HOW TO MAKE A MORTISE AND TENON JOINT WITH TRADITIONAL HAND TOOLS
This above video and article will simplify the process of cutting mortise and tenon joints with only a few traditional hand tools. With a little practice, you should be able to make a mortise and tenon joint in under 10 minutes! The video is a quick tutorial, but the below photos and article will clarify how to make a mortise & tenon joint in great detail:
ANATOMY OF A MORTISE AND TENON JOINT
WHAT ARE MORTISE AND TENON JOINTS USED FOR?
The mortise and tenon joint (also called “mortice” in Britain) is one of the strongest and most-widely used woodworking joints. It is an effective joint for holding together timber frame buildings, tables, chairs, doors, cabinets, windows, tool chests, clocks, and many, many other pieces of wooden furniture.
Because of it’s strength and many uses, the mortise and tenon joint is one of the very first woodworking joints that beginning woodworkers should learn. Even power tool woodworkers should learn the fundamentals of how to make a mortise and tenon joint with traditional hand tools!
SIMPLE HAND TOOLS YOU’LL NEED FOR CUTTING MORTISE AND TENON JOINTS
You don’t need many hand tools to make a traditional mortise and tenon joint. Here are the tools that I used (affiliate links):
- Brass wheel marking gauge (update: my new favorite)
- 6-Inch Combination Square
- Dovetail Saw
- Carcass Back Saw
- Joiner’s Mallet
- Pig Sticker Mortise Chisel
- Marking Knife
- Woodworking Clamps
- Wood Chisels
- My Workbench (Sjobergs 2500)
- Fine tip pencil
To make things easier for beginners I would recommend that you simply purchase an inexpensive pre-dimensioned stick of wood (e.g. poplar) for practicing. Make sure it’s square and straight and flat. Make several mortise and tenon joints, one after another, to really learn this method.
If you can only afford a single marking gauge (two middle gauges), that’s just fine. But you can speed things up with a dual marking gauge (below far right) or mortise gauge (below, far left):
STEP 1: LAYOUT THE TENON AND MORTISE BOARDS & MARK THE TENON’S SHOULDER LINE
The first step is to lay your boards out on your workbench and butt the tenon board up against the mortise board, so you can see exactly where you want them to join. Make some marks, and also make reference marks so you remember which faces are your reference faces (the faces that you will mark from with the marking gauges):
Next you will mark the shoulder line. The shoulder is where the tenon will stop against the mortise. Think of putting your head in a very small hole in the ground. Your head will go in, but your shoulders will stop at the top of the hole. Lay the tenon on top of the mortise and decide how deep you want it to go into the mortise.
If you’re making a common hidden tenon, layout your board so it stays back from of the end of the back of the mortise (see below)…around 1/4th of the way back and make a tick mark with your pencil on the tenon board.
What if you’re making a “through-tenon”? What’s a “through-tenon” anyway?
A through-tenon is a tenon that goes all the way through the mortise (see above). If you’re doing a through-tenon, then layout your board so that the tenon hangs out the other side a bit, and make a tick mark:
Now set a marking gauge on your tick mark and scribe the “shoulder line” all around the tenon. You can place the marking gauge on the end of the tenon.
STEP 2: MARK THE MORTISE AND TENON JOINT
The next step is to mark the tenon and the mortise boards with a marking gauge, a mortise gauge, or even better, a “Dual marking gauge”. A dual marking gauge will hold two measurements at once:
Not every board has the same thickness, so do all your marking from the same reference face to ensure the tenon will fit into the mortise. I like to mark my faces with some sort of squiggly mark:
First, set your mortise chisel on the top edge of your tenon board (centering it by eye) and set your marking gauge’s inner cutter to touch the edge of your mortise chisel: