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