An Illustrated History of the Dovetail Joint

Back in the good old days when men were men and women were suitably grateful, woodworking was a crude and artless business, with nails and poor quality glues adding what little strength there was to the woodworking joints. This was not good enough for one young Irish visionary. Fergus Murphy, who determined to find a A Better Way. Fergus, believing that the wood was cut and joined could alone provide all the strength that was required, was one day sitting gazing at his father's dovecot when he was suddenly transfixed by an that was to eventually revolutionise the woodworking scene. Now read on...

Blackwood and Huon Pine

Unfortunately for Fergus, none of his father's birds had ever returned once set loose, giving him entirely the wrong perspective on the problem. His resulting Shovetails were admirably strong under compression, but when used on a chest of drawers (without the advantage of today's high strength glues) all the fronts fell off.

Coachwood and Cedar

Not to be deterred, Fergus refined his original concept, capitalising on it's strengths: hardwood inserts gave the Wedged Shovetailincreased compression, but still left the main problem unresolved.

Jarrah and Huon Pine

Finally, one of his birds came home to roost, and Fergus was blinded by inspiration. Hi Joy at the breakthrough is shown in lyrically decorated Mark I Dovetail which, although only halfway towards the solution provided the germ of the idea that was to take the cabinet making world by Storm.

River Oak and Queensland Walnut; Celery Top Pine and Rose Mahogany; Myrtle and Queensland Walnut; Silky Oak

Hovering on the brink of revelation, Fergus cast caution to the winds and boldly experimented with the subtleties of grain direction and proportion.

While he achieved a remarkable degree of success, however, his wisely chose to continue more or less in the manner of his earlier attempts.

Silver Ash and Queensland Walnut

Moving swiftly on, he finally grasped the underlying concept that he had discovered and produced the true Dovetail Joint as know it today (if we look in antique shops).

Going somewhat overboard on the level of detail, however, he immediately undertook a commission for a military chest containing 36 map drawers, and two years later was declared bankrupt.

Sliver Ash and Silky Oak

Struggling back from the depths of the deptor's prison, and never once doubting his vision, Fergus produced his final offering to the woodcraft world: the Tenoned Dovetail.

Several of Dublin's leading cabinetmakers vied for the rights to the revolutionary concept, and the winner, discovering too late the immense problems of assembly ended up in the cell next to Fergus.

Black Sally Wattle and Silver Ash

Fergus' son, Fingal, determined to clear his father's name. Having all the advantages of a proper education, he first concealed half the joint from view with the Lapped Dovetail…

White Beech


… and then concealed the remainder with the Secret Mitre Dovetail. Since the front joint was now completely hidden from view he provided a brass plaque with each piece guaranteeing it's authenticity, and retired in luxury, aged 27…

Plastic and Woodchips

...leaving a legacy of craftsmanship that has survived to this day.

Footnote: Only many years later did an English furniture importer think to translate the guarantee from the original Gaelic:

You Must be Joking.

Thursday 22 August 2013