Messy vintage dovetail joints

It is always fun to explore old furniture when travelling, mostly to see how it is constructed. We recently stayed in an old country house in Caputh, Scotland, and there was a neat dresser in one of the bedrooms. Looking back at the evolution of dovetails we often forget that joints were once just that – methods of holding together two pieces of wood. Early use of dovetails in details such as drawer joinery was very primitive – certainly not to the standards of todays micron-precision cuts. Older dovetails were different.

Cuts were often made beyond the dovetail. In the figure below, notice how deeply cut some of the tails are, in addition to the intensely scored layout line marking the shoulder of the pin socket. This is a half-blind dovetail from the front of the drawer.

The pins are quite skinny, and likely would weaken the joint were it not for its half-blind structure. The number of dovetails were also different depending on whether the joint was on the front or rear of the drawer – the front has five pins, the rear, only three. Below is a picture of the rear dovetails. The tails are again cut beyond the shoulder, but this time the angle is 20° which falls to the other extreme, potentially leaving some unsupported grain at the corners of the tails.

Finally, consider the back of the drawer. This was truly a case of  “part of the furniture never to see the light of day”. It almost seemed like a piece of scrap wood.