Dovetailed Drawers are Overrated

Glen Huey is a friend of mine. We happened to meet at a media event right after he was hired to write for Popular Woodworking magazine…the first time. He had taken some time off to work on a large commission project and recently returned full time to PopWood.

Glen and I share a common-sense approach to woodworking. Except that he has a lot more skill and knowledge than I do, especially when it comes to building reproductions of 18th-century period furniture. He is a master craftsman.

So it was refreshing and encouraging to me when I read this post by Glen about building drawers for his workbench. No fancy dovetail joinery. He used what he calls “dado and rabbet” joinery, or what I call tongue and dado. A tongue on each end of the drawer fronts and backs fits into dadoes cut into the drawer sides. It’s a simple joint to make and, as Glen explains, once you get the setup tweaked on the table saw, you can cut perfect-fitting joints quickly.

For most furniture projects I build, this is the joint I use for drawer joinery. Why? Because it’s strong and easy to make. Why don’t I use dovetail joinery? Because I think it’s overrated. Granted, if I were building period furniture reproductions as Glen does, I’d use dovetail joinery for the drawers. But only because it’s reproducing the type of construction of the period piece. Not because it’s any “better” or “stronger.” Besides, the one and only dovetail jig I ever owned I have long since pitched. It was fussy to set up. I routed dovetails on every drawer of a kitchen full of cabinets in my first house. But looking back, I think it was silly. Nobody cares. I could have done the job in half the time and had drawers that functioned just as well if I had used tongue and dado joinery. I think the only reason I did it back then was so I could pull out a drawer when friends and family came over and say, “Look! Dovetails!”Tongue and Dado Joint

They didn’t care.

Not long ago I was in Amana, Iowa and saw a pair of apothecary cabinets in an antique store. These cabinets were about 3-ft. wide by 6-ft. tall. They were full of drawers that were only a couple inches high. I pulled one of the drawers out, and guess what joinery they used? Tongue and dado. And here’s the clincher (pun intended): They used finish nails to reinforce the joints. I thought perhaps this had been done later as a repair but every single drawer was built this way. Imagine that! Craftsmen using nails in a fine piece. This inspired me so much I had to write an article about nails for ShopNotes No. 131 (page 12).

So, when I build drawers, I’ll more than likely use tongue and dado joinery. And nail them in addition to gluing them. Who besides me is going to notice?

Kunkel & Son a Hidden Treasure in Nashville

Kunkel & Son Mahogany Door CarvingWhile I was visiting Fort Houston, I was wandering through the old factory/warehouse building and stumbled upon a room that felt like I had stepped back in time about 100 years. Like the wardrobe in “Narnia,” I was in another world. It was a huge wood shop with benches and hand tools all along two walls. The wood floor was covered in sawdust, shavings from hand planes, and chips from carving. There were all sorts of projects in various states of completion from gothic church carvings to modern benches with aluminum butterfly keys.

As I stood there taking in the site of benches and walls loaded with carving and hand tools, an older gentleman steps out from the shadows in the back and asks, “Can I help you?” It was apparent he wasn’t used to visitors in this back corner of a warehouse. I told him I had just stumbled into the room and was admiring his work and tool collection. He immediately pointed out a few of his tools that had belonged to his great grandfather. After asking his permission to snap some photos, we struck up a lively conversation and he proceeded to show me some of his unique projects.

One project was the bench that had been made by his father and carved with his name. Then he stoops down and grabs an odd-looking wood box with a large hole in the top. Turns out it’s a vacuum-assisted carving vise. He picked up an old bowling ball that had a short piece of pipe with a wood block stuck in it. He places the ball on the box, hooks up a vacuum, and clamps his carving to the pipe stem. The vacuum creates a tenacious hold on the bowling ball yet it can be pivoted to any position. Ingenious.┬áNext he had to show me the carving vise he made from an old dentist’s chair. He can elevate the work with a foot pedal. Brilliant.

His son soon came out of the back room and they told me about some of the work they have done, some nationwide for retail stores. Their website shows you some of the more interesting projects they’ve done.