Judging from the number of woodworking websites that feature the image of a dovetail joint, this handsome interlocking connection may be the most prevalent symbol of fine craftsmanship. As strong as they are beautiful, dovetails are popular in part because of how useful they are for building a wide range of projects — a stereo cabinet carcass, a frame for a cocktail or serving tray, the drawers of a desk, dresser or chest, etc. Even the layout of the joint’s basic components — angled pins that mate with bird-like tails — can add a stylish decorative element to practically any project.
Dovetail joints come in several flavors: Through dovetails are the classic joint, with both pins and tails showing through on the adjacent surfaces of the joined parts. These are the easiest to cut and are the most useful for a variety of carcass and frame joining applications. Half-blind dovetails feature pins that are not cut all the way through the stock, so they don’t show on one side of the joined assembly. Halfblinds are great for drawers and sliding trays, where you want the strength of a dovetail, but you don’t want joinery to show on the front of the piece. Full-blind dovetails, as their name implies, are cut so that the joint is completely hidden. Difficult to cut, these joints are most often used for high-style period furniture.
Cutting clean, accurately fitting dovetails with hand tools is a cabinetmaker’s rite of passage. Although not easy to accomplish, it’s a joint that most any woodworker can create, given sharp tools and lots of practice.
Fortunately, hand-cutting isn’t the only way to make dovetails — a number of commercially made jigs are designed for creating through and half-blind dovetail joints with a router.