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The Sliding Dovetail Cleat

Hang a mantel shelf without visible fasteners

A recent article in THISisCarpentry—“Craftsman Style Mantel and Bookcases,” by Brian Cinski Jr.—referenced the book “Building Fireplace Mantels,” by Mario Rodriguez. Brian used this book to replicate a stunning Charles Rennie Mackintosh mantel and bookcase. I was intrigued, and ordered a copy of the book. Inside, I found many great tips, as well as a plethora of techniques I had never imagined. One in particular amazed me: the “sliding dovetail cleat.”

On page 71, the sliding dovetail cleat is shown as a way to hang decorative, non-supportive corbels on a mantel shelf, without the use of visible fasteners. The moment I saw this, I had a “Why didn’t I think of that?!” moment.

(Note: Click any image to enlarge. Hit your browser’s “back” button to return to this article.)

The joint is extremely simple to make. I’m sure it’s been around forever and is used in many applications, but since I’m primarily a finish carpenter, I don’t get to see many shop “woodworking tricks.” But that’s starting to change, now that I’m more open to learning and seeking out new techniques.

It’s also just a matter of trying out a new technique when the opportunity arises. It might be easier and faster to just throw in a nail or screw and be done with it, but there are many advantages to reinforcing your work, especially when it comes to long-term durability.

One thing I’ve learned first-hand, and strongly believe, is that if you always go for what’s easiest, you will never progress past a certain point. This is especially true with finish carpentry. It’s not enough just to read about new techniques—you need to find ways to incorporate them into your work. The more you have in your skill set, the more you’ll have to offer when bidding on a job, or when confronted with a tough situation.

And, besides, it’s just fun using tools!

To set up, you’ll need a dovetail bit, and some extra stock to make the cleat. For my project, I used a 1-in. dovetail bit, but you can use a smaller bit and make the slot any size you want. I like the larger bits, though, because they allow you to get it in one pass or setup.

You will want to use a router table for safety and ease. Set your desired depth. I set mine for 3/4 in. deep, so I could make my cleat out of some 1x stock later.

After you get the bit set up on the router table, it helps to calibrate your fence scale to the bit, so that “0″ is center of the bit. If you don’t have a scale, you can manually set your bit to the right settings. Make a practice pass just to be sure.

The center measurement on your corbel will now translate perfectly to your set scale, so you can set your fence to route the slot in the center of your corbel.

My corbels were cedar, so I was able to make my dovetail slot in one pass at full depth. You may have to make minor adjustments, depending on your corbel material. For hardwoods or other applications, you may need to use a straight cutter that’s the same size as the narrow side or shank of the dovetailing bit—make a few passes to get your slot to depth. Then come in with the dove tail bit at full depth to cut the tapered sides of the slot.

Using a stop block or reference mark on the table will allow you to make sure you don’t cut all the way through the corbel. Stop the bit about 1 in. or so from the face of the corbel. Make sure to use feather boards where you can while making your cuts.

After making the cuts, do not change the depth of your router setting, since we’re not yet done with the router. Slide the fence to “0” (this is where having an adjustable fence is really handy).

Now you’re perfectly in-line with your bit to run some stock through to cut the tapered sides of the cleat. You can manually set this if you want or need to—just run some test pieces and fine-tune your settings until it cuts a perfect “taper to nothing.”

Rip down some 3/4-in. stock on the table saw to exactly the width of the wide end of the dovetail cut. If you need to widen your dovetail slot (for even more holding power), measure the top of the taper and rip your stock to this measurement. Because I used a 1-in. bit for my slot, I ripped some 1x stock exactly 1 in. wide.

Now run the cleat stock through your router table on each side. If you’re set up properly, the dovetailing bit will make a cut that tapers out to nothing. This is what you want.
Now you can test the fit and make any adjustments needed.
Mark and cut your cleats to length. They should fit snugly!
Find the center of where your corbels will go, and mount the cleat to your shelf with some screws. Be aware of which side is up when mounting the cleats. I put mine upside down the first time.

Now your corbels can slide right up to the mantel shelf, nice and snug.

Glue is optional, unless you want them to be permanent. For some applications it could be handy to have them removable.

Hey look! No unsightly face screws up into the mantel shelf, just my decorative (fake) bolts. I wonder where else I can use this trick!…

Comments/Discussion

14 Responses to “The Sliding Dovetail Cleat”

  1. Eric Tavitian

    This is a time tested method of blind attachment that my own dad taught me when I was just beginning my apprenticeship back in the 60s. I’ve been doing this on a lot of projects over the years and it works remarkably well. Come to think of it I don’t believe a single corbel has ever fallen off one of my projects. I guess it really works. There are a lot of guys that have never used this old shop trick or even know about it so it’s good that you did this article. Good execution and good job showing us Jesse.

    Reply
  2. Jesse Wright

    Eric,

    Thank You for the comments! It really makes this trade fun when we get a chance to do something a little different. So many options available to us carpenters for our task. Its nice to bring in those “time tested” tricks when we can. I would of never learned this if it wasn’t for picking up a book. My apprenticeship started working with my Dad in 1994. By then a lot of this trade had changed, or was changing even more. So the little tricks like this one seem to fade.

    Glad you enjoyed the read!

    Reply
    • Keith Mathewson

      Nice job Jesse,
      If you do the same thing on the vertical it is structural as well and eliminates the need for screw holes. Just support until glue sets.

      Reply
  3. Alton Ayer

    Same subject, different application. I have an old wooden box made of wide planks.The lid is about 18 inches wide. A tapered dovetail “cleat” is used to keep the lid from warping.

    Reply
  4. Matt Follett

    Can I just say that old school craftsmanship rules and just leave it at that?

    Good write up Jesse. I’m working on a project right now where I’m toying with the idea of using sliding dovetails. Reading this has me convinced it’s the way to go.

    Reply
  5. Dale Thomas

    What a great article. I am not a woodworker or even a carpenter, but you make it sound easy. (providing you have the tools) Makes me want to give it a shot.

    Reply
  6. mgfranz

    Great article! Sometimes it’s the little things that make our jobs almost seem magical.

    I use sliding dovetails in a number of ways. Shelving is a great way to combine strength and assembly. I have used this method to attach drawer fronts to sides for an ultra-strong almost hidden joint, especially if you are using inset drawers. I once put together a students desk using nothing but sliding dovetails.

    Oh, and Ross, thanks for the link to FastCap, I’m a little poorer now…

    Reply
  7. ALEX M

    ross,
    if you are into green and green stuff I’ll make a post here soon when we hang this next door. It is a g and g original purchased by the homeowners from southeby’s. we are nearly trimmed out and the details for setting this piece of art glass will arrive soon.

    Reply
  8. michael

    great article. i am doing a similar project soon and was going to use a key hole type set up, but im gonna give this a method a shot. looks great.
    Michael

    Reply
  9. ebones

    Two things puzzled me about your project. 1) How did you attach the mantel? Looks like in this case the corbels could have been functional. I suppose if there was no backing in the appropriate locations and one had to mount the mantel instead, wouldn’t it have been easier to use real fasteners for the corbels ( just some drywall anchors and perhaps glue to the mantel, especially if one is going to the trouble of making ‘fake’ anchors?

    I admit it looks like a fun exercise, and a good joint to practice: but I think having the dovetails on the mantel/wall might have been more useful.

    Reply
  10. Jesse Wright

    Thank you all for the great comments!

    Alex M and Ross,

    I have to make a correction because I’m such a Huge “Greene & Greene” fan. Its not green and green. :)
    Even fast cap got it wrong on their packaging of thier Artisan caps. (Which are awesome BTW)

    I’d love to see a picture as well of that real G&G door! In the words of Indiana Jones ” It belongs in a MUSEUM” just seems right for this LOL :D Get TONS of pictures and do a write up for TIC. That would make a great story.

    For those interested about how I installed this mantel I attached a picture. This mantel was stoned in after installation and I wanted to make this whole assembly removable later down the road incase any thing were to happen. This ledger combined with the dove tail cleats would ensure that the shelf and the corbels would remain as one peice. Even after some anticipated shrinkage, and movement. This mantel was large and heavy. Mounting just the corbels in those locations (to studs or drywall anchors) would not have been enough to support the cantalever of the shelf. So a ledger was mortised in with through bolts for the mount. It worked out great!

    The Decorative fake bolts were something that my customer wanted. She wanted the look of exposed hardware. It made for a nice look. Fast caps G&G artisan caps would of been a great touch for this mantel. However they were not available at the time of this install. The customer really like the look of the bolts.

    Thanks again for all the comments!

    Reply
  11. Jesse Wright

    [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Ledger mounted.JPG[/img]
    [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Level Ledger.JPG[/img]
    Here are the mounting pictures. :)

    Reply

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