Extremely Average #2: Reflections of a Mortise

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Blog entry by Ecocandle posted 01-04-2010 12:59 AM 1790 reads 0 times favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 1: New Year...New Hobby Part 2 of Extremely Average series Part 3: A Tenuous Grasp »

Stepping through the beveled corner, art deco inlay, looking glass, into the world of woodworking is an experience that is humbling to say the least. On another woodworking site, a blogger posed the question, are ‘Dovetails’ overrated? The article was well written, the comments were astounding. The debate between the pro-tail vs. the pro-choice factions was more contentious than an abortion debate three days before a presidential election.

Wonderland indeed! The one point that I took away from the debate was that choosing to learn to cut dovetails by hand required a lot of practice and patience. As someone who revels in his obsessive compulsive side, this epiphany appealed to me more than pizza and beer on a Saturday night. Admittedly I am not a huge fan of beer, but I LOVE pizza; And I didn’t want say ‘Pizza and Diet Dew’, lest any readers think I am a big sissy.

As I cracked a diet dew, I decided that I would begin my study by buying a chisel. My general rule is to always buy the best I can find. My knowledge of chisels was limited to knowing how to spell chisel, and I only recently learned that. The internet pointed me towards Lie-Nielson. Several other articles taught me that socket chisels are nice because the handles are less prone to splitting. Apparently the steel should be around 60 – 62 something, so it is not too soft and not too hard. This sounded like a fairy tale about 3 bears and a porridge stealing juvenile delinquent. But who am I to question the wisdom of those who come before me?! Lie-Nielson chisels are of this design. I felt smarter just for knowing that. I decided that I wanted a set of bench chisels, a fish tail, skew chisel and possibly a 3/8 mortise chisel. They only cost $555.00.

With my brand new 3/8” Irwin chisel (around $10.00) in hand, I took the old mallet I had found in the garage, and tapped it gently into my practice wood. The Lie Nielson will have to come at a later date. The practice wood was a lovely little piece of hard maple; she had a nice figure and was a bit shy. I could tell it was her first time too. As I tapped that wood with my tool I felt nervous. Was I doing it right? Was I hurting my lovely piece of wood? Was it good for her?

An hour later I had finished. I had drilled and chiseled my way to my first mortise. I was sweating but filled with joy. Oh the euphoria. So this is what all the fuss is about! I had chiseled out a 2 and ¼ inch by 3/8” mortise and was now ready to think about moving onto the tenon. Of course, this would have to wait for another day, as I wasn’t ready for another go. I just wanted to bask in the glow of my first mortise.
I learned several interesting things about chisels. They are able to remove much thinner and cleaner shavings of wood than I would have imagined. I had assumed that they would take large chunks of wood with each hit. As I pared down the sides and brought the corners to 90 degrees(ish), the need for mastering hand tools became clearer than a D flawless diamond and quite possibly more valuable. I know now that if I can learn to use these wonderful tools, if I can make them do my bidding, then I just may be able to create a masterpiece or at the very least, a nice cutting board.

It is ironic that, two days before, I had been thinking how I might use my plunge router to cut the mortises I would need for the Krenov saw horses I was attempting. I still believe that it will be equally important to be able to cut them with power tools, and I will likely cut far more using a router than I will a chisel, in my lifetime. But I doubt that I will feel the same exhilaration.

So I discovered the joy of hand tools. I have since cut 7 mortises (4 without a drill) and 7 corresponding tenons by hand. The last 2 mortises (no drill) took less than 26 minutes each, which was a vast improvement over 1 hour. As I continued to meander through the wonderland, I happened upon a rabbit that said, “You should probably learn how to sharpen your chisel” and he winked. The wink made it seem dirty somehow. As I thought about the rabbit, I realized that this is why this journey is such a joy. Each day brings a new challenge. Each challenge opens a door. Each door leads to a hallway with more doors. I doubt I will ever find my way back to the mirror.

(Editor’s Note: Ok, I don’t actually have an editor, but I like the sound of it. I did want to say that I appreciate all the encouraging comments from the 1st post I threw up yesterday. As of the writing of this post there were 321 people who had read my previous post, and 3.4% of you chose to leave a comment. To the 96.4% who didn’t comment, I can only assume that your mother told you, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.” To those non-posters, please feel free to mock my spelling, grammar or content…But NOT my hat…never my hat!)

-- Brian Meeks,

8 comments so far

View Jimthecarver's profile


1124 posts in 4116 days

#1 posted 01-04-2010 01:09 AM

I must have missed your first posting and I will be the first to say “I do have bad spelling” but it is getting better….I hope.
On LJ’s I do think we as a whole agree if you have nothing nice to say keep quiet. We like keeping LJ’s a friendly community.
Nice article

-- Can't never could do anything, to try is to advance.

View douginaz's profile


220 posts in 4332 days

#2 posted 01-04-2010 01:20 AM

Howdy Brian, another great post and I see you mastered posting pictures and got your feet wet with the new Irwin. One little hint that might come in handy is to start the clean up cut about a “Lines” width away from the line itself. Those type of chisels tend to walk to the line in spite of being held straight up and down. So bask away dude, you did great! How do you plan to cut the tennons ? Just curious, I’m having fun just hangin out and getting a contact high from your enthusiasm. :)
Doug in AZ.

-- If you need craft books - please visit our small business at

View SPalm's profile


5332 posts in 4212 days

#3 posted 01-04-2010 01:22 AM

I think that you should just cut your mortises with a router. It seems like a lot less hallways and doors to open that way. And mirrors are overrated.


-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View patron's profile


13646 posts in 3671 days

#4 posted 01-04-2010 01:24 AM

brian ,
you got style , my man !

it will ooze into your work ,
and we will all be enriched for it !
check this out ,
also the little window top right of every page
is a type-in and then hit search ,
ask about anything you like there

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27250 posts in 4152 days

#5 posted 01-04-2010 01:36 AM

Brian, this is a pretty good mortise, especially given that it was hand cut. I enjoy seeing hand skills developed as you are doing and have made myself a promise that I will work on mine, which I will freely admit to having long neglected them.

And don’t worry too much about the non-comments. Your “rate of return” on your post was fairly normal. There are a few of us on board here who seem to post with abandon but, in general, the majority of members post infrequently at best. :)

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View ChuckV's profile


3197 posts in 3857 days

#6 posted 01-04-2010 02:16 AM

Another great post. I am currently working on building a pie safe. There are quite a few mortise and tenon joints on it. I still drill the mortises on my drill press and clean them out with chisels. To be honest, I enjoy doing it this way. It’s just a hobby for me. My customer, in this case my wife, is very patient. Also, I am building it from pine, so it almost feels like I am cheating since it is like chiseling putty.

Hey – you are improving. As of this post, your comment rate is soaring to over 9.23%!

-- “Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are.” ― R. Waters

View sras's profile


5036 posts in 3459 days

#7 posted 01-04-2010 03:31 AM

Nice hat.

Your writing is pretty good too.

Mortises aren’t bad either.

Welcome aboard!

-- Steve - Impatience is Expensive

View davidroberts's profile


1027 posts in 3816 days

#8 posted 01-04-2010 03:57 AM

“And I didn’t want say ‘Pizza and Diet Dew’, lest any readers think I am a big sissy.” Ha, that’s funny. Not that your dapper hat would lead to any conjecture. Hey just kidding. Whatever your persuasion is welcomed here. Most folks click on and scan a post or blog, and move on to the next. I read more than a line or two in yours because (1) it has pics and (2) I wanted to hear how you explained that mortise. Just think what a zen moment you will have with a Lie Nielson in your hand. I have heard rumors that just the mere threat of a LN chisel on the bench will make a mortice straighten up and fly right. Let us know how those LNs work out for you. Lumberjocks is a great place to learn about sharpening those LNs, also. Welcome aboard.

-- Better woodworking through old hand tools.

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