Daily Tao / 332 – Dovetail


“Measure twice, cut once,” said the old craftsman.
Only careful planning and patient skill make a dovetail.

Early cabinetmakers were faced with the problem of joining two pieces of wood together at a right angle so that they would bear the stress not only of use but of the weather as well. Especially in places where the summers are hot and humid and the winters are dry and cold, a plank of wood might change its dimensions by a quarter- to a half-inch. Quite enough to make joints fall apart and drawers stick!

The dovetail joint holds because the two interlocked pieces of wood expand and contract at the same rate. The direction of the pull is against the locking of the joint. The byproduct of all this fine craft is a joint so precisely fitted that it is a thing of beauty in and of itself.

Cutting a dovetail joint is a demanding skill. The lines must be laid out with great care, and the cutting must be carefully done using a thin saw. The waste must be slowly trimmed away with a sharp chisel until both sides mate tightly. The making of a dovetail joint requires planning, skill, and patience.

Nowadays, cheap synthetic materials do not breathe with the seasons. That might reduce inconvenience, but it has also reduced the chance for another relationship to Tao. For when the cabinetmakers sought to build furniture that was compatible with the wood, the seasons, and their own ingenuity, they were perfectly in tune with Tao.