In an ideal world, I would have limitless space and time to describe the process of building this period-style highboy. As neither you nor I live in that realm, however, a reasonable compromise is this two-part tale of its construction. And this presentation has the advantage of allowing us to draw a breath in the midst of its construction. While my highboy’s appearance varies somewhat from its historical predecessor — my moldings are more bold, my hardware of a different style — both the builder of yesterday and I, myself, are, in essence, after the same goal.
One way to look at the upper case and the drawers is that they are a study in dovetailing. A dovetail joint is more than a mechanical union of two pieces of wood. The joint also has a strong aesthetic presence, adding detail and an appealing visual rhythm to a joined corner. In addition, because it’s widely seen as one of the defining characteristics of fine craftsmanship in wood, the joint carries a symbolic significance of great weight in the woodworking world. (Is there any one of us who hasn’t pulled a drawer from a chest to look to see if there are dovetails?)
For these reasons, many craftsmen with long personal experience with dovetail joinery have spent at least some time reflecting on the subject, thinking about how dovetails might best be used to join, to add detail and rhythm, to speak about craftsmanship. I know I have, and the upper case of this highboy is a kind of three-dimensional essay in which I articulate the principles by which I now make use of the dovetail joint in my shop.
There is Strength in Size
High-style period casework features refined dovetail work, which is typically characterized by wide tails and little slivers of pins. Although the aesthetic appeal of these diminutive pins is unmistakable, their size offers little protection against the destructive force of, for example, a drawer being accidentally dropped onto its corner. Therefore, for the most practical of reasons, I prefer more robust pins and tails, which — if executed cleanly — can be attractive as well as resistant to shock.
The upper case of this highboy is held together with hand-cut through dovetails at each corner. Each pin and tail is thick enough in cross-section to individually provide resistance to shock. Plus there are enough pins and tails to provide extensive gluing surface. (Although it’s probably unnecessary, I laid out my tails on the top and bottom of the case, rather than the sides, so that the case could better resist separation force in the only direction in which it could occur: laterally.)
The rails separating the drawers in the upper case are fastened to the case sides with oversized dovetails, one of the very few locations on this highboy in which dovetails are visible to the viewer of the assembled piece. Here, too, the tails are robust in size to provide strong mechanical resistance to separation.