When a Nail Might Trump a Dovetail

Anarchists_Tool_Chest_interior

When I build stuff, my first joint of choice is the dovetail. It’s hard to beat or defeat.

But lately I’ve been pondering a common situation where a nail would be a better substitute for the much-lauded tail. It’s a bit of a trick to explain, but I am willing to try.

When you make sliding tills in a tool chest, they are difficult to fit because they are incredibly long (mine are about 36”) and not so wide (mine are about 8”). Because they are this peculiar shape, they have to be fit precisely and tightly so they do not rack inside the tool chest.

If they are even slightly loose, they will rack and bind. And you will then make bad words come out of your lip hole.

So you fit them precisely with a hand plane. It is not hard to do. The world smiles upon your efforts, and your tills move like they are sliding upon butter.

Fast forward 10 years.

You are a heavy user of your tool chest. You move the tills back and forth all day. The sides of the tills begin to wear. As they wear, a gap grows between the till and the wall of the chest. At some point, this gap becomes a problem and your tills begin to bind and resist your every pull.

I think it’s time to replace the till, but the dovetails in this till are good for another 200 years. In this case, a till that is nailed together might be the better choice.

For me, the real eye-opening moment came when I found some chests where the bottom tills were dovetailed and the top tills were nailed together and were obviously newer. Someone else had encountered this problem before me.

If you accept that your tills will wear and bind in short order, then the dovetail joint might not be the smart answer. Perhaps you should choose a joint that is strong enough but easy and quick to make, such as a rabbeted corner that is reinforced with nails.

I started thinking seriously about this idea after inspecting a lot of old (and not-so-old) tool chests. Hands down, the most common problems are: the tills bind and the bottom of the chest is rotted. You can fix the soggy bottom problem by putting your chest on cast aluminum wheels or living in a desert.

Fixing the binding tills isn’t an easy thing. You might consider repairing the tills – glue some extra wood to the sides of your tills and then plane them down until the tills move smoothly again. Of course, the tills have been lubricated with tallow, candle wax or oil for so long that getting anything to stick to them will be a miracle.

Here are some other solutions to consider.

1. Make the nailed-on bottom thicker. There will then be more end grain bearing against the chest and perhaps the tills will wear more slowly.

2. Use a recalcitrant wood for the bottom. Pick something like jarrah or some other wood that has metal-like properties. Perhaps the exotic wood will take longer to wear.

3. Add (ultra-high-molecular weight) UHMW plastic to the high-wearing areas. You’d probably have to epoxy the stuff in there, but this might work.

4. Use ball-bearing drawer slides for your tills. OK, this is kind of a joke, but it probably would work if you used a high quality slide, such as a Blum.

Or you can just remake your tills, which is a quick job if you nail them together, and get on with building furniture.

As you can tell, I’m struggling mightily with this. I love me some dovetails. But the nails might just be the smarter choice.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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35 Responses to When a Nail Might Trump a Dovetail

  1. John Walkowiak says:

    Nails have an issue in that they can, and will, work their way out and score the sides. I have seen it many times in antique case pieces where nails were used to “fix” a loose dovetailed drawer or a wear strip was nailed to the bottom of a drawer. Better to make it a practice to move the tills with both hands, so it doesn’t bind or wear.

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  2. sablebadger says:

    When I made my saw bench box, I included a sliding till for the bits, and simply nailed the till together.

    However, my saw bench box is an example of your “furniture of necessity”, and was built fast and functional.

    However, I do not ever look at my till as I slide it back and forth to pull out my rip saw or my tenon saw and say “Man, I wish I had dovetailed that sucker.” Rabbets and nails work fine here.

    For a high profile chest, the fancy joinery makes sense.

    Probably not helping am I…

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  3. Stuart says:

    Reblogged this on Stu's Shed and commented:
    Perhaps this is the myth that Adam Savage could have busted during his “Tested” video – Chris actually pondering the use of nails!

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  4. Eric Bennett says:

    I admire your optimism that four generations from now my chest will still exist and hold tools – not toys or quilts. I topped the oak rails with strips of ebony that I had stashed. It’s as smooth and hard as glass. You have it right in the book and it’s good practice making the dovetails.
    Don’t second guess yourself Schwarz! I’m envisioning a cartoon devil and angel arguing this out on your shoulders.

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  5. Gordon says:

    As one Soviet Admiral said “Better is the enemy of good enough.” If one uses cut nails properly, they sould suffice for the long haul. Try it Chris. You may like it as you may not see the dovetails unless you are looking for them when grabbing a tool. If you are, you are wasting valuable woodworking tome.

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  6. Brian Gilstrap says:

    Wondering if you could rabbit out the side at the bottom and get a clean surface to glue and either dovetail or nail in a new piece of hardwood…

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    • Trevor Angell says:

      My thoughts, exactly. A strip of something hard-wearing let into the side of the till could be a clean repair.

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  7. Curt Putnam says:

    There are pragmatic people who will say “it’s only shop furniture” and not waste time on it. There are craftsman for whom the details must be correct when they can’t be seen and nobody’s looking. Do the twain ever meet?

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  8. jonathanszczepanski says:

    Could you attach a thin wear piece to the case instead?

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  9. How long would it take to dovetail the tills together, anyway? Working in 1/2″ pine, I can’t imagine them taking long. I appreciate that a machine-made rabbet will usually be faster than a hand-cut dovetail, but I cut my rabbets by hand (no router or table saw in my shop), so rabbets don’t save me much time.

    For you, the difference in time between the dovetail and the rabbet is probably less than the time it took you to draft, edit, and publish this blog post. 😉

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  10. tropicalww says:

    I guess I’m missing something. Plane or scrape the sides of the tills down until you’ve gotten past all the wax and tallow….glue on veneer…plane so everything fits correctly again….wax so everything slides smoothly. Is there a reason you can’t plane or scrap down to clean wood to get the glue to hold?

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  11. John Weeks says:

    With respect to the soggy bottom – Ever since you’ve been writing about tool chests, I’ve wondered why you had them sitting on the floor (or casters). My grandfather’s chest sat (and still sits) on a couple of say benches. No bending down to the floor to get something out of the bottom of the chest.

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  12. Patrick says:

    I’ve also been wondering about nails (cut nails specifically), but for the entire chest. Since your posts on the six board chest, I kept looking at it thinking “Anarchist chest with nails.”; (maybe because they were both blue.) Since those six board chests apparently defy all laws of wood movement, maybe the chest would last as a version of an Anarchist tool chest.

    Removing the requirement of a single wide board, and since you’re the only person I know that has actually built both, what are your thoughts on an Anarchist’s tool chest with rabbets and cut nails vs the dovetails? (Remember, nothing says anarchy like cut nails.) Also, have you seen examples of old tool chests that have survived (in fairly good shape) with only nails?

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  13. Art says:

    Well, if the sight of nails gives you fits, then I will suggest the following…

    1. Use the nails and secure the till sides.
    2. Cover the nail holes from sight.
    3. Have someone airbrush lines and tones in a dovetail pattern to the ends of the till to make it look like dovetails to the casual observer. A simple masking job would not take that long to do.
    4. Relax and have a cold beer. Or several. The secret of magic is making people believe what they are seeing..

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  14. rob campbell says:

    I’m willing to ask a question which will reveal me as an utter amateur, which I am. When you go the nailed-sides route, how do you trim it with a plane to fit? Would you glue first, then plane, then nail once perfect? Or only nail from the front/back?

    That said, I did dovetail my tills. As mentioned above, it was quick and easy work with the thin material and shallow tills. Also, fun. When they shrink and bind, I hope I am still enjoying woodworking enough to also enjoy the fix. If I am long departed, I trust that my daughter will have read this blog entry and will know what to do.

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    • lostartpress says:

      You have to set the nails. Then it’s no problem whatsoever to fit things with a plane.

      One other thing I’d like to mention, this post does not reflect a change of heart on my part. I am reporting what I have seen and I am thinking out loud. My goal is to make other people think or do.

      In all honesty, dovetails are nothing for me to make. So a dovetailed till saves me a few dimes on nails. But if nailed tills make it faster or easier for someone else, then I’m all for it for the reasons stated above.

      Chris

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  15. jasongc says:

    Dovetail the shell of the till, nail the bottom. Replace bottom piece with a slightly longer piece when the till begins to rack due to wear.

    Simple.

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  16. luke says:

    pretty scary to fit a nailed together till with a plane

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  17. Ben Hawbaker says:

    For a quick and dirty fix, or a preventative measure, why not try the low-friction UHMW tape you can buy from LV and others. I’ve had good experience with it in the past, it’s thin, fast, simple, and in the few places I’ve used it so far it’s still holding up fine. Could probably even be mostly concealed if you find clear (mine is slightly blue). My chest is still in progress, but now I might put some of that on the till ends once I get them fitted, since I still have half a roll.

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  18. Paul B says:

    On Bill Schenher’s chest (Billy’s Little Bench) he decided to run his bottom slats across the width of the tills. He left the end slats a bit proudof the sides and just fit those to the runners. He figured that when they get sloppy, he only needs to replace the two bottom end slats.

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  19. David K says:

    Well, perhaps I’m missing something, but I have an alternate thought: you want the tills to wear, and replace/repair them when necessary.

    I’ve not built a tool chest (yet), but I have an almost identical design quandry with the jewelry boxes that I make. The boxes are fitted with 3 layers of divided trays – the top 2 tills slide from side to side on integral rails so that one can access any of the trays without taking any of them out of the box.

    The laws of physics require that both the tills and the integral rails will wear. How that wear will be distributed is a function of the relative hardness between the wood that the till and rails are made of.

    Since it is a whole lot more difficult to repair or replace the rails on the interior of the chest/jewelry box than it is the tills, I choose to make the rails out of a very hard, dense tropical wood, and the tills out of a less-hard species. Some day, long after I am gone, a future woodworker may be thanking me for this design choice – he or she will just have to make a couple of new tills.

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  20. robert says:

    Maybe this and the other associated problems with tool chests is why you see a move to cabinets and tool racks once a craftsman had established himself in a fixed location. I see evidence of this in my day job – I’m an auctioneer and estate appraiser. Most times when I go into an old shop, usually located in an old barn or outbuilding, I’ll find a tool chest under a wall mounted bench. The tool chest is usually empty, unless, of course, it is full of old gas pipe plumbing fittings. The tools have been relocated to racks nailed to the wall or hang off of 20 penny nails driven into posts and overhead joists.

    In modern shops, both commercial and non-commercial I have never see a tool chest like those described in ATC in use (sometimes Great-Grandpa’s chest is under a bench – stripped clean of tools). Most have cabinets and wall racks, which I dare say most people find easier to use. For evidence of this shocking statement take a look at the background of any picture of Chris’s shop – you will see racks for tools mounted across a window, and a very nice tool cabinet, with spalted wood drawer fronts and ring-pulls and chisel racks mounted inside the doors, and saws hung on a rack below the tool cabinet.

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    • lostartpress says:

      Robert,

      The wall chest you describe from my shop was an experiment in 2004.

      I went back to my floor chest and gave the wall cabinet away to a friend.

      The racks you see in the background of those shots? Also an experiment. I left the rack at Popular Woodworking Magazine. I have a small rack across the window of my shop right now, but it holds stuff that usually goes in the chest. I plan to take down the rack.

      And stay with my floor chest.

      I am willing to experiment with other methods. Heck, that was my job. But I have used a floor chest since 1997. And I think after 15 years of work I know its ins and outs. It is my favorite way to work. It protects my tools from rust and damage. And it keeps everything at hand.

      Modern professional shops use different tools and build different things. If I were working for CabinetPack or California Closets I would have a different approach.

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      • robert says:

        Chris:

        That wall mounted cabinet was really cool. Your friend is lucky indeed. The racks across the window – I have the same set up in my shop, but with a couple of shelves built across the window as well. This was based upon seeing that intuitive solution in other shops, including the ones at Popular Woodworking, and adapting it to my own situation. Don’t take them down for purity’s sake – I think you will miss them.

        The professional cabinet shops that I have been in are mostly small affairs, usually the cabinet-maker a occasionally an assistant. They all tend to use some form of cabinet and/or wall rack system. The only large woodworking shop that I spent any time in was a specialty, high-end door shop (think 101 walnut doors all for the same house that was being built in Aspen) in Fort Collins, Colorado. They used a tool room approach in lieu of a stand-alone cabinet.

        Your having experimented with various tool storage solutions is a testament to a curious mind, you have my applause. I was only pointing out what I had observed in person as well as in the literature; I certainly did not mean my comments as an attack upon your methods of work.

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      • Andrew says:

        You are correct that cabinet shops are very different from a basement shop in that the operations are done mostly by machine and hand tools are not used as much and can hang on a wall rack so that all employees have access. When there’s 3 guys putting 150 cnc’d windows together , a hand plane or even hand saw isn’t necessary for each person to have or own.

        I will say after using a wall rack for 5 years I’m ready for a tool chest nailed or dovetailed to keep the dust and rust at bay.

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  21. billlattpa says:

    Nothing wrong with a good nailed joint. Under normal circumstances they will hold for a long, long time.

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  22. Kevin Costa says:

    I’m going along with David K, rebuild when necessary. I would relish the idea of “having to do more dovetails”. Since building my ATC, I’ve seen several old chests at flea markets and the like, all of which needed some form of repair. This didn’t seem to diminish there long term usefullness. Rather that they can be reconditioned and reused is a big plus. Try that with some of the sheet metal wonders that are sold these days. I’m hoping that one of my grandkids will pick up the handmade habit and recondition what I have left behind and pass it on.

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  23. jbecwar says:

    I have considered this too. I was thinking some 90 degree aluminum on the bottom corners of the tills and slides would be a nice upgrade. With some dry lube it should slide nicey. I’m going to try it with my chest.

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  24. Torch02 says:

    What if the whole till didn’t fit snugly, but just the bottom of it did? The till sides would be slightly set back from the sides of the chest, but the till bottom would protrude and fit its runners. That way you get the strength of the dovetails in the till sides, but when the wear compromises the fit, you are only replacing the bottom of the till.

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  25. I have also seen a lot of loose “repair” nails on antiques. However, I can’t remember seeing one that was not a wire nail. I can’t ever remember seeing a loose cut nail.

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