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How to Pick the Right Joint for the Right Woodworking Project

If there were no joints, there could be very little woodwork. They come in a great many varieties. This guide helps to remove the confusion from picking the right joint for the right job.

Carpentry without joints is a miserable affair, depending solely on adhesive, nails, screws, bolts and other fittings.

Though all these have their places, and are often needed for reinforcement, proper joints provide a wholly different source of strength and stability. Made by shaping the pieces themselves, they frequently (and traditionally) need no fixing hardware at all. Because of this, they usually contribute neatness too, and sometimes save money. They can even supply ornament.

woodworking joints How to Pick the Right Joint for the Right Woodworking Project

General principles

Accurate cutting is absolutely basic to good jointing. Apart from looks, it’s often vital for strength, since components which meet squarely and snugly help adhesives to do their work (especially PVA, which isn’t much good at filling gaps).

Some joints, especially in building carpentry, need no adhesive, relying instead on weight and/or on being part of a large, solid structure. For the rest, the rule is that larger glued areas mean more strength. A mortise-and-tenon joint, for example, is stronger than a halving joint largely because it has two pairs of main meeting faces instead of one. Shoulders, too, aid location and rigidity.

Remember, however, that cutting any joint exacts its own price in terms of strength. A halving effectively reduces (say) a 50x50mm (2x2in) piece to a 50x25mm (2×1 in) piece. This point is often forgotten. The second piece, tight-fitting and well glued though that may be, won’t lessen the fact. You must be sure your choice of joint justifies any overall reduction in size and therefore strength.

Choosing joints

Framing joints are used with lengths of timber, both softwood and hardwood. Board joints are for flat pieces, often of man-made materials. Broadly speaking, the two groups are separate, though some joints (eg, the finger joint) can be used in either situation Both groups include corner joints, T-joints and a few X-joints. Three-way framing joints are usually combinations of simple corner joints.

Note that there’s another category we don’t show, namely scan” joints. These join timber end-to-end. Though many ingenious patterns have been devised, they take some cutting, and none is as strong as a piece of wood which is long enough to start with In new work that’s not hard to come by, and the scarf joint is usually used only for localised repair work where a complete length of timber cannot be easily replaced.

On the whole, the joints in common use – of which a good selection appears here – are popular for good reasons, and serve most purposes Common sense and growing familiarity with them will reveal these in more detail. Very often, of course, there’s more than one joint for a particular task – and different people have their own favourites.

But, whatever you do, don’t think that these tell the whole story. Probably thousands of other joints have been used at one time and another – and there’s still nothing to stop you from inventing your own variants if you want and need to But it’s wise, first of all, to check that an ordinary joint won’t do. This may save you trouble -and the search for one will concentrate your mind on the exact qualities you’re looking for. Usually strength, appearance and ease of cutting are what it all boils down to.

Consider, too, exactly what you want the joint to do. In which direction, or directions, is each piece likely to sag, twist, be pushed or be pulled? Make sure you combat exactly the stresses you expect – and not others which are unlikely, or you risk making the joint unnecessarily complicated.

How to Make a Miter Joint in Woodworking

With wood that’s square or rectangular in section, the first job is to make sure that both pieces are absolutely squarely cut. Use the try-square to check this ˇŞ if they’re not, it’s better to cut another piece of wood than attempt to make adjustments. Next, place one piece on top of the other to form a right angle. Mark an internal and external corner on both, then take them apart and carry the marks across the edge with a knife and try square. Join up the marks on each piece of wood ˇŞ this will give sawing lines at 45ˇă. Mark the waste side of each with a pencil.

Wood that is raised on one side (eg, mouldings for picture frames) cannot be marked in the same way as the pieces won’t sit flat on each other. The easiest way is to mark the point of the miter (the corner point) and then to use a simple miter block to cut the angle. A miter block not only helps you support the piece of wood (like a bench hook) but also has saw cuts at 45ˇă in the back face to guide the saw. Then you only have to line up the miter point on the wood with the saw now set at the correct angle. You can make a miter block yourself.

miter joint How to Make a Miter Joint in Woodworking

Making miters

1 With square or rectangular wood, cut ends absolutely square and stack to form a right angle. Then mark the inner and outer corners on both pieces.

2 Carry lines down each edge with knife and try square, and score a line between corner marks to create an angle of 45″. Shade waste in pencil.

3 Press the wood against the bench hook and keep the saw at a shallow angle. Cut the diagonal, using the line on the edge to keep the saw vertical.

The simple miter

1 The ends of two battens are cut to 45ˇă and, when fixed together, make a 90″ angle in this simplest of miter joints, ideal for picture framing.

2 With thick timber frames, use corrugated steel fasteners driven into the back of miter joints, where they will not be seen from the front.

4 Ready-made angle brackets with pre-drilled, countersunk screw holes make a quick, rigid and hidden fixing for two miterd battens in a frame.

Miter aids

There are other devices available to help you cut miters accurately. A proprietary jointing jig, for example, guides the saw either at right angles or at 45ˇă; a miter box is like a miter block but has an extra side so that the whole length of the saw is kept in line.

Without these devices, getting the angles right isn’t easy ˇŞ but if necessary you can use a bench hook, driving in two nails so the wood is held against the block and the line of cutting is free of the bench hook. This is not as easy as using one of the other methods. Mark the wood so you know the sawing line, then place it in the miter block, box or jig, to line up with the appropriate groove to guide the saw. If the wood you are cutting is very thin, put some blocks of scrap wood under the device to bring it up to a reasonable height. Insert a tenon saw into the guide slot and, holding it level, saw away

There are only two things that can go wrong. If the block is old, the ‘guide’ cut may have widened, resulting in an inaccurate cut A larger tenon saw may help, but really the only answer is to hold the saw as steady as possible. The other common error when cutting mouldings and the like is to cut two miters the same ˇŞ that is two right-handed or left-handed angles, instead of one of each. This can be avoided by always marking the waste on the wood, and checking that the saw is in the correct guide slot before you begin.

Clean up the cut ends with glasspaper, taking care not to alter the angle, and glue and cramp the joint together For frames special miter cramps are available, but you again make up your own From scrap wood, cut four L-shaped blocks, and drill a hole at an angle through the point of each L. Feed a single piece of string through the holes of all four blocks, position the blocks at the corners of the frame and tie the string into a continuous loop. To tighten up, twist the string around a stick, and keep twisting the stick to draw the blocks together. You can then wedge the stick against the frame to stop it untwisting until the adhesive has set.

There are three ways to strengthen miters ˇŞ with timber connectors, plywood triangles or metal angle repair irons. For frames they should be fitted from behind, either by glueing, or glueing and pinning.

How to Make a Housing Woodwork Joint

Housing joints are very useful in constructing drawers, door frames and partition walls, among other things: but they’re indispensable for fixing shelves neatly into uprights. The joint gets its name because the end of the shelf fits into a square-bottomed channel or housing’ across the upright. A basic housing joint is as simple as that, and very easy to cut and assemble. What’s more, it’s ideal for supporting the weight of a shelf and its contents – it resists twisting, and it looks much more professional than the metal brackets or other fittings which can do the same job.

Such fittings are readily available and often easy to use, but if your design is modern, they’ll tend to spoil its clean lines; and if it’s traditional, they’ll naturally be inappropriate. They will never give the unobtrusive and craftsmanlike finish which you can obtain from carefully designed and made housing joints.

woodwork joint How to Make a Housing Woodwork Joint

Making a housing joint

Even with hand tools, housing joints are among the easiest to cut. For a basic through housing joint, you don’t need to touch the shelf at all. You just mark out the position of the housing in the upright, cut down the housing sides with a tenon saw, and pare away the waste with a chisel and wooden mallet. The only difficulty, as in all carpentry, is to make sure that your marking, sawing and chiselling are always careful and accurate.

A stopped housing takes a little longer to cut, but only because you need to hollow out its stopped end first, to make sawing easier. You may also need to remove a small notch or ‘shoulder’ from the shelf, which is easily done with a tenon saw and perhaps a chisel too.

For a barefaced housing joint, the housing is cut in the same way as a basic housing. Cutting the rebate in the shelf is another job for tenon saw and chisel.


1 Use your knife and try-square to square a mark across the inner face of the upright where the top of the shelf is to go.

2 Measure up the full shelf thickness with a carpenter’s rule or a flexible tape measure. As always, try for absolute accuracy.

3 Mark this distance on the upright, working down from the first line to give the housing width; square the mark across in pencil only.

4 Place the shelf between the two lines to check them. If necessary, re-draw the second. When that’s right, go over it with knife and try-square.

5 Use a rule to set your marking gauge to 1/3 the thickness of the upright, which is the usual depth of a housing for a strong and rigid joint.

6 With the gauge, mark the housing depth on the upright’s edges. Then use a knife to square the marks for the housing sides to depth across the edges.

7 When cutting the sides to depth, cramp on a batten to prevent the saw from wandering sideways.

8 Remove the waste with a chisel, working from both ends on long housings. Pare along the sides if necessary to clean them up.

How to Make a Dovetail Joint in Woodworking

Dovetail joints are not only beautiful, they’re very strong. Once you know the to cut them, it only takes practice a good fit every time.

Most pieces of wooden furniture are built as either frames or boxes. The mortise and tenon, as the principal framing joint, is common in chairs and tables. But in box construction the dovetail has traditionally reigned supreme.

True, modern storage furniture often uses screws, dowels, assembly fittings, and edge joints cut with power tools But you only have to look at a set of dovetails to see that they make the perfect corner joint between flat timbers such as box sides – including the top and side panels of furniture carcases’.

dovetail joint How to Make a Dovetail Joint in Woodworking

In fact, dovetails are impossible to pull apart. That’s why they’re found joining drawer sides to drawer fronts and sometimes backs. Every time you open a drawer, you’re trying to pull the front off – and the dovetail joint withstands this tendency as no other joint can. Note, however, that it only locks in one direction. If you use it the wrong way round where its strength matters, its unique properties are wasted.

There’s one other major point to remember Chipboard is far too weak a material in which to cut dovetails – although, at a pinch, they’ll work in plywood and good-quality blockboard. The dovetail joint is always admired and even respected. But there’s really no mystery about it. While no one could pretend that well-fitting dovetails are easy for a beginner to cut, the only secret of success is practice; and you’ll find things go a lot more smoothly if you stick closely to the time-tested procedure described here.

Anatomy of a dovetail joint

Dovetails themselves are fan-shaped cutouts in the end of one of the pieces being joined -fan-shaped, that is, when you look at the face of the piece.

The sides of each tail slope along the grain at an angle of between 1 in 5 (for a coarse’ but strong joint, suitable for softwood and man-made boards) and 1 in 8 (generally considered the best-looking, and usually used with hardwoods). If you make them any coarser, they may break; any finer, and they may tend to slip out under strain.

Between the tails, when the joint is assembled, you can see the pins’ cut in the other piece. These, of course, follow exactly the same slope or rake’ as the tails – but across the endgrain, so you can only see their true shape when looking at them end-on. Note that there’s always a pin at either end, this helps to secure both pieces against curling up.

The spacing of the tails is another factor in the joint’s appearance. In general, the wider they are (and therefore the further apart the pins are) the better – but this too affects the strength if you overdo it.

Marking out the tails

The first step in making a dovetail joint is to get the ends of both pieces square (they needn’t be the same thickness) Particularly if it’s your first attempt, you may find it wise to leave a little extra length as well – say a millimetre or two.

After that, it’s customary to start with the tail piece (which is the side, not the front, in the case of a drawer). First decide on the slope of your dovetails say 1 in 6 – and mark it out on a scrap of wood or paper. That’s just a matter of drawing two lines at right angles to each other, then making a mark six units along one, and another mark one unit up the other Join up the marks with a diagonal, and set a sliding bevel to the same slope.

Now you need to work out where each tail should come. However, there’s no need for fiddly calculations. First decide the width of the pin at each end, and square that along the grain. Then place a tape measure diagonally between the squared lines, and swing it round to give a figure easily divisible into equal parts. Mark off these equal divisions, and square them along to the end of the piece. These are the centres of the gaps between your tails

Then make a mark 3mm either side of each centre mark, and draw a line sloping inwards from it along the face using the sliding bevel as your guide. Square these marks across the end, and then repeat them on the other face.

Lastly, set a marking or cutting gauge to the exact thickness of the pin piece, and scribe a line all round the end of the tail piece If you’ve been allowing for extra length, add that to the scribed thickness This will make the tails slightly too long, when the joint is complete, trim them flush with a block plane

At this stage, a very wise precaution is to hatch in or mark with an X all the bits you’re going to cut out

Cutting the tails and pins

The next essential is to have the right saw. An ordinary tenon saw is too heavy, you need the lighter version actually known as a dovetail saw, or the still finer gent’s saw. But even one of these, especially if new, will have too much ‘set’ the teeth will project too far sideways giving too wide and inaccurate a cut. You can remedy this by placing the blade on an oilstone, flat on its side, and very lightly rubbing it along. Do this once or twice for each side.

To make your cuts, cramp the tail piece in a vice (If making, say, two identical sides for a box, you can cut more than one piece at the same time.) Align the timber so that one set of sloping marked lines is vertical Cut along all these, one after the other, before tilting the piece the other way and cutting those on the opposite slope.
Saw immediately on the outside of each marked line, and begin each cut with the saw angled backwards, steadying its blade with your thumbnail Once you’ve got the cut established tilt the saw forwards to make sure you re keeping to the line on the other side Lastly, level the saw up as you finish the cut Whatever you do, don’t cut down past the gauged line.

The next step is to use your gauge to mark the thickness of the tail piece in turn on the pin piece.

A neat trick follows Hold the pin pieceina vice, and cramp the tail piece over its end in exactly the intended position. Then, inserting the saw in the cuts you’ve just made, use it to score corresponding marks on the endgrain of the pin piece. Square these across its faces.

At this point you can remove the waste from between the tails. Begin by sawing out the little piece next to each of the two outer tails; then use a chisel. (Some people like to get the bulk of the waste out with a coping saw first.) Drive the chisel down into the face each time, keeping well in front of the gauge line, then tap the blade into the endgrain to get the chips up and out Turn the piece over and do the same on the other side.

Marking out the tails

1 Plane both pieces to exactly the same width, and check that the ends are dead square. Correct with a block plane if necessary.

2 Square the end pins’ width along the tail piece, then slant a measure between the lines to give handy divisions for the pin centres.

3 Use a gauge to extend these centre marks from the slanting line down to the end of the piece, where the tails will be cut.

4 Make another mark 3mm either side of each centre mark. This will give you the widths of the tails at their widest.

5 Set a sharp marking gauge, or preferably a cutting gauge, to the exact thickness of the pin piece or a bit more – but no less.
6 Score a neat line all round the end of the tail piece with the gauge. It’s usual to leave this visible in the finished joint.

7 Set a sliding bevel (or make a card template) to a slope of 1 in 6 – ie, six units in one direction and one unit in the other direction.

8 Use the bevel or template to mark out the slope of the tails, working inwards from the marks which denote the tail widths.

9 Square the width marks across the end of the piece, then mark the slope again on the far side with the bevel or template.

How to Make a Cross Halving Joint in Woodworking

The difference between cross halving joints and corner halving joints is that you cannot remove the waste using only a saw. You have to make a ‘housing’ and for this you need a chisel.

Saw down the width lines to the halfway mark and make additional saw cuts in between to break up the waste ˇŞ these can be the same width as the chisel blade to make chipping out easier. Grip the work in a vice, or on a bench hook, and now use the chisel to remove the waste. This is done in four stages. Guiding the chisel blade bevel uppermost with one hand and striking the handle with the palm of your other hand ˇŞ for this job your hand is better than a mallet ˇŞ reduce the edge of the timber nearest to you to a shallow slope ending a fraction above the halfway line Don’t try to remove all the wood in one go or it will split. Remove just a sliver at a time.

cross halving joint How to Make a Cross Halving Joint in Woodworking

The next step is to turn the wood round and slope the other edge to leave a sort of pyramid of waste. With that done, pushing the chisel through the wood rather than hitting it, gradually flatten off the pyramid until you have brought it level with the halfway lines. You’ll get a neater finish here if, in the final stages, you work with the chisel’s blade flat but at an angle to the grain of the wood. Finally, again pushing the chisel, remove any ragged fibres lodged in the angles of the housing.

Once you’ve sawn and chiselled out the housing in the second piece of wood, the next step is to try fitting the two together. Don’t try forcing them if they don’t quite fit ˇŞ you’re in danger of splitting the wood. Instead, carefully chisel off a fraction more wood, bit by bit, until you can fit the pieces together without undue force. If, on the other hand, you’ve cut the housing too wide so the fit is very loose, you’ll have to add some reinforcement like screws or dowels, and fill in the gaps with a wood filler, stopping or a mixture of fine sawdust and PVA adhesive. It’s not worth trying to add a wedge unless the gap is very wide (over 6mm/1/4in) because the result can be very messy.

Making a cross halving joint

1 First mark out the waste area to be removed, then cut down the width lines with a tenon saw.

2 Hold the timber in a vice or against a bench hook and remove the waste by chiselling at a slight upward angle.

3 Do the same on the other side until there’s a ‘pyramid’ of waste in the middle. Gradually flatten this.

4 When nearing the thickness line, hold the cutting edge at an angle to the wood grain Trim fibres in the corners.

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