In a recent Blog by Obi, he discussed using a router to cut mortises, and this started up a discussion, in which Don cautioned against getting a Hollow Chisel Mortiser. I think there are good thoughts on both sides of this debate, and I don’t mean to do anything other than offer some more experience about purchasing and using a Mortiser, and other methods of cutting mortises.
As in anything, the more money you spend, the better tool you get. If I were buying just what I wanted, not what I could afford, I would get a big mortiser, and the floor model Powermatic looks like a good one, especially the one that allows me to angle the cut, and offers a hand screw clamp to hold the work piece tight. However, in my business, money is an issue, and so I must compromise between cost, speed, and ease of use.
I have done successful mortising several ways:
1) Hand chiseling out the mortise, using only a chisel to remove material.
2) Hand chiseling out the mortise, using a drill bit to remove the bulk of the material
3) Routering the mortise with a hand-held plunge router
4) Horizontally mounting a router in a shop built fixture (ended up in the burn barrel).
5) Using a bench top hollow chisel mortiser.
6) Using my Legacy Ornamental Mill to router out mortises in table legs.
Another method I have not tried yet:
7) I want a “Multirouter”.
Here is a link to see what it looks like http://www.djmarks.com/multirouter.asp.
I think the joints I am most proud of are the hand chiseled ones, but nobody else can tell, as each of the methods I have used over the years has provided accurate, nicely fitting joints. However, I know which ones I am most proud of, and it is always the chiseled ones. So, what’s the difference in choosing one method over another? I think it is mainly in the time required to do each of the processes, and how hard a person wants to work.
For most of us, I think “saving time” is probably the biggest factor in our decision in choosing a method for cutting a mortise. In my mind, “Accuracy” is the most important criteria, but I always “hear” people talk about “speed first.” I am reminded of those Summer Driver’s Education Films, and so I still think that “Speed Kills” to some degree even in woodworking. So, if I can hand cut a mortise with a chisel, but the joint is sloppy and loose, then I should have used another method, as Accuracy is the Criteria that I feel is most important.
To beat a dead horse (Kansas Figure of Speech) I think for most woodworkers the speed of cutting a mortise should not be such a high priority concern. If you love working wood in your hobby time, and you are making an heirloom piece, why does it matter if you make a mortise in 15 minutes, or an hour? The experience and chest-thumping might be worth the time using only a chisel.
For those making a living on the craft, speed pays the bills to certain extent. More importantly, I think it is a mattern of what a craftperson is selling that pays the bills. Are you selling a piece of furniture that fills a need in the home, or an heirloom piece of functional-art? These characteristics aren’t the same in my book, and so the joinery methodology should reflect the goal you are wanting to achieve.
Do Customers Really Care?
One time I met a guy in central Colorado that had a niche of making large carved pieces of furniture without any electricity in his shop. His pieces were massive, and expensive, and “old-school” in every attribute. He heated the shop with wood, worked by oil lamp, and crafted only with hand tools. Did the customers say that the work was too expensive and that he should get electricity and buy some power tools to speed up his work? No, they flocked to his door, as they wanted what he built, and how he built it, and were willing pay for his time to do it that way.
He admitted to me that he started out using only hand tools as he was too poor to put electricity in the rented building, or buy power tools. What he discovered was a hand-crafted niche he had not anticipated. That work led him into timber framing, and then into expensive log-homes where he would live at the job site for a year, cutting down the logs from the site, hand squaring them with an adze, cutting dovetails joints for the corners with a hand saw and chisels. Sure, the customers could buy cheaper logs from a log-mill plant, but they were paying for this methodology of work. I met him in 1997, and he strongly encouraged me to do my best work, regardless of the effort, or time required to do so. I’ve tried to do that since then.
One More Example:
In my last major Commission, the Refined Rustic China Cabinet and Table/Chair Set, my customer (actually just the wife) indicated in every early meeting on the design criteria, that the final cost was a major limitation for us. So, I considered how to accomplish the “look” of what they wanted while saving labor hours. I came back and asked whether they wanted me to biscuit joint all of the joinery, including the door frames and drawers. I offered to them that it would easily save $1,000-$2,000, maybe more. They thought about it a week, and decided they wanted all long tenon joinery, and added “no plywood, and no biscuits”. Enough said. As “Handy Manny” on Nick Jr. says, ”...ok tools, let’s get to work!”
So, it has been my experience over the past two years, that when faced with the decision to save money versus old-school mortise and tenon joinery, the customer has picked the most expensive route. They want to pound their chest as well about what they own.
My recommendation for a hobbyist is that it is hard to beat the chest-swelling pride you can get by hand cutting mortises with a chisel (the same goes for dovetails, but that is another discussion). Just come see my work bench some day, and that is what I will show you, the through tenons with tusk tenon ends and wedges, all cut with a chisel and mallet (before I knew any better). I specifically decided to use that method of cutting the mortises, as I wanted to practice the skills of using a chisel. This skill has been helpful over the years, and I am glad I made the decision to practice the method back in 1998 or 1999.
So, Why Did I Buy a Mortiser?
I purchased a Jet bench-top hollow chisel mortiser because I had just been awarded a large commission to do several Arts & Crafts pieces, and I didn’t want to route, or hand chisel that many joints. I talked with the customer first, and as long as I used traditional style tenons and mortises and no biscuits and no pocket-screws, they were ok with using power tools. So for me, the decision was based on the economics and the quantity of mortises required for the commission, but I checked with the customer first.
I’m glad I made the decision I did to buy the Mortiser, as the extra time allowed me more hours to work my carving into their commission, which eventually is what made the big impact on the pieces. People notice the joinery, but only after they admire the lettering and carved panels.
Looking back on it, I could now see that a more expensive tool would have been easily justified. I think the most important aspect for a professional is simply sell to a customer what you do, and then do what you sell. For instance, if you sell them on tenons, don’t do biscuit joinery. If you sell them on hardwoods, don’t try to hide veneering. Enough said.
Why the Jet?
My decision to buy the Jet was in response to a review I read on mortisers in some magazine (I can’t remember which one now). The magazine article suggested finding a machine that turns at 3450 rpm, and one with twin support towers, as they worked better in their testing.
I looked hard at the Harbor Freight machine, but it was just too cheap looking to assure me that it would cut accurately, and I had about 2 years of work to do with it on the Arts & Crafts commission.
I decided to listen to the magazine’s “unbiased” opinion (is there ever an unbiased opinion?) and looked seriously at the Jet machine, as it was given a “best choice” rating as I remember it.
So, I looked for a 3450 rpm machine and compared prices between a couple of brands and several retail sources, eventually ordering my Jet through Grizzly’s website for around $250, plus shipping, and something like another $100 for the extra chisel bits I wanted. If I would have had $1,000 to spend at the time, I would have gotten the Powermatic, or an equivalent quality machine. I figured at the time that I could always eBay my old Jet when I could afford a bigger machine in the future.Did I Get My Money’s Worth?
Here is a list of some of the projects I have previously posted at LJ, in which I used the Jet Mortiser:
- Sectioned Entertainment Center http://lumberjocks.com/projects/59
- Orchid Stand/Wine Storage http://lumberjocks.com/projects/31
- End Tables http://lumberjocks.com/projects/44
- Coffee Table http://lumberjocks.com/projects/45
- Table Lamps http://lumberjocks.com/projects/41
- Prairie Couch http://lumberjocks.com/projects/37
- Morris Chairs & Ottomans http://lumberjocks.com/projects/57
- China Hutch: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/30
- Dining Chairs: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/2316
- Dining Table: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/2315
- Suitcase Stand: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/2337
- Art-Chair: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/138
- Roll Top Cabinet: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/34
There have been other projects, but I think you get the point. When I add up the sales volume for each of these projects, the time saving, efficient, and accurate Jet Mortiser was a small investment compared to the payoff. This is why I suggest that I should have purchased a more expensive floor standing model. Still, the Jet has performed well, and it is working fine still, ready for service every day.
If money had not been an issue at the time, I would have purchased the “Multirouter” rig, which I learned about watching David Marks on his DIY Woodworks show. This fixture based machinery starts at about $2700, with an easy extra $1500 spent on the accessories that are necessary to have to really get the full potential of the tool.
I met another furniture maker at the Western Design Conference that shelved his hollow chisel mortiser when he bought a Multirouter, and gave testimony that the machine paid for itself quickly. However, the Multirouter does not cut square corner mortises, as it uses a router bit. So, if you want old-school “looking” joinery, you still have to square up the corners by hand, or use a Hollow Chisel mortiser for the job. I mostly want the Mulitrouter to do angled mortises, and for cutting tenons. I would like to build more carved chairs someday, and I think with the Multirouter I could get the labor costs down enough that people would consider buying my work in that medium.
A Multirouter for Hobby Work?
I don’t feel that for most hobbyists in the craft that the Multirouter is really a consideration for them.
Square Peg in a Round Hole? Never.
After having the hollow chisel mortiser in my shop, I think I would like to have both the hollow chisel mortiser, and the Multirouter. There are many situations where I like to quickly set up and “punch” a square hole in a piece of wood. If for no other reason, it just looks cool. I never use round dowels for pegs, I use square holes and square pegs. It just looks cool to me.
I even started making it a design point to always leave my pegs proud of the surface about 1/8” and then hand carve the end a little to give it some texture. Why? I don’t know, everyone else either sands them flush, or cuts a little bevel edge on the end, I just wanted to be different. The texture of the carved end shows up well in the shadowing of light, and it adds an element of “richness” that doesn’t show up in photos, but is apparent in person.
I bought the Jet mortiser about 4 years ago, and I have truly enjoyed using the machine and it has way more than paid for itself in my business. I have liked it so much; I have pondered buying a couple more of them and setting each up with a different chisel to save time in the set up. If I had a bigger shop, this would be a serious consideration.
As with any power tool, there are things to learn, techniques, tricks, do’s and don’ts that seem to be learned best by experience. Some things are pretty routine like, keeping the chisels sharp, the bit sharp, holding the wood tightly, not pushing the chisel ahead of the auger’s ability to keep up, and not putting a mortise where you previously put a nail (ruins your day), etc.
I have learned that if my work piece, such as a table leg, is not perfectly square on all four faces, I am just asking for trouble. Before I had my jointer, I had a lot of trouble with this. The parallel faces don’t have to be off by much to cause problems.
I have also learned to do angled mortises on the Hollow Chisel machine for chair making by using an angled wedge under the work piece. I suppose in about 30 minutes, a smart operator could most likely learn about all that I have learned in using this machine 4 years if they could take in all of the words I used in that 30 minutes.
I have found that setting the auger with more clearance to the chisel barrel helps with the problem of smoking the wood, although it still gets plenty hot. If I am cutting ¼” or 5/16” square mortises, I can cut them as quickly as I could run a drill press/drill bit of the same size. As the bit gets larger, the slower it goes though, the more heat is generated, and the longer I have to wait in between mortises for the bit to cool down.
Karson and I talked on the phone about a month ago and we covered several topics, one of which was mortising. I mentioned that I had trouble with smoke and burning, and that the chisel gets very hot when I am using it. He made the suggestion that I leave more clearance between the bottom auger and the chisel head, and that simple suggestion made a big difference. I was setting up my machine tight enough that the auger bit was pulling out chips that were bigger than the gap they were to exit the chisel barrel through, and so they would get stuck and then would burn. I had tried a lot of different things, but not what Karson had suggested. It was one of those proverbial “forehead slap” moments, and I am thankful for the suggestion.
I am not a stickler for keeping anything super-sharp. I like tools that are super-sharp but they don’t stay that way long, and I just don’t like to spend the time doing it. Karson suggested I get a pyramid hone for the end of the chisel, and I know this would surely help, so this accessory is on my list to buy. I should have ordered one at the start.
The chisels are hard to sharpen, except with the pyramid shaped hone that is built to fit the end of the chisel. I have used a Dremel grinder bit to hand dress the edge, but it is not an exact fit, and so the results weren’t perfect. I have learned to dress up the auger-cutting blade with a file ever-so-often, and I like using dry silicone spray on the auger/chisel. I think if a person would take the time to hone and polish the outside of the square chisel the same as we all prefer our hand chisels to be, it would definitely improve the performance.
When I ordered the Jet, I bought every chisel Jet offered with the machine. I mostly use the ¼”, 5/16” & 3/8” chisels. I have used the ½” chisel to some degree, but as the chisels get bigger, I seem to use them less and less. I think I have used the 1” chisel just one time, never the 3/4” bit, and probably would not recommend purchasing them. I can very efficiently cut two ½” holes side by side to get a 1 inch mortise, and that is what I tend to do now. I used some hefty 1” mortises on the large dining table base I made for the Western Design Conference last year, but other than that, I have not used the 1” bit.
When I did the sliding stepped tenons with square pegs for the floating bread board end of that Dining Table (I hope to write up the process some time), I elected to use a plunge router to make the mortises in the bread board end lumber. So, I guess in summary, it is good to know more than one method, and use whichever method is best for the situation to accomplish the design. A Hollow Chisel Mortiser is best in some places, not in others.
If I was Teaching…
If I was teaching a one-day course on “How to Cut A Perfect Mortise & Tenon,” I think I would choose only the old drill bit/hand chisel method to teach and have the student practice with that only. In that one-day class, I would demonstrate the hollow chisel mortiser, and the hand routering method, but probably wouldn’t focus much time for practicing those methods during the class time.
Even with a Mortiser, you will need to accurately clean up the joint some with either a chisel, or a file. Through-Tenons are much more difficult in this respect than blind tenon joints. Through-tenons look cool, and people notice them, so I tend to use them whenever I can.
If you have questions, comments, or want to see some photos, let me know.
(this writing is protected by copywrite, M.A. DeCou 3-2-2007, 3-3-2007)
-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com