viking-style mortise & tenon & tusk tenon couch

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Project by Puff posted 01-23-2011 12:27 AM 6959 views 1 time favorited 2 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This project is about building relatively historical knock-down furniture for a medieval reenactment event.

As far as I know, what we think of as a couch (with a padded back) isn’t historically accurate before he 1700s, even early 1800s, unless you’re in the mid-east (in which case they were really more of a glorified dais with railings and a cushion, see “divan”) or asia (more furniture-like, but still quite platform-like and far from mobile, see “chinese day bed”).

However, they certainly are comfy.

These couches use through-mortises with tusk-pegged tenons to make for a sturdy, stable piece of furniture that can be assembled easily (and more to the point, disassembled easily at the end of two weeks).

The interior dimension of the couch is 75” long by 24” deep, meant to fit a standard full-size futon cushion (75” x 54”). The rails are 85” long, including the tenons. The mortises are 1.5” x 4..5”, with a shallower “neck” mortise (not sure if that’s the right term) about .5” deep, so the full size of the rail sockets into the leg.

We cut a 1.5” x 4.5” mortises through the wide face of a 2×6 leg, and then cut a secondary mortise (a “key mortise”) in the tenon (another 2×6) to peg it in place, except with a slanted peg, aka a tusk.

See this link for a wonderfully detailed description (with diagrams) of the structure and the mechanical advantages:

Overall it was a hit; rock-solid, comfortable and stable, yet extremely easy to knock apart at the end of the two weeks. Next, we’ll see how well it weathers a year in a storage trailer. I plan to build several more for next year, as well.

Design changes to be addressed in the next version:

1) I plan to replace the hunk of plywood with slats, which will both make it not look so horribly modern without the cushions, and make the seat have a bit more flex for comfort.

2) I originally planned to use plywood for the back as well as the seat (supported by the upper rail and some stops at the bottom corners), but came up with the second rail instead, which looks nicer, and is probably comfier to boot. However, it was definitely a last-second retrofit, It worked out well, but definitely needs to be designed and implemented better. It needs to be a tad lower, and the supports I used for it were kludged together.

3) The back needs to tilt a bit more. Currently it’s 10 degrees, I’m thinking 12.5 to 15.

4) Because the back is tilted, the supporting rail in the back is tilted and hence the seat surface is ever so slightly slanted towards the front. This is barely noticeable, but definitely uncomfortable.

5) The big tenons didn’t stick out that much and weren’t the ankle-traps I feared, but they can probably survive being an inch or two shorter.

6) I’m trying to figure out a good way I can cap the feet in some moisture-resistant metal (probably copper or, if I can find something suitable, brass), since these will be sitting on damp ground for two weeks of the year.

7) I really want to move to using peg joinery instead of screws concealed by dowel plugs. That’s the only thing that keeps this from being entirely period techniques.

9) I might look into adding some decorative carvings, but I don’t want to borrow too much trouble.

9) I’m hoping to use better wood for at least a few of the new versions (maybe the last few, after I’ve had more practice with the cheap wood).

10) I’m definitely going to get some more durable wood for the key tusks, which take the most abuse.

11) I’m seriously considering using 4×4 posts for the verticals. They weren’t easily obtainable in time, last year, and I was on a ridiculously tight budget. The main worry there is that I’ve hand-mortised through a 4×6 pressure-treated post, and that wasn’t much fun at all… not sure I want to go there again :-).

Speaking of hand-mortising, props to stefang and others here for their invaluable advice and encouragement. I still want to learn to do this by hand, but I’m not sure I’m going to try to do ten more of them entirely by hand!

-- "Always cut towards a major artery... that way you'll be careful."

2 comments so far

View gul's profile


400 posts in 3520 days

#1 posted 01-23-2011 07:46 PM

Looks good and practical.Good work :)

View B13's profile


463 posts in 3251 days

#2 posted 01-23-2011 08:15 PM

I like the Idea! of breaking It down. It could be taken to the next level use as a summer time swing even do some Nordic carving on the sides or back. thanks! for sharing

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