The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Dovetailing


A drawing of a carpenter in his workshop in the early 19th century

Back to the ABCs with our journey through the decorative arts, with today’s topic focusing on dovetailing.  This technique is startlingly simple yet so fundamental to cabinetmaking that it can be found on almost every piece of case furniture in our gallery.     Dovetailing is a technique in joinery that secures two pieces of wood together by interlocking a series of ‘pins’ in one board with ‘tails’ on the other board.  The trapezoidal or fan shape of the pins and tails led to the use of the term dovetail.

Dovetail joints can be found on pieces dating as far back as ancient Egyptian mummies and Chinese imperial tombs.  In Europe, the dovetail joint evolved over time with many different forms and variations depending on the sophistication and needs of the craftsmen at hand.

To see a dovetail joint, you need to remove the drawer of a chest, cupboard, or cabinet–take a look below to see the dovetail joints on a few pieces of furniture from our collection.

A George I Gilt Gesso and Japanned Lowboy Attributed to James Moore


A George I Gilt Gesso and Japanned Lowboy Attributed to James Moore 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

This exceptional table with its striking combination of gilt-gesso and japanned decoration bears a great similarity to one at Longford Castle, Wiltshire which was probably supplied for Sir Jacob de Bouverie (created 1st Viscount Folkestone in 1747) when he succeeded his brother in 1736. The Longford Castle dressing-table is illustrated in R. Edwards’ The Dictionary of English Furniture, and P. Macquoid The Age of Mahogany. Lord Folkestone employed many of the leading cabinet-makers of his day, notably Benjamin Goodison.


Dovetailing on the side drawer of the gilt gesso and japanned lowboy

A George I Burr Walnut Cabinet on Chest


A George I Burr Walnut Cabinet on Chest 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

This magnificent George I period burr walnut and walnut cabinet on chest is of exceptional quality. The walnut throughout is of the most wonderful colour and patina. The lower section standing on bracket feet has two short drawers and three long drawers each herringbone inlaid, oak lined and with the most unusual original brass handles. The upper section with a cornice and two panelled doors of magnificent colour similarly inlaid with herringbone, the doors opening to reveal a series of drawers around a central cupboard, each drawer magnificently veneered in superb walnut, the central cupboard door opening once more to reveal a series of sunken drawers behind which is a secret compartment.


Dovetailing on a drawer of a George I burr walnut cabinet on chest

A George II Mahogany Kneehole Desk


A George II Mahogany Kneehole Desk 
Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

This fine George II kneehole desk has a top fitted with a brushing slide above a single long drawer with additional graduated drawers below. The desk features a sliding center kneehole compartment with further drawers that transform the desk into a chest of drawers.


Detail of the dovetailing on the top drawer of a George II mahogany kneehole desk

One thought on “The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Dovetailing

  1. Pingback: The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Escutcheons | The Source

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