John’s making a dovetailed box and his joints came out really well, almost perfect. One of the things that has struck me over the past 25 years of teaching apprentices and students around the world is how much significance they see in making dovetails. This joint is actually one of the simplest of all joints to make, but looks more complicated than it really is. Here at the hand tool school we focus on the essentials that make this work and within an hour’s instruction most people achieve good results.
I worry sometimes because I see that most people see this joint as the ultimate signature of fine woodworking. Making one good dovetail joint somehow proves woodworking skill in the same way they see a thin shaving emerge from the throat of the plane. A dovetail is quite simply a joint. It’s one joint only out of over 3,000 known joints used around the world. A dovetail joint is a minuscule dot on the Matterhorn mountain of woodworking and so too is the shaving. One thing evident at the Alexander Palace Woodworking Show was the emphasis placed on these two aspects of woodworking. Actually, the result of demonstrations often is that viewers end up admiring the shaving rather than wood being shaped and shaved. People focus on the tool and the shavings and miss the results. It’s not the tool, it’s not the shaving it’s what happened to the wood.
There is much more to drawer making than the stack of dovetails that make the front corners. There are housing dadoes for drawer backs, extended horns that cantilever the drawers. There are different types of drawer bottom grooves, raised-panel drawer bottoms, and what about the thicknesses of component parts and so on. Dovetailing a drawer corner is perhaps 10-20% of making a drawer, 20-30% of making a box. It’s probably harder to make a well-fitting housing dado than a dovetail joint and when you put these elements into the full sphere of woodworking you perhaps glimpse the size of the earth in relation to the cosmos of billions upon billions of stars.
I have made at least 25,000 hand cut dovetails over my 46 years of working wood. That’s only two joints a day and that’s conservative because I make many more than that in just demonstrating for visitors every day.