Extremely Average #3: A Tenuous Grasp

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Blog entry by Ecocandle posted 01-05-2010 12:56 AM 1843 reads 1 time favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 2: Reflections of a Mortise Part 3 of Extremely Average series Part 4: Out Into The Cold »

“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” -Alfred Lord Tennyson

As you may know, I have mortised. Can mortise be used as a verb? Obviously it can, though I am sure my 7th grade English teacher is rolling over in her grave. Actually, I don’t know if she is dead, probably just wishful thinking on my part. I digress.

What is a mortise without a tenon? It is sad. It is lonely. It is unfulfilled. It is ying without yang, peanut butter without jelly, Simon without Garfield. Ok that last one wasn’t a good example, as Paul Simon has done pretty well solo. Apparently I am still digressing.

After my 3 practice mortises and 4 real mortises, I realized it was time to create a verb out of tenon. I have read all sorts of interesting articles giving techniques and jigs one can use to cut tenons on the router table or table saw. I have neither yet. In a fit of impulse buying I had purchased a lovely coping saw a few weeks earlier. A Robert Larson saw made in Germany. I reasoned that with all the Germans have had to cope with in the last 100 years; they probably know a thing or two about this type of saw.

I find my coping saw to be quite wonderful. It cuts nicely, but alas it is not the tool for tenoning. I know this now. I am still very pleased to have it in my tool collection. I decided to try my Marples Japanese hand saw. I had not really used it in earnest before. It has two distinct types of teeth on it. This seemed to me to be significant and I reasoned that I should find out what each set of teeth was designed to do.

I wondered over to, where I gladly pay $4.95 per month to be a member. I figured I could find something about Japanese hand saws, and while I was looking I saw an article, “Guide for Cambering a Jack Plane Blade”. I don’t know what ‘Cambering’ is. I am equally uniformed as to what a ‘Jack Plane’ does. I assume it flattens large blocks of cheese. Not wanting to get distracted I passed on this article.

I found a wonderful article which had a diagram, which was vastly superior to the one I have here. Now I just needed to find a definition of ‘rip’ and ‘crosscut’, and I would be set.

I meticulously marked the board, took my saw to the basement, and clamped my bit ‘o’ hard maple into the vice. I decided I would cut off the short blocks on the end of the tenon first. This didn’t take long at all. I then sawed the long bits off. I now had a tenon with four shoulders that were grotesquely uneven. Not to worry. I grabbed my trusty Black and Decker mouse sander and went to work. This was an abysmal failure. I now had shoulders that were smooth but not flat. Wisdom gained.

Never being one to get too stressed about failure, I decided I would take my mallet and see about gently inserting the tenon into the mortise. By gently I mean hammering it like Thor. This worked nicely, and though there was only one side of the combination that looked reasonable, it was so solid I couldn’t pull it apart.

I have since learned that that first mortise tenon combo was too tight. It seems that when glue is applied the tenon will swell a bit. Though I didn’t know that the joint was too tight at the time, I did know that it looked dreadful. So I brutally unjoined my joint and set the two pieces on the table. It was apparent that my grasp of tenon cutting was tenuous at best. I decided to sleep on it.

The next day I thought about it some more. It would be best to approach the cut differently. I would draw a box around the piece of wood, where the shoulders are supposed to be, and cut that first. It worked slightly better than my first method. Then as I was comparing the two, I had an ‘ah ha’ moment. I bet that the Master Woodworkers, clean up their tenons with their chisels!

With the speed of an Indy car driver, I grabbed my chisel and sheared off a bit of the shoulder. This was fun, and appeared to be helping. I spent a good deal of time chiseling off tiny bits here and there, occasionally setting my chisel on the shoulder and using it to see how close I was to flat, and then I learned a valuable lesson. If you are chiseling across a shoulder and coming up on the end of the board, it is best to stop and chisel back into the board. I learned this when I shaved the slightest bit off the shoulder and took a huge chunk out of the side.

Before I tackled the last two I looked up the best way to start a cut with a Japanese handsaw. I also drew a secondary box 1/32 below the 1st one. This made thing easier. I cut to the 1st box and chiseled to the 2nd one. It was also brought to my attention that one should hold the saw near the end of the handle, not apply too much downward pressure, and to just let the saw cut. Apparently these types of saws like to cut in straight lines. I am not sure that my saw is aware of this, but it does a pretty good job. A good enough job that I am planning on upgrading to a better saw. Any ideas or suggestions from the peanut gallery would be greatly appreciated. In fact, here are three questions I would love to have answered.

1. What is the best Japanese handsaw for cutting tenons or dovetails?
2. How do you get clean and flat shoulders on your tenons? (if you cut them by hand)
3. What is your favorite land mammal?

With my newly acquired knowledge I was able to improve the tenons marginally. I would give my tenons a c+, but only because the class is graded on the curve, and I intentionally signed up for woodworking for toddlers. Those 3 year olds with their barely developed motor skills, they make me laugh. In all seriousness though, I would imagine that just like in all other aspects of woodworking, practice goes a long ways towards perfection. So I am going to keep at it.

“The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.” -Alfred Lord Tennyson

-- Brian Meeks,

15 comments so far

View jlsmith5963's profile


297 posts in 3677 days

#1 posted 01-05-2010 02:58 AM

I have always considered the tenon to be the sad and lonely one, always looking for any mortise that will let him, i mean it, in…. so to speak

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27250 posts in 4150 days

#2 posted 01-05-2010 04:09 AM

Brian, you are making progress and I am sure your tenons are far better than mine would be. I shudder to think what they would look like if I tried to cut them by hand. Sadly, I have long neglected development of my hand skills but lately I have at least made a mental commitment to work on “honing” my hand skiils.

If I were going to cut tenons routinely by hand I would get a tenon saw from Lie Nielsen. I am a firm believer that it is better to cry once when you buy a tool rather than the multitude of times that you use it. Actually I probably would get two and keep one for rip cuts and have the other one filed for cross cuts.

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

View Ecocandle's profile


1013 posts in 3395 days

#3 posted 01-05-2010 04:15 AM

I have considered the LN saws. Right now they are in the running. I hope to get some more feedback, before I pull the trigger. I expect to make my decision on Thursday at 8:37 in the evening.

-- Brian Meeks,

View SPalm's profile


5332 posts in 4211 days

#4 posted 01-05-2010 04:54 AM

Hmmmm. When I use to try to do these things by hand, I remember that a tenon saw was the tool to use. Followed by a rabit plane (without the camber). You want them to be just the right ‘tightness’ but having square shoulders is a big concern both for beauty and strength.

You could also just have fun chopping mortises and use loose tenons (little blocks of wood that join two tenons).


-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View sras's profile


5036 posts in 3458 days

#5 posted 01-05-2010 06:03 AM

You’re off to a great start! Your writing makes the journey fun to follow.

I can offer a hint – hope I can describe it well enough. You can try cutting a relief on the shoulder of the tenon. This is the area where the end grain is showing around the base of the tenon. The relief cut is one where you leave about 1/16 (or less) around the outside of the shoulder. Then you angle down the rest of the shoulder (only a little – 1/32 or less). The idea is that the jont is then sealed at the outside and makes it easier to create a tight looking joint.

Hope that makes sense. (Still like the hat)

PS. Here is a FWW article does a better job…

-- Steve - Impatience is Expensive

View Moron's profile


5032 posts in 4222 days

#6 posted 01-05-2010 07:59 AM

when I was in school in what seems like a century ago, we had to make a perfectly square box, then cut out and mortise a perfectly square lid….then…...........they taught me how to really $%@# a mans head around with handtools.

in the event of cutting wood with handtools, to the left or right of the pencil line, or cut the pencil line off, and when met with failure, should never be blamed on your tools.

-- "Good artists borrow, great artists steal”…..Picasso

View Don's profile


517 posts in 3401 days

#7 posted 01-05-2010 09:03 AM

Brian, thanks for the very entertaining blog. It’s fascinating to hear about someone making the same mistakes and experiencing the same ‘ah ha’ moments that most wood workers go through when starting out. I was tempted to recommend you take some classes so that you could save yourself some time by learning some of the ‘ah ha’s from someone who’s been through them but I suspect your having much more fun figuring it out on your own so I think you should keep it up exactly as your doing it. Plus a bunch of us are really enjoying the blog…

My answers to your questions:
1. No idea. 15+ years of woodworking (13 doing it for a living) and I have never cut a mortise or tenon by hand. You’ve probobly already surpassed my skill level with hand tools. I’ve also cut very few using power tools but I have worn out countless biscuit cutters.
2. see #1
3. Pig. Preferably wrapped in bannana leaves and slow roasted in a pit luau style. (my apologies if your a vegetarian)

-- Don - I wood work if I could. Redmond WA.

View Don Butler's profile

Don Butler

1092 posts in 3724 days

#8 posted 01-05-2010 02:12 PM

I was entertained by your article and bemused by your serious concern over the mortise and tenon.
However, I have rarely (read never) hand cut either mortise or tenon. I do the mortise with a router and the tenon with a table saw. A sharp chisel is used to refine the joint. I find the skill set more easily attained, leaving me to other, more tantalising matters, such as design of cabinets and learning SketchUp.
My answer to the 3rd question must be: The elephant.
Or is it the human?
I can’t decide.
Oh well.

-- No trees were damaged in posting this message, but thousands of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 4489 days

#9 posted 01-05-2010 03:05 PM

1. don’t know
2. don’t know
3. deer

loved reading your blog even though I have no experience with tenons

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View Ecocandle's profile


1013 posts in 3395 days

#10 posted 01-05-2010 04:52 PM

Thanks everyone for your comments and tips.

Don: You are right I am enjoying the journey…but I do intend to take classes at some point. Right now I work for a start up company and it takes most of my time, so I will sneak a class in when it slows down, probably in a couple of years. Loved your answer to #3

Don “Dances with Wood” Butler: I love sketchup, and I intend to show off one of my sketchup creations in a future blog post. Elephant may be my favorite land mamal too.

Ms. DebbieP: Thanks for answereing question 3! For MsDebbieP

-- Brian Meeks,

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 4489 days

#11 posted 01-05-2010 11:25 PM

yup.. that’s the reason – isn’t it beautiful!
fantastic photo

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View Ecocandle's profile


1013 posts in 3395 days

#12 posted 01-06-2010 02:22 AM

Thanks MsDebbieP…I took that Christmas morning. It’s mother was near by, keeping a close eye on the little one.

-- Brian Meeks,

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 4489 days

#13 posted 01-06-2010 02:25 AM

makes it even more special.. not everyone gets to see such beauty

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View a1Jim's profile


117592 posts in 3906 days

#14 posted 01-06-2010 02:52 AM

Hey Brian
Enjoy you humor and writing style it sure beats my left handed dyslexic style. I believe Charles Neil was commenting on a very good saw in his news letter , If you like you might want to sign up to receive it.
You will want a shoulder plane also (not for your shoulder) and having very sharp chisels helps also.
All said and done The best tool for the job is a table saw and tenoning jig. Shhhhh don’t tell Roy Underhill.
Land mammal the Dog hands down. I like you post they help my reading skills and vocabulary, to late for proper english and spelling :-))

View mtkate's profile


2049 posts in 3654 days

#15 posted 01-06-2010 03:30 AM

Answers, in the wrong order…

Dogs and Horses. Admittedly, I let dogs live in the house with me and not horses so I guess the dogs win.

I enjoyed the read. I was told to go the British for my handcutting dovetail saws. Doesn’t mean “they” are right… considering my jobs are still sloppy, I wonder if I should switch continents.

The jig is the thing to keeping your tenons clean. Speaking of Charles Neil, I was watching one of his videos last night and had an “aha, oh wow” moment about tenons. Jim did the review recently of his latest set of DVDs →

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