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What is a Dovetail Joint?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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A dovetail joint is a type of mortise and tenon joint made with a series of trapezoidal pins which interlock with similarly-shaped tails. This joint is famous for its tensile strength, and it is also popular with woodworkers because it can be aesthetically pleasing. Several different styles of dovetail joint can be used in woodworking projects, and the joints may be cut by hand or with specifically designed jigs which are available from hardware stores.

This joint is one of the oldest woodworking joints in continuous use. Numerous cultures developed the dovetail joint independently, and very fine examples can be seen everywhere from Egyptian funeral furniture to furnishings made in Ancient China. While creating dovetail joints can be somewhat challenging, when the joints are made properly, they should fit so snugly that not even glue is required to hold the two pieces of wood together.

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In a classic through dovetail joint, the end grains of both pieces of wood can clearly be seen at the joint. This creates a specific aesthetic look which some people like, allowing viewers to see and enjoy the grain of the wood used in the project. A half-blind joint is made by creating sockets in the piece of wood used to create the tails, allowing the pins to be seen from the side of the joint, but not from the front, hiding the end grain of the pins. This type of dovetail joint is often used for things like drawers, as an alternative to facing the drawer with wood to hide the dovetail joint.

Full blind dovetail joints are made in such a way that the joint becomes invisible, making it impossible to see how the two pieces of wood are joined together. Creating full blind dovetails is very challenging, but some people find it aesthetically desirable for certain kinds of projects. Another version of the dovetail joint is the sliding dovetail, made with a single pin and tail which interlock to hold a length of wood at a right angle. This style is often used for things like shelves, with the joint holding the shelf in place.

The style of the dovetail joint is very similar to the comb or box joint, since both joints involve creating interlocking teeth which will hold pieces of wood together. However, the pins and tails of dovetails are trapezoidal to triangular in shape, while box joints are made with squared pins and tails. A box joint also usually needs to be glued to help the joint stay together.

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