Dovetails: The Strong, Silent & Shy Type
Campaign chests had to take a beating. They traveled all over the British Empire during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. And yet they bore their burden without complaint or explanation.
Which is to say: When you look at most campaign chests, it’s unclear how they were constructed. Yes, the drawers were dovetailed. But the carcases – at first glance – don’t really tell you much. And some of the examples are liars – there are nails driven through the tops and sides of these beauties.
After you examine a couple hundred of these chests, patterns begin to emerge and their construction becomes evident.
I grew up with campaign chests owned by my grandparents where the carcases were assembled with half-blind, sometimes called half-lap, dovetails. The tails were on the horizontal bits and the pin sockets were on the vertical parts. You’ll also find examples with the reverse arrangement – tails on the sides and pins on the tops and bottom.
Either arrangement of this visible dovetail joint exists, but it is somewhat uncommon in campaign furniture in my experience.
Here’s what I’ve found: Most campaign chests have two sections, a lower and an upper. The lower case is joined entirely by half-blind dovetails in a way that the joinery is not evident when the two sections are stacked together. Lift off the top section, however, and you can see the joints.
The top case has two kinds of joints. Its bottom is joined to the sides using the same arrangement as in the lower case. When the two cases are stacked, you cannot see any joinery.
The top, however, is joined to the sides with full-blind dovetails. This rabbeted dovetail form gives immense strength, is easy to cut (really!) and the joint doesn’t show. As I’ve been designing and cutting the joints for my own version of a campaign secretary, I’ve marveled at how these hidden joints are much easier to make than through-dovetails.
Why are they easier to make? You can make your pins and tails wider. And the fit doesn’t have to be airtight – just glue-tight.
Before you scoff at this joint, let me tell you a little secret: Most people say that through-dovetails are easier than half-blind or full-blind dovetails. I think they are wrong. Through-dovetails have lots more surfaces that show – both at the baselines and along the joint’s cheeks.
The more surfaces you hide, the less persnickety you have to be to achieve dovetail awesomeness. I like cutting half-blinds and full-blinds more than through-dovetails. Promise. But that’s just me.
— Christopher Schwarz