Everything you ever wanted to know about Drawer Construction

One of the most recognizable cues indicating quality in wood furniture is English dovetail drawer construction. English dovetails are a desirable type of construction for many reasons. Those include the stability of the joint itself as well as the storage capacity of English dovetail drawers.

We had a couple come into our store who had given their daughter their old bedroom set. They purchased a new bedroom group, from another store, that had French dovetailed drawers. 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.


1. English Dovetail

The quality of English dovetails 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.


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. This combination of features gives the English dovetail its well deserved reputation as the highest quality construction.


2. English Dovetail - outside of drawer 3. English Dovetail - inside of drawer

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 construction you are likely to see 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 less expensive furniture and some special applications, liked curved drawer fronts. They are also found in a lot of imported furniture.

4. French Dovetail 5. French Dovetail

As I've already mentioned, French dovetailed drawers usually provide less storage capacity than English dovetailed drawers (see photo #6). This 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). All of this leads to less storage space, which is especially important in bedroom furniture. 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).


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.

If you take one inch out of the width, depth, and height of an eight-drawer bedroom dresser, you'll lose twenty-eight percent (28%) of the storage capacity of that piece. In the nightstand drawers used for this article, the two French dovetailed drawers provide 4.9 cubic feet of drawer storage; the English dovetailed drawers provide 7.2 cubic feet of drawer storage. The English dovetailed drawers provide 48% more storage!

French dovetails make good drawers. However, they are usually smaller, provide less storage capacity and tend to be in lower-priced products.



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Waupaca, WI 54981

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