Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Joined Together Forever

QUESTION: How can I tell the difference between handcart dovetailing and machine cut dovetail? What other distinguishing characteristics can you tell me about that will help identify the age and authenticity of a piece of furniture?

ANSWER: Dovetailing is an excellent way to estimate the age of a piece of antique furniture.
The name “dovetail” comes from the appearance of the joints, used to assemble drawers and structural pieces on case or storage furniture, such as chests and bureaus, which look like the triangle shape of a dove’s tail. The earliest examples appeared on furniture placed with mummies in Egyptian tombs thousands of years ago. Similar ones appeared on pieces in the burial tombs of   ancient Chinese emperors.

Each joint has two parts—the pin and the tail. The pins protrude from the fronts of drawers while the tails are negative holes in the sides of drawers into which they fit. Early cabinetmakers cut these joints by hand, using small, precision saws and wood chisels,  producing different sized pins and tails, with the tails being larger than the pins. These early joints often had only three or four dovetails per joint. First, they made tiny angled saw cuts, then carefully cut out the pins on both sides to avoid splintering using a sharpened chisel. They cut the pins from one board and, the tails from another so they matched perfectly, thus giving them both strength and durability.

Not only did cabinetmakers use hand cut dovetails to hold the sides of drawers together, they also used them to join the structural members of case or storage pieces, such as dressers and bureaus. Back then, handmade screws and nails cost a lot and could rust and expand, sometimes cracking the wood they secured. Glues of the time weren’t much better and often dried out and weakened.
Simpler country furniture often had larger dovetails, or even a single pin and tail.

Towards the latter part of the 19th century, cabinetmakers began to use machines to construct dovetail joints, resulting in equally sized pins and tails running from the top to bottom of the joint. Today, cabinetmakers add a touch of glue to the joint to assure it will last for a long time.

Hand made dovetails remained the standard of good furniture craftsmanship until 1867, when Charles Butler Knapp invented a machine to cut  “scallop and dowel,”  or round-style dovetails, often used on late Victorian and Eastlake furniture. While Knapp’s machine revolutionized dovetail joint making, routers, producing the familiar keystone shaped pin and tail dovetail, came into widespread use and became the standard of better American furniture manufacturers today.

Since the dovetail joint has evolved over the last 144 years, the type of dovetailed joint, especially in drawers, can be used to date antique furniture. To approximate the date of a piece of antique furniture, remove a drawer and look closely at the dovetail joints. If it’s been cut by hand, the drawer will only have a few dovetails which will not be even. If the joints are closely spaced and precisely cut, then they’re machine-cut. Handmade dovetails almost always indicate that a cabinetmaker produced a piece before 1860.

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