Amateur Hour #1: Mortise and Tenon Joinery

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Blog entry by agartzke posted 04-12-2010 05:28 AM 1554 reads 0 times favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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Just got up from the shop (mine’s in the basement) and thought I’d post my first blog entry. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but the mortise and tenon joints I was working on gave me the kick I needed!

A little background first. I live near Milwaukee and the weather is JUST beginning to turn nice, so during this season, I sort of mix it up between landscaping, woodworking (furniture) and remodeling (1926 bungalow – always needs work). I’ve been woodworking in a serious fashion for just over 6 months, as far as furniture is concerned. I’ve built a couple “pieces” prior to this, but they were mostly junk… meaning, good enough to occupy the basement bathroom. I’ve also done lots of remodeling (I’ve completed gutted and restored kitchen, bathroom, etc) so I know my way around power tools and such. What’s new, however, is the actual attempt at FINE woodworking.

As anyone that has started knows, getting from the “screwing around” stage to the serious hobby woodworking is sort of a leap of faith in the cash outlay department! It’s like every time you turn around you need a new tool to do a particular job, and then completing that work creates the immediate need for a whole separate tool. It never ends (and that’s ok with me – maybe not my wife!). So, I picked up my first table saw in October last year (Ridgid R4511), and it has been running away from me ever since. I’ve since gotten: Jointer/Planer combo from Jet, Bandsaw from Grizzly, Oscillating Spindle Sander from Ridgid, routers, and a whole host of other tools. I’m nearly there! I’m just now experimenting with some hand tools.

These purchases (and ENDLESS reading and video watching) have enabled me to really get going on my projects. I’ve not yet posted them, but they should be up in the project section soon. My first REAL project was a solid wood Maple corner cabinet for my newly remodeled bathroom. Took me about a month and a half, but I’m proud of it for a first shot at this. It is mostly hard maple, but has a frame and panel door construction, with the panel being bookmatched Birdseye Maple with 2 Bubinga inlays. The inside has a few more touches of Bubinga. I can’t even tell you how many mistakes are buried in that thing! Luckily, they’re well hidden. The only other project I’ve completed is a Walnut picture frame. Besides those, I’ve got a few jigs under my belt as well – splining, crosscut sled, and the start of a router table.

I suppose the last thing worth mentioning as an introduction would be the reason that I love doing this. I have to give a special thanks to David Marks – his “Wood Works” show caught my eye a couple years ago, and I’ve since went back to it and watched every episode I could find. That man can make some beautiful stuff! I’ve also spent a lot of time watching Marc at and Matt at They do a great job.

So anyways, onto the whole reason for this post… I’m currently building a small table and chair set for my daughter (she’s two), and my soon to be second daughter. Normal kid size stuff. I laid out plans to create one table and two chairs to be done entirely in Walnut. So far, everything is going (mostly) according to plan. I’ve gotten everything done including the curved legs (bought the OSS for that bit), tenons, panel construction and all the other milling. So the last bit is finally here, and probably the reason I’d been delaying the finishing steps. MORTISES.

Now, as a rookie to this stuff, let me tell you. Mortises are a scary thing. Yes, I’ve created a test mortise or two, but they were sloppy as heck, and basically just holes in the wood. I hadn’t really done an integral tenon, and had to make the mortise fit it… NEWS FLASH: there’s a reason why making the mortises first is a good idea. So, I had to make mortises fit the tenons. I had some goofy measurement, so I spend like an hour transferring all my measurements and such. Kind of snuck up on me just how many of these dang things I would have to make! Going from 2 or 3 test mortises to 24 real ones that need to support kids racking the heck out of them is quite a jump! I got much better as I went through the first eight.

I can say that the biggest lesson I learned (other than the order of creation) is that making the mortises too close to the top of the legs creates a (fixable) disaster waiting to happen. I blew out three of the 8 mortises that I created by pushing the end grain right out the top. I guess next time I’ll create some spacing there. I decided to call it quits after completing the table. I’ve got some sanding to do, then assembly for that. Then I’ll move onto the chairs themselves. I’m going to do my best to keep up with this through the blog and see how this goes.

For anyone reading – THANKS! And enjoy my trials and tribulations…

4 comments so far

View GregD's profile


788 posts in 3131 days

#1 posted 04-12-2010 02:52 PM

How are you cutting your mortises?

I am gearing up for doing my first mortise & tenon joints. I decided to buy a tenoning jig for my TS, and to make a mortising jig, which I started this weekend. Mine is a bit more simple than this one:

-- Greg D.

View davidpettinger's profile


661 posts in 3196 days

#2 posted 04-12-2010 03:06 PM

Try this video, great tips for your project.

-- Methods are many,Principles are few.Methods change often,Principles never do.

View agartzke's profile


47 posts in 3022 days

#3 posted 04-13-2010 04:24 AM

GregD – I tried the test ones entirely by hand and chisel. That took a while. The ones for the table, I hogged out most of the material at the drill press with a forstner bit and then cleaned it up with my chisels. As for tenoning, I’ve just been using the table saw and cutting the shoulders, followed by buzzing off the remainder of the stock. Next time I’ll use a dado set, since cleaning up the kerf marks took more time than setting up the dado stack would have! The link you posted seems like a great shop built jig for this purpose. How do you like using it?

UnionLabel – thanks for that link – that’s one sweet setup. When I get some spare cash, I may have to invest in something like that. These were at a price point I can enjoy… free!

View GregD's profile


788 posts in 3131 days

#4 posted 04-14-2010 02:25 PM

agartzke – I considered trying mortises by hand and chisel after hogging out at the drill press but thought it would take a fair bit of practice before I was happy with them. It seems you did that experiment and got that result. Tenons on the TS with a dado stack should work just find I would think, provided the blade height doesn’t drift. I’m still finishing up my mortising jig so I haven’t cut anything with it yet, but I’ll let you know how it works. Hopefully this weekend. I went real cheap on my jig – 3/4 mdf – and it went together very easily with glue and screws. The top and front face weren’t exactly perpendicular, but 3 layers of scotch tape on the underside of the top along one edge shimmed things into perfect alignment. I’m sticking with the cheap strategy until I see how well it works and how often I use it.

-- Greg D.

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