Tuesday, February 3, 2009


I have been researching joints. More specifically, I have been studying mortise and tenon type joints. This would include the standard mortise and tenon, doweling, floating tenon, biscuits and pocket screws (which are like dowels and since a dowel is effectively a floating tenon, it is related). Of course, mortise and tenon joinery is ubiquitous in woodcraft. In shaker and many other styles, it is structural; in Arts and Crafts pieces it is equally important as an aesthetic element

Morris Chair, G. Stickley, ~1915.

Double Door Bookcase, G. Stickley, ~1915

Images from Arts & Crafts

Tenons come is a gazillion flavors. They can be hidden (used in Shaker, etc.), bare faced (Arts and Crafts), tusked (Arts and Crafts), and pinned (Arts and Crafts). There are haunched, twin, and togued. For an extensive article on mortise and tenon joints click here.

When we examine Arts and Crafts furniture, a characteristic quality is the lack of ornamentation. Of course this varied from designer to designer with Stickley being strictly opposed to any ornamentation as a response to the “insincerity and the false ornateness of the period” (The 1912 and 1915 Gustav Stickley Craftsman Furniture Catalogs, pg 3, Dover Publications, 1991) and Greene and Greene, which seems to be strongly influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, incorporating some.

Oregon Pine corbels, Gamble House, Greene and Greene, 1908

Master Bedroom, Gamble House, Greene and Greene, 1908

Living-room frieze with adjacent boards, Gamble House, Greene and Greene, 1908

Images lifted from the Gamble House site

However, this lack of ornamentation required some required some elements to give the pieces so visual contrast. For this, the exposed tenon was a perfect choice. It expressed the core philosophy of the movement, simple, well crafted work for the masses, at the same time the exposed tenon is a design element with incredible potential. For furniture of the Arts and Crafts movement, exposing evidence of the mortise and tenon joinery seems almost prerequisite.

I love then look of bare faced, pinned and wedged tenons (I am not so fond of though or tusked tenons as this aesthetic gives a massive beamed appearance to a piece). So I wanted to understand the current methods of mortise and tenon joinery, from a tools perspective and from an overall strength perspective.

If you do a search, there are an almost infinite range of solutions for making a mortise and tenon from the simple hand cut to mortising machines even more sophisticated than the table top mortiser (invented by Robert and Ralph Greenlee in 1874 according to the Greenlee Co. website). However, I am more interested in joinery solutions for the modestly moneyed (like me) and the advantages/disadvantages of the methods.

Tools for mortise and tenon like joinery include:

The Festool Domino cutter (a floating tenon joint)
Biscuit cutters
Mortise jigs and tenon jigs from a number of sources
Dowel jigs
A hybrid dowel/mortise jig (can be used for floating tenon, or fixed tenon joinery)
Pocket screw jigs and more

Prices range from $$ to $$$$$. Though expensive, some the interesting joinery tools are:

DowelMax ($300-400)
Mortise Pal (~$200)
Festool Domino cutter (> $1000 when you get all the parts)

Of these three, only the Mortise Pal seems really capable of exposed tenons (and it may be limited by the length of router bits available). For through tenons, it looks like a drilling jig or drill press (and careful marking, drilling, and chiseling) is the choice.


Squerl said...

Interesting, Imagine having to cut your wood to fit around that tapered incredible bronze/brass hardware, not just once, but for every join in a house! WHooweeee!That's when men were men! nice pix. Thanks Squerl

TJLoop85 said...

There is some great architectural elements in this house!

I think the detail in everything from the woodwork/beams, to the corbels and even the brass joints are all images of great craftsmanship.

If more homes were built like this we would all be a lot happier.