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