A Mortise and Tenon Primer

(I put this together well before the Feb 2003 Fine Woodworking article by Garret Hack - Joining Legs to Aprons came out)

There are things you need to know to make things fit together well that are so basic that the experienced woodworkers who write books or articles or teach assume everyone knows. They assume that it's common knowledge and so obvious that it isn't worth mentioning. Much of this stuff is obvious - once you have someone point it out - or you've spent a bit of time thinking about all the reasons why what you were trying to do and what you did aren't the same.

As a relative newbie to woodworking I've been frustrated by the lack of really basic, but essential, knowledge, skills and techniques which are assumed as givens in so many woodworking books, magazines and web site articles. The people writing the books and articles have decades of experience and often assume the reader has their "common knowledge" of really basic stuff. The problem is there are few sources for acquiring this really basic stuff. One of the things I'm trying to do with my woodworking site is to fill in some of those gaps by using myself as a guinea pig. As I make things I try to document the basic processes and spend a lot of time on my screws ups - why, how, what should I have done instead. If, while going through what follows, you ask yourself "This is really basic stuff - does he think I'm an idiot?" I can only say that I put this stuff together for myself - you draw your own conclusions. BUT - if it helps save some other newbie some grief or gets a newbie to try something they thought was too difficult - well all the better.

While doing a mortise and tenon joined base cabinet for a mortising machine of all things, I made some notes about mortise and tenon work. The hope is that the next time I'll use these notes to avoid some of the problems I created for myself due to ignorance and short sightedness. Perhaps the information will also be helpful to others who want to try mortise and tenon joinery. And maybe they'll avoid some frustration and grief. That's the hope.

Here's what I hope to cover on the mortise and tenon joint:

Table of Content
(Note: each of the following "pages" is actually a GIF file you can download to your computer and print at your leisure. Take the pages out to the shop for you first mortise and tenon piece and go through them BEFORE you start marking up your components. Just a suggestion )

  1. Why Use a Mortise and Tenon Joint?
  2. Tons of Types of Tenons
  3. The Importance of Stock Preparation ( trapezoids don't make rectangles )
  4. Six Degrees of Freedom ( of movement )
  5. Thinking Things Through - First ( prior planning prevents poor performance? )
  6. How Wide? How Tall? How Deep? ( does size matter? You betcha' )
  7. Mortise and Tenon Reference Faces ( mark 'em or moan later )
  8. Mortise and Tenon Layout ( lead lines are lousy )
  9. Layout Tools ( some of what's available and a recomendation )
  10. How to Use Layout Tools (these things don't come with instructions )
  11. Mortise First or Tenon First? ( The chicken or the egg? )
  12. Making the Cut(s) ( handsaw, bandsaw, table saw, router? )
  13. How Tight is Too Tight? ( cut to size and beat to fit? )
  14. Fixes for F**K UPS
  15. Peg It, Wedge It or Just Glue It? (under construction)