The History of Dovetail Joints

Updated April 17, 2017

Evidence of the stone and woodworking method using a dovetail joint predates history before the common era (BCE). Archeological findings of ancient burial chambers of diverse cultures reveal furniture held together using this quadrilateral form (a figure having two parallel and two nonparallel sides). American creativity developed a modern version of the dovetail found in 19th century furniture. Without screws or nails the dovetail joint erected American pioneer homes, provided music in kings' courts and continues in use in the 21st century to secure corners of furniture and other objects.


Known for design techniques still used, the Egyptians of the First Dynasty (3000 to 2800 BCE) entombed royalty and wealthy nobles with handcrafted furniture using the dovetail joint. Archaeological finds in Chinese Emperor tombs dating BCE reveal the dovetail joint in use in this oldest of existing cultures.

Musical Instruments

Since the 16th century, luthiers (artisans making stringed instruments) employ the dovetail joint to secure the neck to the headlock on the mandolin and violin. Requiring experience and patience, this complex process using the dovetail joint continues in the 21st century. Though a difficult construction method, some in the industry view the dovetail joint as the best.

Log Cabins

Joining logs in framing cabin homes of early American emigrants and settlers incorporated different types of methods, including the dovetail joint. The Norwegian Emigrant Museum exhibits the 18th century Borderud house, exemplifying the quality and longevity of dovetail construction.

American Furniture

Until the 1870s, quality furniture artistry used the standard dovetail joint for chest drawers and backs. The pin and cove (round style dovetail) developed by American artisans also appeared in late (after 1870) Victorian and Eastlake (English Gothic) style furniture. European guilds continued to make handmade dovetail joints until the 1930s.

Dating Furniture

The dovetail design is an important method of distinguishing various periods of furniture. In particular, preindustrial wood products with the dovetail joint reveal saw and wood chisel markings, whereas the modern type are machine hewn and bear no handmade markings. Understanding the use of the dovetail joint makes dating furniture from the past two centuries an acquired skill.

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About the Author

Catalina Bixler's journalism career began in 1970. After five years as a publishing teacher, Bixler then published/edited NATO's U.S. 5th Army and 17th AF "Wiesbaden Post" newspaper. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in bilingual-journalism/community development from Redlands University, and a Master of Arts in adult education/training from the University of Phoenix.