Dovetail… is there another word in woodworking that brings more reaction and sense of nostalgia? The word alone has come to mean craftsmanship and brings back memories of the past. For myself I picture an old master in his shop taking time to layout and mark each tail, meticulously cutting with smooth strokes of the saw, marking and cutting the pins for a tight fit, and then adjusting the cuts with a razor sharp chisel to make sure the joint comes together perfectly. The amazing part is that same scene could have been found in ancient Japan, Europe, or any number of other places all around the world and in almost any time period.
Woodworkers have used the dovetail as one of the primary joinery methods for so long it impossible to tell the origins. The techniques and tools vary slightly, for instance Japanese saws cut on the pull as opposed to the European saws that cut on the push, but ultimately the final results are most often the same.
I don’t remember when or where but once as a child my father and I were looking at a set of cabinets and after inspecting them for sometime he looked at me and simply said “look they have dovetail drawers”. I understood that what he meant by that simple statement was that they were well made. Since that day I always check for dovetailed drawers on cabinets or furniture and feel that they are an important part of woodworking. I have known woodworkers that never use dovetails and build beautiful well crafted work, but it is still thought of as the stand alone technique for craftsmanship.
Ask most any none woodworker (and even some woodworkers) their thoughts on dovetails and they will probably tell you that they are attractive and make your work look better, yet many old world masters craftsmen hid their dovetails behind trim and moldings. Jointery was looked at as a necessity for making strong and durable work that would hold up over time. Glues of the past did not always hold up over the years, especially around moisture, so it was necessary to create joints that would allow the wood to hold it self together. The dovetail creates an incredibly strong and durable joint by locking the end grains together.
Today with most everything being mass produced, dovetails are looked at as a symbol of quality and taking the extra time to do something right. Because of this many modern woodworkers tend to lean towards simple and clean in their work allowing the wood and jointery to speak for the beauty and quality. Learning to visualize, layout, and cut proper dovetails can take a lot of practice and time to perfect but the feeling you get when joining two boards together that first time provides a great sense of accomplishment and by many is considered a right of passage into fine craftsmanship.
Today dovetails can be manufactured into mass production, although I feel they tend to be too symmetrical and patterned. You can even buy a dovetail jig for use with a router that can be adjusted to varying width tails and pins to make very close to hand cut look. I see nothing wrong with using this type of jig. As a matter of fact I have one myself and have great results with it, but I do believe that learning to layout and cut by hand teaches skills that are invaluable.
The point is that whether you like the aesthetics, strength and durability, or just being part of a long tradition, dovetails have been around as long as woodworking itself and will be around for my generations to come. As for my self, well I tend to fall into all of the about.