How to Date Antique Furniture by Dovetails? [Expert Tips Included]

Nothing is more charming and classier than decorating your home with antique furniture. Modern machine-made furniture might be more sophisticated and stylish than old-age pieces, but vintage furniture is undoubtedly more elegant. Moreover, it was sturdier, having high-quality material that could withstand time.

Due to covid 19, we spend most of our time at home, increasing our tendency to decorate our living spaces. Furthermore, people started taking an interest in buying more art and antique pieces to decorate and feel cozier at home.

According to statistics, the market of art and antiques remarkably rose higher in 2020-21. The global market amounted to 13.3 billion USD in 2021, making it a promising industry that is only going up.

People started selling more vintage furniture and art pieces from their basements and made good money. If you also have laid your hands on your grandpa’s old table and thinking of dating it for a better rate, don’t fret.

There are several ways to date an item of furniture, for instance, feet, leg style, and wood quality but dovetails the easiest way to date your table with drawers.

Are you curious to know more about it?

Read further as we uncover tips to date your antique furniture by dovetails. We will also educate you about types of dovetails and how they evolved over centuries for a better understanding.

ALSO READ Dating Antique Furniture by Dovetails | Evolution of Dovetailing Over Centuries | Bottomline |

Key Takeaway

  • Dovetailing is a joint used in older times in drawers and chests.
  • You can date a piece of furniture by looking at the dovetail detailing and finishing.
  • Beautifully crafted dovetailing with even spacing is a sign of machine-made furniture.
  • Look for hide glue in the dovetailing to know the actual age of the furniture.
  • Detailing has four types through, lapped, mitered, and sliding keyhole.
  • The 17th Century had broad and irregular dovetails that refined and sophisticated with time.

Did you Know?

Dovetails were first used in ancient Egyptian times. You can find traces of dovetails on furniture entombed with mummies.

Tips to Date Antique Furniture by Dovetails

Dating your old furniture by dovetails requires a keen eye to observe the minor differences. Moreover, you need to know about different variations of dovetailing to date your drawers or table more accurately. Here are a few helpful tips that can make things easier for you.

Carefully Look at the Dovetail Finishing.

The key to identifying antique furniture by dovetailing is carefully examining its detailing. There were no machines available for cutting wood in older times.

Additionally, skilled woodcarvers and craftsmen cut the pins and tails by hand using saws and wood chisels. No matter how accurate and precise it gets, a handmade dovetail joint will always have different measurements.

You will notice a difference in thickness and slanting angles in handmade dovetails. In contrast, machine-made dovetail joints are symmetrical and thicker. 

Analyze the Glue

Dovetails are one of the strongest joints in cabinet making that requires immense precision and skill. The craftsman would precisely cut small tails on one board and large pins on the other. Furthermore, the boards had accurate measurements to fit together without gaps or space.

Using glue on the joint would keep the pieces together, making them more robust and sturdy. The glue remnants can tell you a lot about the age of the furniture.

Old-age pieces used hide glue to attach wood pieces. It was a water-soluble adhesive made from the cooking of animal bones and skin. On the other hand, restored furniture uses carpenters or hot glue.

Fun Fact: Dovetail joint got its name due to its resemblance to a bird’s tale.

Veneer Thickness

The veneer is a thin piece of wood commonly used for decorative purposes. Artisans combine it with other wood types using glue, nails, or screws. Cabinet makers would use it to cover the visible edges of a through dovetail.

You can also know the age of your drawer or chest by examining the thickness of the veneer. Moreover, the condition of the material is also a helpful factor.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, veneer cut between 1/8″ to 1/16″ was a common choice for drawers and chests. Subsequently, a 1/32″ cut appeared in the early 20th Century thanks to more advanced machinery that allowed refined cutting without splitting.

Related Read: How To Identify A Morris Chair? (6 Easy Ways Explained)

Know the Dovetail Types

Furniture construction has come a long way and has evolved over centuries. If you want to examine an antique table or chest, you must have ample knowledge about the evolution of dovetailing and its types.

It will help you be more accurate about its age and market value.

Here are a few common types of dovetailing and their respective era.

Through Dovetail

The through dovetail joints are one of the most basic methods of creating cabinet or drawer joints by connecting two pieces of wood in a finger interlocking.

In this type, the ends of the joint are visible, making adhesion of the veneer quite tricky for the cabinet makers.

Initially, it was a popular type of dovetailing; however, by 1730, dovetailing had vanished entirely from cabinet woodworking.

through dovetail

Picture Courtesy

Lapped Dovetails

Lapped dovetails, as the name suggests, are lapped together. Their ends are not visible on the side of the drawers or carcass cases.

Due to the smooth sides and surface, it was much easier to veneer the cabinets. Moreover, painted drawers also used lapped dovetail joints to protect the paint coating.

lapped dovetail

Photo Courtesy

Mitered Dovetail

A mitered dovetail joint is the most refined form of cabinet making that require excellent skills and carving technique.

It provides the strength of the dovetail joint while completely hiding it from the inner and outer corners.

You join two boards together, making a 45-degree angle that results in hiding dovetailing and only showing the plain edges of the drawers.

mitered dovetail

Picture courtesy

Sliding Keyhole

Sliding keyhole is a much-advanced type of dovetailing done by machines. It started in 1890 with the invention of power tools like routers and saw.

The cabinetmakers would join two boards at a right angle where one piece has a tail shape carving, and the other has a socket-like space.

Additionally, joining the two boards would form a tight grip making it a strong joint.

sliding keyhole

Picture courtesy

The Evolution of Dovetailing Over Centuries

Dovetailing is a basic skill among carpenters in woodworking. However, it has changed from year to year. Following are the changes in dovetailing over centuries.

Dovetailing in the 17th Century

Dovetailing in the 17th Century was in an initial stage in furniture construction. It was rough, broad, and primitive. Through dovetail was a typical choice throughout the 17th Century due to its basic appearance.

However, after a few decades, a lapped dovetail joint also became common because of its refined outlook.

Due to their durable properties, Oak and walnut were common furniture materials in the 16th and 17th centuries. You can easily recognize a 17th-century drawer construction as it will have a broad asymmetrical dovetail along with walnut or oak wood material.

Dovetailing in the 18th Century

Cabinet makers stopped using through dovetail by the end of the 17th Century, and the lapped dovetail became a standard joint. The cabinet maker took pride in their skills, making delicate dovetailing a common choice. 

With practice and more advanced tools, the dovetailing detail also improved, and by the end of the 18th Century, it became more symmetrical and refined.

Dovetailing in the 19th Century

Power saws and drills became common in the 19th Century, making machine-cut dovetails more popular. English cabinet makers refused to opt for machinery until the mid-19th Century, but after many patents for machine dovetail joints, they also gave up.

The dovetailing became more detailed, symmetrical, and refined. If a drawer has even spaces and identical dovetails, it is a machine-made joint belonging to the 19th Century.

In a nutshell, if a dovetail is handmade, it means it is pre-1880, as, after that, machines started making more delicate joints. The more primitive the dovetail cut is, the older it is. Here, look at three images to know the evolution of dovetail joints over the centuries.

Initial dovetails were broader and lacked symmetry.The mid-17th to 18-century dovetails were more refined and narrower.The image shows machine-cut dovetails from the early 19th Century. These are more symmetrical and defined.

Picture courtesy: /

Also Read: Types of Wooden Chairs Explained [Care + Maintenance Tips]


If you want to date antique furniture, closely examining the drawer joints can help you. Since earlier times, drawers are always made to be sturdy with durable materials as they have to bear the constant pull and push. The making, joints, and material are critical factors in correctly knowing the furniture’s age.

Dovetailing has also evolved over centuries, and by taking a close look at this joint, you can tell a lot about the age of the furniture. It is better to remember multiple factors while dating antique furniture to get the best guess for its age.

Leave a Comment