Author Topic: History of dovetails  (Read 17707 times)

msiemsen

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History of dovetails
« on: October 25, 2009, 09:38:04 PM »
On a different thread Fran asked" When did cabinet makers stop using nails and glue for drawer construction and start dovetailing? I have heard a lot of conflicting information on this."
Fran
I replied, "dovetails have been in use for over 4000 years, I saw someone nail a drawer together yesterday."
Mike
Fran followed up with, "So, Mike, when did dovetails become the standard for drawer and carcasse construction in America. In my ignorance I have been assuming that dovetailing came on the scene sometime during the early 19th century and wasn't really common until the latter half of the century. While I am a fairly serious student of period furniture, I openly admit that my eyes rather glaze over when discussions of these particulars manifest themselves."
Fran
I thought this would be better as a separate thread so I moved it here.
Mike
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msiemsen

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #1 on: October 25, 2009, 09:56:22 PM »

"So, Mike, when did dovetails become the standard for drawer and carcasse construction in America. In my ignorance I have been assuming that dovetailing came on the scene sometime during the early 19th century and wasn't really common until the latter half of the century. While I am a fairly serious student of period furniture, I openly admit that my eyes rather glaze over when discussions of these particulars manifest themselves."

Fran,
I am sure you meant 18th century in the above quote.
Is the question then, When did cabinet makers in North American colonies stop using nails and glue for drawer construction and start dovetailing? I have heard a lot of conflicting information on this....
This could be an interesting discussion, I know that details like drawer construction can make or break a reproductions authenticity. Who knows of the oldest North American dovetails? Did the use of dovetails start in a particular region and spread, or come from Europe all at once? Were dovetails always here and people just didn't take the time to make them? Pictures would be great!
Mike
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frangallo

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #2 on: October 25, 2009, 10:46:39 PM »
I will look back at my notes on this subject, but my recollection is that after the collapse of the American furniture industry during the revolutionary war, the reconstruction brought in a few of the new methods of cabinet making that had been taking hold prior to this error. In other words, while construction of cabinets was fairly simple during the early to mid 1700's, there seemed to be a shift in these methods due to the influence of European developments. I have a strong recollection that during the period from the mid 1790's thru the early 1800's American cabinet makers began using many of the new methods of cabinet construction introduced from Europe. While the dovetail is in no way a purely modern concept, the general application of this form of construction seems to have a distinct place in the history of furniture making in the Colonies.
Fran
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frangallo

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #3 on: October 25, 2009, 10:51:25 PM »
A link to the history:http://www.norsewoodsmith.com/content/early-dovetails
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msiemsen

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #4 on: October 26, 2009, 12:30:01 AM »
Fran,
I was flipping through Nutting's, Furniture of the Pilgrim Century. He shows two drawers one nailed and the other dovetailed (plate 675 and 676). He states on page 25 that the earliest dovetailing of drawers is at the end of the 17th century. With your knowledge of Newport furniture you must be aware that the Nicholas Brown secretary was made in 1740, well before the revolution, and has more than a few dovetails in it. I thought furniture tastes changed in America after the revolution because we wanted to make a break from English styles, hence the "Federal Style" rather than Sheraton or Hepplewhite.
 I would think dovetails were already becoming prevalent in the late William and Mary period (late 17th early 18th century) and pretty much in common use during the Queen Ann period (early 18th century) Chippendale's famous directory came out in 1762 and influenced the High style furniture that we refer to as Chippendale, where it would have been difficult to find a piece of furniture without a dovetail in it.
Mike
« Last Edit: October 26, 2009, 12:33:46 AM by msiemsen »
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albreed

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #5 on: October 26, 2009, 05:10:35 AM »
Mike- A few corrections- Chippendale's Director, about 1758; Nicholas Brown Sec., around 1770.

In Colonial furniture there are dovetails in the 1680's and maybe even earlier. I've copied or restored a fair number of these chests from the period. Often draws are dovetailed at the front and nailed at the back, and the tail, note the singular, will have a big nail holding it to the draw front. Otherwise they're rabbeted and nailed all around. At this period the dovetail made its appearance in draws mostly, as you'll be hard pressed to find boxes dovetailed together in the 17th century, at least, none come to mind. "Bible " boxes, for example, will be rabbeted and nailed together, which lends the surfaces to the carving that was used at the time on the outsides. Cases such as six and four legged dressing tables were dovetailed together in the William and Mary period, and this is where you really start seeing dovetails on a regular basis. Regional differences determined how long this method was used, for example, the Newport guys dovetailed their mid to late 18th century dressing tables together just like it was done in 1720.
Both nailed and dovetailed construction continued side by side, the difference mainly being on the quality of the pieces and practicality. The writing surface of the Nicholas Brown sec. was nailed to the gallery base, for instance, because it was fast and didn't show.
Some good info on these pieces can be found in the "New England Begins" catalogue from the MFA exhibit in Boston, Nancy Smith's "Old Furniture", Trent's "Pilgrim Century Furniture". John Kirk and Brock Jobe also have some construction details in their books. "New England Furniture" is Jobe's book, and the name of Kirk's escapes me; he has several.
One last thing- don't underestimate 17th century construction, it can be very sophisticated and precise. Where there was economic prosperity and wealthy customers, these guys did very good work. Look closely at the joinery in the front of a Hadley chest.and you'll see how tight those joints are.-Al
Allan Breed

msiemsen

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #6 on: October 26, 2009, 09:28:36 AM »
Al,
I see 1754 for The Director and I miss read some information last night on the secretary date, sorry for not fact checking.
Mike
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Mark Arnold

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #7 on: October 26, 2009, 02:41:14 PM »
"I see 1754 for The Director and I miss read some information last night on the secretary date, sorry for not fact checking."
Mike, don't beat yourself up about it. If furniture making doesn't work out at least you'll have a career in journalism! LOL

I've always thought (probably because I read it somewhere) that the use of dovetails spurred the branch of woodworking known as cabinetmaking. As an elaboration of the joiner's trade, cabinetmakers and their magical, mystical dovetails were responsible for many of the advances seen in the elevation, both literal and figurative, of many early 18th century forms such as the dressing tables that Al mentioned. Joined (m&t) furniture typically has a lower center of gravity and greater visual mass.

The use of dovetails, or rather a dovetail, on late 17th c. drawers was an ingenious advancement, regardless of when or where they were first used. It seems intuitive to all today that a butt joint with an integral wedge results in a drawer whose sides remain affixed to the front even if/when the glue and nails fail. What I do find curious is the progression from a single (too few?) dovetail to a litter (too many?) of tails later in the 18th c. Really, is the addition of a fourth tail on a 3"  wide drawer side adding anything other than bragging rights? I understand the aim of increasing viable glue surface, but at what point does the addition of more tails cease to add measurable strength and becomes a moot exercise?
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msiemsen

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #8 on: October 26, 2009, 03:06:28 PM »
From Conservation of Furniture, By Shayne Rivers, Nick Umney.
"The Ardent desire of tradesmen to maintain differentials resulted in the London Court of Aldermen (in 1632) deciding that carpenters should be restricted to making nailed and boarded work and that only joiners could use glue, mortise and tenon and dovetail joints. It was this process that divided the joiner's craft into those who fitted up rooms, for example with paneling, and those who would be called cabinetmakers."

Mike
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Mark Arnold

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #9 on: October 26, 2009, 03:21:25 PM »
Mike,

Were those who "fitted up rooms..with paneling" the lowly carpenters? If I understand your source correctly, the joiners once included in their ranks finish carpenters and furniture makers which were subsequently split into two separate trades. Is the term joiner simply an archaic word for cabinetmaker, as the quote suggests, or is the distinction a modern one?
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msiemsen

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #10 on: October 26, 2009, 04:12:51 PM »
Mark,
The way I understand the quote they split the workers into two groups, carpenters and joiners, The joiners then being split into joiners and cabinetmakers. We use the same determination today for taxes. If it is attached to the house there is no sales tax, if it is not attached to the house it is furniture and there is sales tax. (at least in MN) Joiners would have worked on site and installed their work. Cabinetmakers would have worked in shops and delivered their work. I could be wrong in this interpretation.
Mike
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frangallo

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #11 on: October 26, 2009, 07:32:24 PM »
What a wealth of information! I feel I deserve 3 credits for reading all this stuff! While I was allegedly studying furniture making I was encouraged to go out and look at examples of furniture from ancient to modern. I did so and continued this practice for quite a few years. When I was learning cabinet making and being taught to fit things together nice and tight and be decorative with my dovetails I remember being appalled at how period furniture was whacked together. I have a distinct memory of seeing a drawer dovetailed together so crudely the tails had nails driven into them to secure them to the front. I came away from all this with a general feeling that dovetailing wasn't an important method until the late 18th century with the onset of the Federal period. Any merit to this?
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msiemsen

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #12 on: October 26, 2009, 11:32:27 PM »
This is from an e-mail sent to me by Peter Follansbee. It is presented with his permission. He is pleased to see a glimmer of interest in the 17th century.

Mike
The London Aldermen's decision is quite long, so there is much content there
that is helpful, some that is muddling. There is no mention of anyone called
"cabinetmaker" - the earliest that term appears in New England is a single
instance in the 1680s in Boston...I don't know about old England. I'll check
Adam Bowett's book English Furniture from Charles II to Queen Anne

>From the Aldermen's text, here are the works that "belong to the joyners"

"That these workes next following doe pperly belong to the Joyners

1. Impris all sorts of Bedsteads whatsoever (onlie except Boarded Bedsteads
and nayled together)

2. Item all sorts of Chayres and stooles which are made with mortesses or
tennants

3. Item all tables of Wainscoate Wallnutt or other Stuffe glewed with frames
mortesses or tennants

4. Item all sorts of formes framed made of boards with the sides pinned or
glewed

5. Item all sorts of Chests being framed duftalled pynned or Glued

6. Item all sorts of Cabinetts or Boxes duftalled pynned glued or Joyned

7. Item all Sorte of Cupboards framed duftalled pynned or glued

8. Item all Sorte of presses for wearinge apparell Mercers Silkmen
Haberdashers Gouldsmiths Millenors or Napkin presses being pannelled
duftalled pynned or Glued

9. Item all Sorts of Wainscott and sealing of Howses and setling made by the
use of Two Iages (PF:gauges)

10. Item all Sorts of Shopp Windows that are made for ornament or beautie
which cannott bee made without Glew

11. Item all Sorts of Doores framed pannelled or Glued

12. Item all hatches iaged framed or Glued

13. Item all pewes pulpitts and seates with the Deskes belonging to them
framed pannelled or Glued

14. Item all Sorts of frames upon Stalls being framed or Glued

15. Item all frames for picturs Latesses for Scrivenors or the Like

16. Item all lyning of Walls or frering for Wainscott

17. Item all signe boards of Wainscott or carved

18. Item all worke whatsoever already invented or that hereafter shall bee
invented being made by one or two iages with the use of all manner of nayles


19. Item all carved workes either raised or Cutt through or sunck in with
the grounde taken out being wrought and cutt with carving Tooles without the
use of Plaines

20. That all Coffins made of Wainscott but if they bee made of other woode
wee conceive fitt that the making thereof be left indifferent either to the
Joyners or Carpenters"



So - chests, cabinets, boxes, cupboards, presses can be "duftalled."
Doesn't mean they were, just they could be, and by joiners, not carpenters.
The date of this document is 1632, and at that point, joiners still were the
principal furniture-makers - turners & carpenters also made some furniture.
It wasn't until later (early 18th c) that the joiner became essentially the
finish-carpenter that he is now in the UK.

I have seen illustrations of late-16th-century dovetailed board chests from
England they are rare, but not unheard-of.

My understanding is that on the Continent, dovetailed case work was common,
if not standard during the 16th & 17th century. An engraving of Albrecht
Durer clearly shows a dovetailed chest, I forget which print it is off the
top of my head.

There are a couple of dovetailed carved boxes from Guilford, CT c.
1670s/80s. They stand out as the exception to the rule of these boxes being
rabbeted & either nailed (most common) or pegged.

Boston chests of drawers (1635-1700) often have a deep drawer that uses two
or three tails. These are usually not nailed, though some are. Most
dovetailed drawers in 17th c were nailed, as Breed notes. I just looked at a
two-part chest of drawers in the Boston MFA and its deep drawer (maybe 8" or
9" deep) is made up of oak stock edge-glued together to make the height of
the drawer. The front is then covered in applied moldings of cedrela. The
back board of this drawer is a riven oak clapboard, planed on its inner
face. Riven on its outer face.

Peter Follansbee
« Last Edit: October 26, 2009, 11:35:15 PM by msiemsen »
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Mark Arnold

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #13 on: October 27, 2009, 01:17:41 AM »
This discussion has caused me to reconsider the joiner whom I admittedly regarded with indifference so I did a little investigating to see why the term cabinetmaker was used in lieu of joiner. As Peter has mentioned, the first cabinetmaker in the American colonies to ever be described as such was John Clark who arrived in Boston in 1681 (Forman, American Seating Furniture, p43). The term does not appear often in early English sources until the 18th century, but when it is mentioned, it is with a tinge of derision.

To examine the list of 20 responsibilities of the joiner, one could come to the conclusion that the joiner and his fellow cabinetmaker share the same skillset (and generally the same toolbox) since the dovetail is clearly mentioned in the list more than once. Forman does list areas where the cabinetmaker distinguishes himself, but interestingly it is not in the use of the dovetail alone-- it is the cabinetmaker's use of veneer, typically over a lesser specie of wood, which perhaps explains the less than favorable mention by commentators of the day. Moxon does not even refer to the craft of cabinetmaking in his Exercises and Batty Langley refers to "Cabinet Makers" as "Spurious Indocile Chips, expelled by Joiners for the Superfluity of their Sap" but who would otherwise be lost without a joiner to help them do their work (ASF p46). The Joiner was truly the jack of all trades and had the backing of the law to prove it, but became a relic in the name of progress.

The decision of the London Aldermen was reached decades before veneerwork from France and the Low Countries began to gain favor in England. (Incidentally, the same progression from joiner to cabinetmaker to inlay specialist is echoed in France as well: huchier to menuisier to ebeniste.)  It is when decorative veneered surfaces became the rage that the cabinetmaker saw his ascendency and began to be distinguished from joiners, even in simpler colonial shops, as Forman points out, "while American cabinetmakers were all accomplished joiners, not all joiners were cabinetmakers." (p45)
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albreed

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Re: History of dovetails
« Reply #14 on: October 27, 2009, 06:48:16 PM »
Follansbee and all- Wow! Now we're talking. Gotta love that 17th century stuff. Nothing useful to add except to agree with Mark about an extra tail on a 3" draw- who needs it?!
And the loose and nailed tails - hey, they did bad work in every period.-Al
Allan Breed