Joinery Journey

I love joinery.

There is something magical about fitting two or more pieces of wood together.

Before the advent of mechanical fasteners, joinery reigned supreme.  At that pre-industrial time is was the cheapest, fastest and strongest way of building with wood.  As nails, bolts and screws became less expensive they began to displace joinery for building with wood.  Mechanical fasteners required less skill and were faster. Thus the products produced became less expensive and the structural and aesthetic compromises were  accepted as “progress”.  Machines too brought an end to joinery’s reign.  Some joints that can be “easily” cut by hand are either impossible to cut with a machine or the setup is too costly.  So joinery was simplified or abandoned to accommodate mass production.

I have no intention of delving into a philosophical diatribe on the pros and cons of the industrial revolution.  My intent with the preceding was to give context to the modern way of looking at wooden structures, be they buildings or furniture.  The general public, i.e. non-woodworkers, give little to any thought as to how something is assembled.  Even most woodworkers rarely look beyond the basic joints.  Dadoes, mortise and tenon and dovetails will serve quite well for building furniture.  Especially when you factor in the use of adhesives.  There is more joinery out there though.

To my mind there are only two ways of joining one piece of wood to another.  The lap joint and the mortise and tenon.  All subsequent joints are variations of those two basic ideas and thinking of them as such can go a long way in understanding and employing even the most complex joinery.  A simple example being the dovetail joint.  It is just a variation of a lap joint.  There are infinite variations that can be made, but it still is just a lap joint.  My intent here is not to diminish the complexity of joinery, but to change the way we look at it and hopefully make even the most complex joint accessible.  This will in no way give you or I the skill to create that joint however.  The only way to gain skill in executing joinery is to actually cut the joints.  No amount of reading, video watching or class taking can substitute for hands on.  Those other things can flatten the learning curve but experience is the only way to proficiency.

So…my plan is to document the joints that I use or plan to use.  The focus will be primarily on joinery  that lends itself to furniture making.  There are wonderful joints employed in timber framing, but they are impractical in furniture making.  Although, I might explore some of them just for the fun of it.  An additional focus will be on the practicality and utility of a joint.  I have no intention of using a joint just for the sake of using a joint.  The joints that I choose to employ will be for structural integrity.  Sometimes the joint may add an element of aesthetics, but utility is the primary focus.  For each joint that I use I will post a drawing that covers the layout and document the important points to know about that joint.  I will also post photos of the execution of the joint.  Will my joints be perfect?  Heck no!  Several of these will be new to me and you will see all the errors that come along with the learning process.  My intent is not to teach anyone how to make a joint, but to record my journey and bring you along.  Hopefully you will find something of use or inspiration.

The drawings that will accompany this journey will be in a different style than what I have posted in the past.  Along with documenting familiar and new joinery, I will also be trying to teach myself a new method of illustration.  So I hope that you will bear with me as I stumble along with that process.  Feedback is always appreciated.  If my drawings do not effectively convey the intended information, than they are of little use to anyone.

Now the disclaimer.

I am not an expert.  I have not apprenticed with any great master woodworker.  What I post is my best guess as to the layout and execution of a joint.  My best guess is based upon what I have seen in photos, read, seen on a video and actually put to practice.  Nothing, I repeat, nothing I post should be taken as holy writ.  Your welcome to follow along, but do so with caution and skepticism.

Greg Merritt

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23 Responses to Joinery Journey

  1. I would say that there is only the mortise and tenon joint. Isn’t the lap joint 1/2 of a mortise and tenon?

  2. Kinderhook88 says:

    I’m looking forward to it 🙂

  3. momist says:

    I like to think of joints classed into what they are used for. M & T for intersecting sticks, dovetails for ends of boards, etc. However I have a fascination for joints that hold together without glue, which the lap joint does not.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Momist, in the absence of pins, wedges or keys, I can’t think of a single joint that will hold itself together in all directions. I do understand your meaning though and its joints that need no glue that I’m drawn too as well.

  4. Wesley Beal says:

    I’m so looking forward to this, I’m disappointed that you haven’t posted at least a couple articles already. What gives?

    How would you categorize a spring, butt, or miter joint?

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I’ve shown a few joints here and there, but no formal approach until now. I’m still a little hesitant, hence the disclaimer. We’ll see how it goes.
      In my mind, a joint must be self-supporting to actually be considered a form of joinery. No glue or mechanical fasteners. That being said, all joints require some sort of locking mechanism to resist coming apart. To me a good joint can be locked with a wooden pin, wedge or key. I know I’m being a littel strict with my definition of a joint, but that is how I look at it.
      I have no issue with nails, screws, bolts or glue. They have their place and utility. My main goal is build furniture without them. Something that literally stands on is own. My version of the tansu is close, using glue just for insurance. I have done it once though. That being the chinese gate bench. Nothing in it except wood.

  5. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    Joinery doesn’t have to be a mystery or an unknowable. Have a read of Mr. Merritt’s take on joinery. I’m looking forward to more!

  6. The ultimate authority on timber joinery is Cecil Hewett, in the appendices of English Historic Carpentry. While I understand that your focus is on furniture joinery, Hewett’s terminology is precise, and his drawing style remarkably clear. I recall a book on Japanese joinery some years back that was full of complex joints, but didn’t show them in any practical context. What joint to use where, and how will it perform? Sounds like a fun project.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      I’ll source myself a copy of Hewitt’s book. Thanks for the recommendation.
      Context seems like it would be of paramount importance in timber framing, loading and strength being critical. The application for most of the joints that I have planned is fairly obvious. Some, a little less so. My intent is to first build a reference library, of sorts, that I can reference as projects dictate. Some of the joints that I try may prove to be of little or no value in furniture making. Like I said, it’s a journey.

      • We have a couple of dovetailed drawers in the kitchen that have been in daily use (silverware and utensils) for several years, never glued, never a problem. I have spent hours repairing machine-cut dovetails in old furniture, because the gluing surface is mostly end grain they never hold.
        I really like your tansu and proportional drawing idea, the synthesis of design, materials and technique looks accessible to the beginner.

        • Greg Merritt says:

          I think one of the often overlooked benefits of hand-cut joinery is how tight they really can be. Friction/compression fit joints hold themselves together remarkably well. it is surprising how tight a joint can be made before there is a risk of splitting anything. Machine cut joinery can never duplicate such a joint.
          Nothing I do is complicated and I honestly believe that anyone can replicate the projects that I build. Or pick up a few ideas and create something of their own. The world has enough Shaker end tables.

  7. Brian Eve says:

    “The only way to gain skill in executing joinery is to actually cut the joints.”

    I think this might be the best single sentence in woodworking.

  8. Sylvain says:

    There is some intrinsic quality in a joint which does’nt rely on glue or metalic hardware, even when pegs or keys are used.
    I will certainly continue to follow your blog.
    Sylvain

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Building with wood only and relying solely on the joinery to hold the piece together is my ultimate goal. Along the way I hope to find examples of joinery that will move me ever closer to that goal. At the very least my projects should benefit from added strength.

  9. ant11sam says:

    So… Like Ulysses (the Greek fellow) you are on a quest…
    I wish you all the best… and hope that this will be a bit shorter. For the sake of your family now a days women are not so patient like those from the mythology… 😛 – LOLOL

    Looking forward to read all about it

  10. billlattpa says:

    I love joinery, which is as much an art as a science. But speaking for myself only, I wouldn’t use any more than is absolutely necessary mechanically speaking. When using joinery as decoration or embellishment, go for broke, but I wouldn’t overbuild something such as a faceframe for joinery’s sake.
    But if that joint is visible I’m with you 100%. Not that I have anything against fancy joints for face frames, I’m just pressed for the time needed to dedicate myself to doing it properly.
    Thanks.
    Bill

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Like I said above, I’m not one for using joinery just to be using joinery. It needs to add something to the piece that I’m working on. Strength is my first priority. I have little doubt that I “over-build” some things, but that is just my path.

If you don't comment this is just a fancy way for me to talk to myself.

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