What the heck is a reveal anyway? Think of the dark lines in between the doors, hood and trunk, fenders and other inter-fitting parts on your car’s body. Imagine how difficult it would be to make the body if all those parts had to fit snugly together, leaving no gaps where the doors or trunk lid closed.
The tolerances would be very tight and incredibly difficult to maintain. The little gap, known as a reveal, offers automakers a bit of a “fudge factor” (and these days, they need all the help they can get), while creating a clean look in their final products.
Where can woodworkers put this little detail to use in their work? Pretty much anywhere two parts or surfaces meet. Just as with an auto body, the simple shadow line created by a reveal hides irregularities in the fit between adjacent surfaces; say, for example, the sides of two cabinets that are butted together or between the extension leaves on an expandable dining table top.
Making a reveal is as simple as shaping a shallow rabbet, chamfer, bead or cove on a part’s ends or edges. You can cut a reveal with hand tools (planes, scrapers, etc.), with a bit/cutter in a router or shaper, with a dado or molding head in a table saw; or shape it with abrasives using sanding blocks, a powered disc or drum sander, etc.
Reveals are commonly used in traditional millwork and cabinet assemblies, to not only conceal slight fit irregularities, but also to give large surfaces a look of greater depth and make them more visually interesting. For example, say you have flush-front drawers in a desk, table, entertainment center or kitchen cabinet counter. By shaping a small reveal on the edges of the solid-wood drawerfronts using a piloted bit in the router, the resulting edge recesses add a nice little shadow line where the drawers meet the face frames, making an otherwise ordinary flat surface look more dimensional.
Another great place to use a reveal is where two parts that fit close together may expand and contract, shift or sag. Consider how the lid of a solid-wood chest or box fits over or (in the case of a flush-mounted top) into the sides. In the photos shown center right, I formed a reveal by chamfering the top edges of the box’s sides before fitting a hinged lid. The chamfer creates a wider shadow under the lid to help hide any unevenness between the lid and the top of the box. Similarly, you could use a reveal on the ends and edges of adjustable shelves, to hide irregularities of fit where they meet bookcase or cabinet sides and backs.
Reveals also help conceal little mistakes and unsightly gaps that may occur in joinery. For example, by rounding over or chamfering the edges of ill-fitting dovetails on, say, a large blanket chest or furniture carcass, you’ll get a look that’s cleaner and more pleasing than by simply filling the gaps with filler putty. I’ve employed reveals not only to improve poorly cut joinery, but also to enhance the look of shaped furniture assemblies.
The parabolic-curved profile of the legs mating with the lower shelf assembly didn’t look too interesting with the parts cleanly cut and joined. Using a bench chisel, I added a very slight chamfer to the areas where the shelf joined the legs. The resulting reveal made the legs look like they were actually “piercing” the shelf, making the connections look more dynamic (OK, I admit it, the reveal also helped hide a little unevenness in one leg’s fit, where I cut the shelf a little too far with my band saw).