By Matt Kenney
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They’re strong and beautiful, but definitely not the pinnacle of woodworking
Back in November 2009, I was an editor at Fine Woodworking and wrote a blog for the magazine titled “Dovetailed Drawers are Overated.” You can still read it there. Here’s the gist of what I wrote:
I like dovetails too. In fact, I use them to make all of my drawers. But I’m not slavishly devoted to them. And you shouldn’t be either. Just because some crusty woodworkers on internet forums look down their crusty noses at drawers made with joints other than the dovetail doesn’t mean they’re right. Don’t let them constrain your technique and design. In the end you need strong drawers that are attractive, and there are many ways to make them. Don’t let blind allegiance get in the way of beautiful furniture.
I was young then and full of piss and vinegar. My opinion hasn’t changed, but I’d be less abrasive expressing it now. Also, I regularly make drawers with joints other than dovetails. I use miters for little drawers in my boxes and some of the petite cabinets I make.
Even if my opinion hasn’t changed, it has grown since then. Now, I’d simply say that dovetails, regardless of where they are used, are overrated. Sure, dovetails are strong. And they are visually attractive, too, and can be used as a design element to enhance a piece’s beauty. Still, it’s just a joint, a way to secure one part to another. As a joint, the dovetail is only a piece of a larger whole. And it’s the larger whole, the completed piece of furniture, that matters.
When designing and making furniture, you must focus on the goal of the entire endeavor: to create a piece that sings with such clarity, grace, and beauty that it lightens and lifts the soul. Dovetails can be part of that song, one voice harmonizing with others to create a symphony, but it is not the entire song. So, in the end, it doesn’t matter if your dovetails are perfect, cut by hand, or wispy thin like those found in old English furniture. What matters is that they fit harmoniously into the whole and contribute to the piece’s success.
If you focus on making beautiful furniture, you’ll be open to the full range of joinery available to you. You’ll see things from the correct perspective and not fetishize a specific joint. I understand why we put the dovetail on a pedestal. When starting out, we focus on learning technique, and that’s what videos, magazines, and books emphasize. Cut better dovetails. Tips and tricks for better miters. The secrets of the perfect shellac finish. Certainly, technique is important. You cannot make great furniture with bad technique, but good technique, even perfect technique, does not by itself make great furniture. So, look at the dovetail for what it is: a joint. And then consider how it fits or doesn’t fit into your work.
One last point. Woodworkers care about dovetails. The person who owns and lives with what you make does not. They register the piece as a whole. It’s beauty. The way it sits in the room. The way sunlight falls across it in the morning. How the kids have dinged and dented it, giving it some of that ol’ wabi-sabi charm. And that’s how you must learn to see the things you make. Keep that perspective as you design and make because it’s not really about you and me and our love for the craft, it’s about making something that brings joy and warmth into the lives of those who own it.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions. Thanks for reading, and please consider a paid subscription. The life of a professional furniture maker is often a bumpy ride, and the income I earn from A Furniture Maker’s Life helps smooth the road.