Challenges & Dovetails: Closet-Cleaning Day

Design a Bookcase Challenge
The LumberJocks and Popular Woodworking partnership to design, build and publish a winning bookcase has come to a close, and a winning entry has been selected. I must say this turned into a difficult task for the magazine editors. We didn’t come to fist-to-cuffs. It wasn’t a knockdown, drag-out, office-clearing brawl. But, each editor brought to the table their favorites to have them applauded or shot down, one by one.

Slowly we weeded through the entries and narrowed the field to three. Those three are:
Ryan Shervill’s “Shoji Screen Inspired Bookcase”, Daniel’s (Blackdog Workshop) “A&C Bookcase with Magazine Drawers” and Charlie’s (Wheresmytools) “Sliding Dovetails Bookcase”.

After kicking around what we would do with the designs if we were to build them, we reached a consensus with Shervill’s design. I look forward to seeing the process of bringing this design to the pages of Popular Woodworking magazine. I think we’ll see many bookcases built from this design. (Click here to read the LumberJocks announcement.)

Antique Dovetails

On April 15th I posted an entry titled, “My Take On Dovetail Angles.” (Interestingly, I wrote about a taxing subject for many woodworkers on Tax Day.) In the entry I state, “Don’t accept the traditional ratios. I’ll bet a study of furniture and drawer construction from the 1700s through today would turn up many different dovetail angles.”

This past week, while traveling to Frank’s Cabinet Shop , where Frank Klausz does his woodworking , I took a side trip to C. L. Prickett’s antique shop. The folks at Prickett’s shop graciously granted me permission to photograph many of the drawer dovetails on pieces in their inventory.

I hope, as you look at the photos, two revelations come to mind. The first is that the angles are not strictly set at a traditional slope, so feel free to angle those pins and tails as you see fit. And second, notice the quality of craftsmanship , it’s not that great.

It’s easy to notice a good set of fine dovetails. Look at what you consider the best drawer joint, then look at the worst joint. There is much variation. But take heart, none of the dovetails were on pieces with price tags of less than $80,000.

The lesson is always the same. A finely fitted dovetail joint on a shabbily built, poor design doesn’t make the piece better. I would rather see average dovetails on a great design, built with better craftsmanship.

As far as the trip to see Mr. Klausz, we’re going to give you a look inside his shop and we’ve got video showing him in action as he demonstrates a few techniques for an upcoming article. Hang tight, I’ll let you know when it’s available.

, Glen D. Huey

6 thoughts on “Challenges & Dovetails: Closet-Cleaning Day

  1. Karl Rookey

    Thanks, Chuck. I never knew that inset drawers were often made with sides taller than the front, but now that you explain it, it makes perfect sense.

  2. Chuck Bender

    Patrick, Paul and Karl,
    The reason there is a half tail on the bottom is because of the dado, or rabbet, that captures the drawer bottom. It’s very typical for an 17th, 18th or early 19th Century craftsman to begin his half pin, or full pin, just at or above the drawer bottom.

    Another thing I’ve found looking at period drawers is that often, when the craftsman had a half tail at the bottom, the drawer side extended below the bottom of the drawer front originally. This allowed for smooth operation of the drawer without the drawer blade (divider) catching on the bottom of the drawer front.

    Three of Glen’s photos have half pins that are well above the bottom of the drawer front. Glen will have to confirm this but my guess is those drawer bottoms are rabbeted into the drawer. If some of the pieces in the photos were made in Philadelphia, the drawer bottom may be thinner with glue blocks attached to the drawer bottom and the drawer side. Others may have a thicker bottom that completely fill the rabbet.

    David,
    You’re absolutely correct. The best craftsmanship survives far longer than the worst…usually. The one thing nearly everyone can take away from Glen’s discussion is that, when it comes to period furniture at least, the only absolute rule is there are no absolutes. You need to consider the use of any particular object. Even a horribly designed, poorly constructed piece can be cherished and gingerly used for 250 years but it doesn’t improve it’s design characteristics nor it’s craftsmanship.

  3. Karl Rookey

    Patrick, you are right on: the absence of the lower pins in all but one joint is distinct. I can only imagine that it was not considered as important that the bottom stay absolutely flush with the drawer as the top (where the user may notice any gapping). I also note the fourth drawer, the angle of the top half pin was not steep enough and the drawer front has pulled away inspite of the half pin.

    I believe that the reason for pinning top and bottom is to provide a mechanical restrict to the type of warpage seen in that fourth joint. Using half pins at top and bottom theoretically fixes the top and bottom of the show face. If you use half tails, there is nothing preventing the drawer front from cupping away from the joint until the first full pin. So the rule of starting and ending with half pins is a good one because it at least improves the chances of the joint staying flush.

  4. David

    Actually, the craftsmanship looks very good on all of them, even superb on one of the joints. One cannot judge the original craftsmanship based on today’s condition – 200+ years of storage and use in all kinds of conditions will do a number on any dovetail joint’s condition. In fact, I would venture to say that you were only looking at superb craftsmandship – the poorly crafted examples fell apart more than 100 years ago.

  5. Paul Kierstead

    I’m with Patrick here; that is the second thing that jumped out at me. And, I’ll note it is always the bottom one that has a partial tail, not the top one. It certainly looks intentional. Very interesting.

  6. Patrick Lund

    Another thing that jumped out at me with regards to the dovetailed drawers. I’ve always read that dovetails should begin and end with a half pin. Only one of the photos has a drawer that fits that so called "rule".

    Patrick

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