Dovetails, What’s the Big Deal?

Ryan Akhurst

Dovetails joints have been around since the times of ancient Egypt. Earlier civilizations recognized it as an extremely powerful joint in furniture construction.

The dovetail joint’s strength is partly due to the tapered shape of the tenon and mortise, which, when assembled, makes it virtually impossible to take apart, especially when glued. The second reason for its strength is its larger gluing area than butt-jointed components. Drawers are used every day and often contain heavy items. Breaking apart causes undue stress for the client and, ultimately, you when it needs replacing.

In addition to the design’s durability, one should not overlook the dovetail’s aesthetic look, signifying quality. For many cabinet manufacturers, the decision to add dovetail drawer boxes to their cabinets provides a perception of quality. Once you open the drawer and see the dovetail design, it elevates your product in the consumer’s eye. But what dovetail machine is right for my operation? When deciding to produce your drawer boxes, several factors come into play when selecting the equipment required.

Production requirements

When considering a dovetail machine, the primary consideration will involve your production needs. Modern dovetail machines are designed to accept all four sides of drawer components (for blind and some through dovetails). You machine the male and female joint simultaneously, ensuring a nice tight fit and faster production. The loading area’s width on the machine will determine how deep a drawer you can machine with all four parts. This method allows a box to be completed in two passes as pieces are rotated to machine both ends. For deeper drawers, you are limited to machining two parts at a time, which requires four passes for a complete box.

Material types

You can produce dovetails from a wide range of wood materials, but not all dovetailers can deliver a quality finish and all types of material. For cabinetry, birch plywood and solid wood are the most common materials used in drawer production. However, they machine very differently. It used to be that dovetailers used interlocking gears to turn multiple spindles simultaneously. This meant high production, but the finish could be sub-standard at times. The RPM of these spindles was around 6000 RPM which is far too slow for machining plywood. The slow RPM cutters would result in “furring” or a poor-quality cut requiring sanding when machining with plywood. Today, most dovetailers produced have an RPM of 18000, making them ideal for machining a wide range of materials.

Some shops purchase their drawer material pre-finished if they do not have a proper finishing department. The pre-finished plywood surface can be quite brittle, and machining it can result in chipping along the face. A CNC dovetailer works very well with this material as it can score before plunging it. This acts almost like a scoring blade on a panel saw.

How to assemble?

When assembling dovetail drawer boxes, you have a few choices. Before assembly, glue should be dropped in the pocket of each tail. Option one is to use a trusted mallet to tap the parts together. The dovetails should fit together approximately 2/3 the way and require force to close the joint. Option 2 is a proper drawer clamp. A drawer clamp allows you to assemble the drawer in the clamp itself and then press the pieces together pneumatically or mechanically. The simple advantage of this system is the speed and squareness of the drawer. 

How to machine for soft-close drawer slides? 

The popularity of under-mount soft-close hardware has taken off in the past few years. It has the advantage of being out of sight, so aesthetically pleasing. It maximizes the drawer’s width as you do not need space on either side for hardware. To mount the under-mount slides to the bottom of the drawer, you need to notch out the drawer’s back according to the width of the slide you are installing, and this can range by manufacturer. There is a small location hole for the slide to fit into that must be machined. The alternative would be machining the drawer parts on a table saw with a dado cutter and using a drill template for the location hold. Both work, your production requirements will help you justify one solution over the other, processing up to 220 drawer boxes per hour.

Ryan Akhurst is the Co-owner and Vice President of Akhurst Machinery, leading the fourth-generation family-owned company.

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