When appraising or inspecting a piece of antique furniture, a dealer or prospective buyer will look closely at the drawers. The style of dovetailing used by the maker can provide clues as to the age of the piece, as well as reveal whether it was made in the United States, Canada or Europe.
What is Dovetailing?
Dovetailing is a method of precisely cutting two boards so that they can be interlocked securely together. Dovetailing typically requires no nails or other hardware. Examples of dovetailed joints have been found in pieces from ancient Egyptian and Chinese civilizations, and it remains a popular method of joinery today.
Tail and Pin (English) Dovetail
One of the most basic type of dovetailing found in antiques is the "tail and pin" type, also known as an English dovetail. This consists of one board with a series of small angled notches cut into one end and a second board with a series of larger notches. The narrow pieces of wood left between the larger notches are the "pins" and the wider pieces of wood between the smaller notches are the "tails." These are precisely cut so that they will interlock and form a tight joint. This style of dovetail was popular until about 1870 in American and Canadian furniture and was often hand-cut, with the use of precision saws and chisels.
Pin and Cove (Round Style)
Pin and cove dovetailing (also referred to as round style) became popular during the Victorian era. The principle of fitting two notched boards together is the same as tail and pin dovetailing, although unlike the almost triangular pins of the former, the pins of round style dovetails are semi-circular. This style was used in the United States and Canada, but did not gain popularity among European builders. A stencil-like device called a jig was used to create these dovetails.
Sliding Keyhole (French Dovetail)
In the 1890s, American furniture makers started using the sliding keyhole or French dovetail. The development of power tools such as routers and saws made it possible to make this type of joint. French dovetails consist of a drawer front piece, into which long grooves are cut. These grooves run across the bottom of the piece (on the reverse side) and up the sides. The side boards of the drawer are cut in such a way as to slide into the grooves and create a secure joint. Drawers constructed with this type of dovetail have a smaller capacity than drawers of an equivalent size made with English dovetails.