Dovetail joinery for pine coffin corners

dovetail joinery

dovetail joinery image courtesy of diydoctor.org.uk

Dovetail joinery came up at a funeral this week.

What’s a better look for the corners of a Piedmont Pine Coffin, I asked the funeral director, as a beautifully decorated pine coffin was being fitted into its concrete vault and lowered into the grave. Post-and-panel construction, or dovetail joinery?

I’d used post-and-panel for this particular coffin, and with sides overlapping ends by half an inch it looked great when I delivered it. But the job the family did — wow! A polyurethane stain, a hand-etched decorative cuff around the lid, plus a pine-bough and flower arrangement on top symbolizing life, land, and kin for the matriarch of the family. The overall effect was eye-grabbing. The minister, the assembled family, the funeral director himself — all said they’d never seen anything like it. At Piedmont Pine Coffins we always applaud the active involvement of the family in adding those personal finishing touches.

Graveside, the funeral director turned, looked right at me, and voted for dovetail joinery. We’re renovating our kitchen, he said, so we’re putting in new cabinets and drawers. Now, I’m a pinch-penny. I don’t like to spend for anything. But when we looked at the cabinet options, my wife looked at me and said, Look, you don’t get anything quality for nothing these days. And I was won over. The dovetails were that much nicer. So we’re spending the extra thousands for those dovetails, he said.

Dovetail joinery is very strong. It is typically used for drawers or other furniture elements that get pulled thousands upon thousands of times. Dovetails are exalted in the canon of joinery since they are tricky to execute well and beautiful to behold.

How about dovetail joinery for coffin corners? Mind you, we’re talking about hand-cut dovetails. No mechanical jigs or power tools to aid speed and accuracy.

I say yes, for a couple of reasons. It’s a great way to make the all-wood coffin required by some Jewish burials. (On that note, Bill Anderson of Edwards Mountain Woodworks, one of my design mentors, assures me, too, that dovetail joinery is preferred by default as a box construction method in parts of the world where access to metal screws or nails and glue is limited.) Also, there is the added value in the beauty of the joint. It’s very unique. No one else is doing coffins this way, as far as I can tell.

There are a few special challenges. Dovetails are most often used on small pieces of wood that are easy to clamp to a standard workbench. Clamping is half the secret of all woodworking. To upscale to coffin size, I built a special wood frame to affix large boards to the workbench. Also, pine is not the easiest wood for fine joinery, so I upgraded to two special tools that should pay off (via less time, fewer hand cramps and less frustration, mainly) in the workshop.

The first tool is a Japanese dovetail saw with a depth stop. The depth stop lets you cut the dovetails to the proper depth quickly and accurately. I got mine from JapanWoodworker.com for about $75. Its cut-on-the-pull design goes well with the way my large-scale wood clamping frame works.

dovetail joinery

dovetail joinery image courtesy of diydoctor.org.uk

The second tool is a very nice coping saw for about $150 from Knew Concepts. You use the thin blade of a coping saw to cut away the wood you don’t want between the pins and the tails of the dovetails. The older, weaker coping saws made this job, as hand tool pro Chris Schwarz put it, like cutting with a “floppy steel hotdog.”

Here’s hoping dovetails will be a beautiful design for Piedmont Pine Coffins.