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Early Dovetails

A question on dovetails on WoodCentral led to a discussion of their history, and one of the posters produced a link to a photo of a box with some of (if not the) earliest examples of dovetails on record:

 Roman Dovetails
 Ancient Roman box, dated from the 2nd or 3rd century, currently located in Limesmuseaum Aalen (German language site) in Baden Württemberg.
See the original link (Google translation) to the photo on

It's a fascinating piece, I think most would agree.  I love this sort of old research...  and there's some real sophistication in the design of this box - though I guess sophistication shouldn't be a surprise when you review artworks of the period.  Helenistic statues display the foremost sophistication, for example...  But I digress

The poster also included an informative link to another German site on Roman woodworking tools I also found very interesting.

This box some fairly sophisticated woodworking - and obviously the dovetails' design is well developed at this point.   It's pretty obvious to me that they've been around for (literally) thousands of years...  Interesting that the idea of craftsmanship hasn't really changed all that much in all this time, isn't it?  There is a legacy to woodworking that goes back hundreds of generations, which is something that is easy to forget in the "we do it so much better now" frame of mind.

 It reminds me of some of the items that have been passed down to me..,.  One of my most treasured came from the old country with my grandparents - it's a traveling/storage box known as a "koffort":


Koffort - an antique Icelandic traveling/storage box that's been in my family for at least 150-200 years.

This box was originally made in Iceland, and my parents both believe it is at least 150  years old, and was quite possibly much, much older than that.  It was handed down to my father from his great grandfather when he was 13 years old...  By dad's account, his great grandfather had told him that "it was very old" when he himself had received it from his great-grandfather when he was 13 years old in 1933.  If we trace that path, his great grandfather would have been 13 years old in 1868, a difference of 65 years.  I don't know where, when, or by who it came into his great-grandfathers possession - but if it was "very old" then, I would guess that makes it at least 50 years older than that, which puts it at 1818 or so - and it could easily be yet older - but I have no documentation or even any oral history beyond what I've told you.

The construction of the box is quite simple and elegant - very similar to a "six board chest", but without any legs and a slightly more involved lid design.  The corners are dovetailed, and an iron strap has been added for strength at each corner:


Dovetailed corner with iron strap

I doubt the strap was original to the box - most like it was added some time later.  These boxes were heavily used and abused, and traveled with the owner all over creation.  Often they would also be used like what you would use a safe for today...  The angled "handle" on the side is repeated on the far side and is angled to make the box easier to be packed on the back of a mule, horse, or ox.

Inside the only additional item is a small tray at one end:


Interior view

Looking closely at the tray, you can see it's also dovetailed - and you can see the primitive hinges, which I also believe are not original:


Tray at one end is also dovetailed

The fact this is also dovetailed is important in showing the attention to detail this box was given during it's construction.  One also has to remember that when this box was built, Iceland had no real native timber of it's own.  Almost all wood came in the form of imports from abroad or, and this is more likely the case for a personal item like this, from driftwood.  Logs would follow the current up to the shores of Iceland having started anywhere along the shore from the Caribbean to upper Labrador in Canada.  Wood, therefore, was quite precious.

Another similar example I have is a larger version of the koffort, which I guess is called a "kista":


Kista - a larger version of the koffort

This is from mother's side of the family.  It's not nearly as old, I believe mom thought it dated to the late 19th or early 20th century.  It's a little more crudely made, but still uses dovetails in it's construction:


Dovetails on the Kista

 This particular box sat in a dirt floor barn for many years, and the bottom had rotted out of it.  Dad repaired it at the same time he refinished the koffort.  He did a good job at the restoration, but I'm not so proud of the finishes he chose.  But still, I'm proud to have them both here with me.

In my spare time over the last couple of years I've been working  on my own version of a koffort.  I'll post about it someday when I'm finished, but needless to say that anything I do will pale in comparison when you consider the history of these pieces, which is what I think truly makes them special.  I can only hope that, some couple hundred years from now, somebody is marveling over my creation wondering who the craftsman was that made it, why he did, and if he was as proud of his koffort then as I am of owning it now.





Very cool photos! By the look of the Roman box, they were fond of using the English style dovetail.  J
I read somewhere that dovetails originated in ancient Egypt.  Even if it's the Romans who were the inventors, it's very interesting that they set the standard that still cannot be improved upon.
I like the photos of your family's traveling cases.  The koffort in particular is very handsome.  I wonder why the lid was built in the shape of a shallow peak.  Design feature?  Added luggage space?  To discourage kids from sitting on it?
I'll look forward to seeing your version!



Thanks, though I can't take any credit for the photo of the Roman box...  I've heard that dovetails were used by Egyptians, too...  I don't know what the proof of that is, it's just here-say coming from me.  But I don't doubt it...  Guess we really can't call them "English" style, eh?
I don't know why the lid of the koffort is peaked...  There's actually a gap between the boards, so it certainly didn't keep the rain out.   I asked my folks about that once, but he didn't know either - mom figured it was because the people we are talking about were poor - very, very poor.  Starving, as a matter of fact - family stories from that time include stories of siblings begging for food from door to door and one dying of starvation between two houses - and wood was both rare and expensive.  It could have been that was simply the wood they could get a hold of.
 There's an ever-so-slight ship-lap to the top of the case where the lid meets it that doesn't correspond to anything else that confuses me too - but the lid appears to be made by the same hand as the base.  A hollowed out area shows where there was once an iron lock installed thats long been missing. 
Lots of mysteries surround it, but in the end all I really know is that it was really treasured - enough so it was the only furniture piece that made it all the way to their homestead in the new world from the old country.  Or - perhaps that in itself was the reason it was valued so...

<p>With a history like that, it certainly is something to be cherished, and it found its way into the correct appreciative hands.</p>


I have seen an Egyptian sarcophagus built with sliding dovetails as well as some small boxes with corner dovetails from 2000bc as well as the later roman examples you have above. There is still a huge gap until they begin to appear regularly again in the 1300's in western woodworking.