One of the most recognizable "cues" indicating quality in wood furniture is dovetail drawer construction. English and French dovetails are a desirable type of construction for many reasons, including the stability of the joints as well as the extra storage capacity of English dovetail drawers.
|1. English Dovetail|
For example, here's a story I heard at one of our sales training sessions at a dealer's store. One of the store's salespeople had an older dresser that they gave to their daughter that had English dovetailed drawers in it. They bought a new bedroom group for themselves with a different type of construction. After emptying out their clothing from the old dresser, they did not have enough room in the new dresser drawers to store all of their clothing. When drawer storage is an issue, English dovetail construction provides the most storage capacity.
|2. English Dovetail - outside of drawer|
|3. English Dovetail - inside of drawer|
The quality of dovetail construction starts with the joint itself, shown in photo #1. This type of joint would be described as a "locking joint." The taper of the male dovetail (on the drawer side) is turned opposite the direction in which the drawer is pulled open. With a tightly machined joint and the proper glue, this joint will last for generations. That is part of what creates heirloom quality furniture.
|4. French Dovetail|
|5. French Dovetail|
Because the parts are tapered, they only go together in one direction. It's sort of like putting your foot into a slipper. Once you slide it in, you cannot get your foot out except by sliding it back out. It only goes together one way and resists being pulled apart in other directions.
The modern English dovetail is machined to be flat and tapered on the outside, which is what you see in photo #2. However, it is rounded and tapered on the inside, as shown in photo #3. The dovetail is not only a locking joint, it also provides an extremely large surface for glue. Since glue is stronger than wood, the more glue you can put on the joint, the stronger it will be. Notice also that the joint is at the very end of the parts. The English dovetail allows the largest possible drawer no matter what the design of the furniture.
|6. English dovetail drawer is shown at top; the smaller French dovetail drawer is shown at bottom.|
|7. French dovetail drawers, shown at right, are lower in height and have less storage capacity top to bottom.|
|8. French dovetail drawers, shown at left, are smaller in width and depth.|
|9. The earmark of French dovetail construction is a dovetail on each side of the bottom edge of the drawer front, as shown.|
In years gone by, you might have seen some very large dovetails (you may still see that on some antiques). There were two reasons for the extra-large dovetails. The first is that many dovetails were cut by hand into solid wood parts. Those solid wood parts tended to split and splinter, because they were cut very small. The second reason was to overcome the poor glues used in older furniture. If you had a nice large dovetail, you could put a pin or nail into it after the joint was together. This would keep the parts from coming "unlocked." If you see old antique drawers with large dovetails that are pinned, that's a good thing.
The French dovetail is the other type of drawer you can seek out when you shop for furniture today. (See photos 4 & 5). The French dovetail is also a very strong locking joint, but it is machined a little differently from the English dovetail. It is machined so that the drawer side slides upward into a long groove in the drawer front. These joints are quite often found in some special applications, like curved drawer fronts.
The reason French dovetailed drawers usually provide less storage capacity than English dovetailed drawers (see photo #6). is partly because the groove cannot be put right out on the end of the drawer front, therefore the drawer becomes smaller in width. Because the groove is not cut all the way out the top, the drawer gets lower in height (see Photo #7). And because the cases are quite often smaller, the drawers are quite often more shallow front-to-back (see Photo #8). You can tell if a drawer has French dovetails by removing the drawer and looking at the bottom edge of the drawer front; you will see one dovetail on each side (see Photo #9). Even though they have less storage capacity, French dovetails make good drawers as well.