My woodworing ideas and tips #7: The lowly butt joint

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Blog entry by Betsy posted 07-06-2008 09:18 PM 7981 reads 0 times favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 6: Marking and cutting Part 7 of My woodworing ideas and tips series Part 8: Hand planes and their many uses »

In my continuing effort to show that woodworking can be simple and easy I present my next “tip.”

I appreciate your looking/reading and your comments/input.

The butt joint is probably one of the most degraded and misunderstood joint in woodworking, yet it is the easiest to make. It can also be a very strong joint if done properly and used in the right application.

A butt joint generally is one board’s edge placed against another’s face.



A butt joint needs a mechanical fastener, such as a nail or screw (generally in conjunction with glue) to work.

One thing that I always found when I taught beginning woodworking was that people made deciding how to decide how to determine where to insert the fasteners for the joint an adventure. It was surprising how many people take the long road when the short lane was the easiest to take. They measure on the front side where the board is, then they flip the board over and mark that measurement on the outside then add the thickness to know where to drill a pilot hole. This creates a lot of room for error and frustration.

The easiest way to determine where to put your fasteners is to do all the marking from the inside.

Make sure your board/shelf if square to the face board.


Then mark both sides of the board’s outline.


you can then mark the location where you want the fasteners to be placed.


You can then drill the holes from the inside. Make sure you use a backer board to keep from having some splitting on the outside/face of your board.


If I am going to use nails to fasten my boards – I like to use a nail spinner. The spinner, with the appropriate nail inserted, essentially drills the nail into your board. Generally using the spinner makes it so that you do not have to drill a pilot hole for the nail.


The spinner can be purchased from Lee Valley. I’ve never seen one at the box stores, but then I’ve not looked recently for one becuase I only need one!

If you are going to use screws to fasten your board you MUST drill a pilot hole or you risk splitting your wood. There are bits that countersink and drill the pilot hole at the same time.

The butt joint is definitely a good joint if done properly. This shelf was done with all butt joints and nails.


Some day soon (yeah right) I might put a finish on it.

Other alternatives for fasteners besides nails and screws are dowels and biscuits. I’m not set up to show those though.

Butt joints can be made stronger by using shallow dado’s to fit then in or using a cleat to sit them on. I would not consider using a butt joint with only glue—- it always should have a mechanical fastener of some sort. This joint, used in the right application is a very versatile joint to use. It should not be overlooked or frowned upon. It can hold a good amount of weight depending on the thickness/length of the board.

So that’s my tip for the day. I hope it’s not been to simplistic and that it helps someone along their woodworking journey.

I appreciate all your encouragement!

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

7 comments so far

View FlWoodRat's profile


732 posts in 3871 days

#1 posted 07-06-2008 10:30 PM

Betsy, I can hardly wait for my fellow LJ’s to start making jokes about your BUTTTT joints. I would never do that.. Nice work ma’am and thanks for the tips. I agree that if weight loading is not an issue, butt joints are fine. The nice thing about using a small rabbett is that it hides minor imperfections in the endgrain cuts. Thanks for sharing your work with us Betsy

-- I love the smell of sawdust in the morning....

View steveosshop's profile


230 posts in 3588 days

#2 posted 07-07-2008 12:35 AM

Thanx for the tip. I use a doweling jig on a lot of butt joints to try and cut down on mechanical fasteners whenever possible. But you are right they are a good joint.

-- Steve-o

View lew's profile


12015 posts in 3717 days

#3 posted 07-07-2008 12:45 AM

Great post, Betsy! Thanks!

It is a simple way of joining but can very effective, as you pointed out.


[Sorry, no smart a** comments today :>) ]

-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View Sac's profile


268 posts in 3595 days

#4 posted 07-07-2008 12:45 AM

Nice work Betsy. Would brads work in place of nails here as long as there was glue? Or would that compromise it’s strength?

-- Jerry

View Betsy's profile


3391 posts in 3858 days

#5 posted 07-07-2008 01:00 AM

Jerry – I’m no expert, but I believe that brad nails have heads similar to box or common nails. Heads that are flat and wider than the body of the nail. In addition brads are generally smaller than finish nails.

Most applications that you would use a butt joint on you would want to hide the head of the nail. Such as in the side of a shelving unit. Hiding the head of a finish nail is much easier. Hiding the head of a box or common nail and a brad nail is hard, if not impossible. In addition, a finish nail has an indention in its head which is used to place a nail set into it so as to hammer it below the surface of your work piece.

I don’t think a brad nail would be practical for most applications for a butt joint.

Hope that helps.

-- "Our past judges our present." JFK - 1962; American Heritage Magazine

View Don Niermann  's profile

Don Niermann

218 posts in 3934 days

#6 posted 07-07-2008 02:42 AM

If you are going to nail use cut nails they have more holding power.

-- WOOD/DON ( has the right to ones opinion but not the right to ones own facts...)

View Allison's profile


819 posts in 3761 days

#7 posted 07-21-2008 07:57 PM

I love the shelf you made here and I LOVE this post. I have never heard of a nail spinner in my life, and I am serious. You learn something new everyday at L.J.’s
Thanks Betsy

-- Allison, Northeastern Ca. Remember, Amateurs built the Ark. Professionals built the Titanic!

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