Thing Report

↩ Index

Hand Tooled Joints

The work after RISD has been heavy on CAD+CAM processes— yes, they're fun and interesting, and open up so many interesting possibilites, but they just don't give me the same kind of gratification I get from more manual methods.

Two-and-a-bit years was enough to make my hand work skills rusty, so I thought I'd ease back into things with a few studies in hand tooled joinery. Since its a series of studies, I chose three types joints: dovetail, scarf and mortise and tenon because they span the range of simple to complex, and common to obscure. The format consisted of two dissimilar pieces of wood joined end-to-end with one of the chosen techniques.

Dovetail Scribed
Dovetail Chiseling
Dovetail Fit 1
Dovetail Fit 2

I started with a simple dovetail, connecting a piece of walnut and maple squarely. It was an okay start, but the joint could have been cleaner, with less gaps on the outside, with the inside surfaces more undercut (I ended up spending too much time trying to perfect the inside faces when it should have only been the 1/4" around the edges). The next dovetail came out better, and, feeling confident, I decided to tackle the scarf joint, specificaly a locking scarf. This was my first time trying this technique, so it took me three attempts to get something that I was satisfied with. The edges were still nowhere as clean as I wanted, but it was mechanically sound.

Interesting to note, this type of joint is held together by the pressure from a set of ramped keys hammered into the keyhole. It means, in theory, it requires no additional adhesive. I didn't test its strength, but from the too-many times I've dropped it, it seems to hold up just fine.

Scarf Joint
Mortise and Tenon

The last joint was a simple mortise and tenon. The end result is somewhat bland, if not misleading, as it looks just like two pieces of wood butt-jointed together. You'll just have to take my word that there's a mortise and tenon in there somewhere.


  1. There is a right tool for the job. Using the right size and type of chisel, adding protection from marring with softjaws or another piece of wood, or using saws with the right TPI (tooth per inch) will set you up for making clean cuts.
  2. Tool maintenance is paramount. Like above, small things like using freshly ground chisels (to the right angle) will makes life that much easier, and are well worth the time invested.
  3. Spend time where it matters. Put work where it will count , but don't waste time where you don't need to spend it.