ensure that the two pieces of wood stay together.

Dovetails can be a telling point for antiques and older furniture. In general, the older the furniture, the larger and wider-spaced the dovetails are; in other words, the dovetails were cruder when the tools used in making furniture were cruder. As the industrial revolution advanced, however, woodworking tools were developed that enabled greater precision, and machines were used more and more in the creation of wood furniture.

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To see the differences, inspect the dovetails on two different ages of antiques, side by side. For example, when comparing a dresser from the 1850s and a dresser from the 1930s, the dovetails on the older piece’s drawers will be large, spaced farther apart, and slightly uneven in size and shape. The newer dresser’s drawers, on the other hand, will have dovetails that are smaller, more similar in size and shape, and closer together.

More recently, companies have turned to mass production of furniture, as with nearly everything else. Modern furniture is usually made in large quantities, and every little piece of wood or metal that goes into a piece of furniture must be identical; this allows for exchangeable parts and cheaper manufacturing costs. Basically, this saves companies a lot of money, because they don’t have to pay laborers for the hours that it would take to make the furniture by hand. For this reason, dovetails are not generally used, because they require so much precision; instead, the fronts of drawers are nailed on.

However, craftsmen, woodworkers who consider their work more an art than a trade, still use dovetails. Dovetails can therefore be used to judge the quality of a newer piece of furniture, as well as the approximate age of an older piece. If you see dovetails on a modern piece of furniture, it means that a craftsman put many hours into making the piece; therefore, the furniture is worth much more than something that was simply made by a machine.

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