Dovetail Joinery: The Parts of a Dovetail

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Learn to speak the language of dovetail joinery. Dovetail joinery represents the pinnacle of craftsmanship for many woodworkers, and at some point in our pursuit of the craft, most of us feel the urge to try our hand at creating these interlocking masterpieces. Before scribing the first line or making the first cut, it is important to understand the anatomy of dovetail joinery, so that we can establish a good knowledge that can help us as we design and execute this joint with precision.

Why Dovetails?
The interlocking nature of dovetails provides a beautiful element to any woodworking joint. When a coat of finish is applied to a dovetail joint, the end grain soaks up more finish and becomes darker than the long grain portion of the joint, creating a dramatic contrast that is eye-catching. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that dovetail joinery provides one of the strongest of all woodworking joints, and is able to withstand abuse over many generations. The reason for the noteworthy strength of dovetail joinery is twofold. First, the joint features a clever physical interlock between the two pieces that can hold solidly even without glue if the joint is executed properly. Secondly, the joint provides a lot of glue surface that bonds long grain surfaces on each mating piece, which dramatically increases the strength of the glue joint.

Multiple Approaches, Same Dovetail Joinery Anatomy
Some woodworkers prefer to cut dovetail joints with a mallet, chisel and hand saw. Others like to fire up the router and use one of several woodworking jigs specifically designed for dovetail joinery. (An example of a jig that is purpose-built for dovetail joinery is the Porter Cable 4212). However you choose to approach constructing the joint, the anatomy is exactly the same. Whether you cut half-blind or through dovetails, the dovetail joinery components include the same key elements: pins, tails and sockets.