Some Dovetails from the 15th Century

When I first learned about dovetails, the tale was that this mechanical joint was one of the things that helped transform the squat furniture of the Jacobean era into the soaring vertical styles of the 18th century.

The problem with that tidy story is that dovetails turn up in early furniture and other carpentry constructions, suggesting that the history of the joint is far more complex than most people suspect. I’ve seen evidence of dovetails in Egyptian woodwork.

While at the Victoria & Albert Museum this last week in London, I broke away from my family to examine some of the furniture treasures there. An Italian chest from about 1500 caught my eye. Displayed in the museum at floor height, you couldn’t really see how the walnut chest was joined. I crouched down, and its delightful dovetails became apparent.

Now back in my office I have photos of interesting paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries that show dovetailed chests, but the dovetails are widely spaced and probably poorly represented by the artist (e.g. in some of the paintings the joints clearly wouldn’t be possible in a three-dimensional universe).

These Italian dovetails look very unusual to the modern eye. The maker of this chest had to join planks that were easily 1-1/4” thick. The dovetails are extremely thin and equally spaced. That is, the widest point of each tail was about 1/2” wide. And the widest part of the pin socket was also 1/2” wide. The spacing between the tails was extremely tight – perhaps 3/32”.

Other interesting details for joinery nuts: The top edge of the chest began with one very big half tail, and you could clearly see baseline marks on the sides of the chest, but not the front.

The joinery was A+ from a modern perspective. The chest wasn’t heavily stained or colored, so it was easy to see the remarkable fit of the pins and tails. I hope my work looks this good after 500 years.

I suspect this chest was built for a wealthy individual’s valuables. The chest is inlaid inside and out, according to the museum’s description. And it has two sets of hinges, two sets of locks and a false bottom compartment.

I wish I could have opened it and poked around the inside of the chest to get some more details, but they frown on that at museums (speaking as someone who has been the object of multiple frowns).

But at the very least these photos of the exterior continue to help fill in the often misunderstood relationship between furniture styles and furniture joinery.

— Christopher Schwarz

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6 Responses to Some Dovetails from the 15th Century

  1. Derek Lyons says:

    I suspect the biggest impact on how good your chest will look in 500 years is the quality of the wood more than the joinery. We all know the difference between many modern woods and woods back in period. (I know that on SCA woodworkers lists that’s a perennial topic of discussion.)

    You also have to consider survivor bias – as the best built chests (I.E. that didn’t fall apart under use), those not in heavy daily use, or built for the upper classes tend to survive. Finds like the Mastermyr chest are far and away the exception. This is both a good and a bad thing… Good because it means that at least some survived even though they are almost certainly a tiny proportion. Bad in that we could learn so much more had more of the transitional items survived.

  2. james says:

    Indeed, dovetails have been around for quite awhile in woodworking. The thing that interests me though is, why did dovetails dominate from William & Mary (1700 or so) onwards? I argue that an important factor was because of the advance of tools, specifically saws. Others argue that tools had nothing at all to do with it, the rather abrupt change from frame & panel to dovetail construction in furniture making was due entirely to style/fashion.

    Heres a site i stumbled into recently that has pics/illustrations of chests from the medieval period, starting with a Crusader chest from about 1200.

  3. Badger says:

    A lot of the dovetailed items came out of continent pre-1600. The middle picture above is German I believe, and in that series there are couple other chests illustrated with something like a dovetail.

    Most work being done in England was not dovetailed from what I’ve seen in my research. Most professions back then were extremely conservative and protective of their work methods. Change happened very slowly in the British Isles, and the guilds discouraged innovation generally.

    Of the chests found on the Mary Rose, there were indeed some that were dovetailed. But they were all made of Walnut, and the non-dovetailed were Oak or other English typical woods. The dovetailed boxes are thought to be of continental (imported) origins, while the others were of more meager means (typically butt joints with nails or pegs).

    The imported dovetailed boxes were more than likely for the officers or more well to do sailors who could afford the costs of an import.


  4. Mike Siemsen says:

    I would guess from looking at the photo that the dovetails not only function as joinery but in this case are an element of the facade of the chest. Being a border and integral part of the inlay design as well, something for George Wilson to ponder on.

  5. Badger says:

    Thanks to the poster James above I followed a path from a box linked to a painting to discover a strange looking plane in one of the paintings.

    Pictures here:

    It’s an Italian plane from late 1500s that I found in two paintings.

    Kind of interesting, it’s lots of fun to find stuff like this in paintings.

    Thanks James!

  6. Carved chests always stop me in my tracks. Thanks for posting the images and thank you, James, for the awesome link. Am I seeing things, or is there a little design at the bottom of the pins? Something that a gouge might have created.

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