How Joinery Can Change What You Make and How You Make It

(warning: long and may ramble)
In an earlier thread, both here and in several other woodworking forums, I raised the question "How has a tool changed what you make and how you make it?" That discussion included a discussion about how the use of handtools can change what you make and how you make it - the Roy vs Norm discussion - as if there were only two ways to skin a cat.
In that discussion I stated what seemed obvious
The use of traditional joinery that doesn't require glue to hold things together or clamps to keep things aligned CAN certainly change what you make and how you make it.
and was asked to elaborate.
I'll use my experience - certainly not because I'm that experienced or that good a woodworker - but because I've gone in so many directions in woodworking and have tried various methods of sticking two pieces of wood together. I hope others will add their experiences and observations about how becoming aware of and then using "traditional joinery" changed what they make and how they make it.
Now on to my rambling -
I got into woodworking after watching Norm and the New Yankee Workshop. Norm was in his Ply and Face Frames Period then. So I did things out of ply using rabbets and dados (later adding biscuits), and a face frame, glued to, and hiding the edges of, plywood, a brad or two or three to hold things in place while the glue dried, the rest clamped together. Dry fitting was tricky and usually required more hands than I was issued as well as the ability to precariously balance things while the next part was placed. And there was a lot of checking for square - BEFORE the glue set up.
Working mainly with ply also involved coming up with a sheet layout that would yield the most parts per sheet, initially without concern for the grain orientation of the show face of the parts. Grain, Schmain - I want to get the most parts out of this sheet of plywood, preferably with the fewest cuts and the least “waste”. And to get the sheet layout I had to have the dimensions of all the parts first - which meant one or more scaled drawing. Invariably one or more of those drawings contained at least one dimension error, the significance of which wouldn't become apparent until assembly time. With this approach, I cut almost all my parts and did all the dados etc. before putting ANYTHING together.
I say "almost" because I quickly learned that the "theoretical" drawer dimensions shown on the scaled drawing and "actual" drawer opening dimensions were often different enough that a drawer or door wouldn't fit the opening it was intended to fit. IF there was a dry fit at all, it was after everything was cut and ready to assemble, and merely to make sure parts going into dados actually fit and the joint would close - I’d worry about “square” at glue up time.
When I got the JoinTech router table fence system I started using some "traditional joinery"- through and half blind dovetails, box/finger joints, occassionally a few mortise &tenons - and more solid wood since ply doesn't lend itself to joints like DTs . The pair of wall hanging tool cabinets I made early on were done with half blind dovetails using the JoinTech.
Using through dovetails and half blind dovetail and box joints - and sliding dovetails - I could make a rack or module to fit an existing space in the cabinet using slip sticks and a spring clamp to determine length between A and B - no pocket tape to misread when taking the measurement, no pocket tape to misread when marking the part, no possibility of cutting on the wrong side of the line. Just the use of slip sticks changed HOW I did things. Freed from inches and fractions of inches, I could think in terms of what was actually needed rather than the once removed from the actual - the numeric values on a graduated measuring device (pocket tape) of what was needed. Nothing to remember - the slip sticks storing the information for me. Place one end of the slip sticks against the “near tooth” of the miter saw’s blade, slide a stop against the other end of the slip sticks and start cutting the part or parts needed.
And when the parts were cut and the joinery done I could dry fit the module (chisel rack, shelves for planes) together, figure out where to drill holes for chisels or awls, or where to place the shelf for a plane. The joinery allowed for evolving an idea instead of making almost all the design decisions up front and being stuck if one of those decisions overlooked something or one or more needs changed - the acquisition of a new to me used hand plane for example.
By the time I got to making Das Bench, mortise and tenon joinery came into play - and very handy cause there was a LOT of dry fitting and evolving in that work bench. Probably assembled and disassembled the base unit six or seven times before it was done. The apron for the top was dry fit at least a half dozen times or more - going with big through dovetails permitting that.
The fact that using traditional joinery permits self supporting, self aligning dry fitting COULD really change WHAT I made became very apparent while making Das Bench. No matter how much thought I’d put into the drawings of the bench, there were plenty of things that weren’t obvious when doing the drawings at 1/4 scale which became obvious upon dry fitting the actual parts. Design First Then Execute The Plan To The Letter changed to Start With An Idea And Evolve/ Refine It As I Go. Traditional joinery use allows for options - and I like to have options.
As an amateur / hobbyist woodworker, I don’t often make multiples of a piece and when I do I make them all at about the same time (cut all the parts, do all the joinery, dry fit and tweak things then glue and finish). If I get around to making something similar, it may be months or a year or more later, some of the lessons learned from the earlier piece(s) forgotten by the time I get back to making something similar. What isn’t forgotten is the various methods for making the various traditional joints - and the options their use provide.
When I started using traditional joinery - and more solid wood - the need for hand tools arose. That soon involved learning to sharpen chisels and irons, setting up a handplane, how to make a paring cut etc.. And once you start handcutting joinery, pencil lines are just too fat, and impermanent, a line scribed with a knife is better, and one scribed with a single beveled marking knife even better. Subtle things about handtools became apparent with use - a single bevel marking knife with a long bevel will get into tight places - like between tails for marking thin pins on end grain. Also comes in handy for cleaning out the corners of the sockets of dovetail tails.
As I noted before, traditional joinery, if done properly, is self supporting and self aligning - on all three axis - without glue, or for that matter, clamps. More about the advantages, specifically about mortise and tenon joinery here, though applicable to other traditional joints
Now once you can stick the parts together that you’ve made so far and have them stay there while you step back to have a look at things - AND can take them apart - what you make and how you make it changes. As you go, your can assemble what you’ve got and see your idea full sized, with the actual wood. And if you want to see the grain as well, a wipe with a cloth dampened with water or alcohol will give you an idea of what you'd have with a finish on the wood. No need to mentally visualize your idea - it's right there to see in the real world - at full scale.
Because traditional joinery allows you to assemble and disassemble things, the opportunity to add nuances becomes available - a bead along here, a stopped chamfer on an edge - maybe a flute or two on a face, perhaps a line inlay, . . . A wide part, required for structural reasons, can be visually thinned by beading the upper and lower edge - visually breaking it up into three smaller parts. Transitions between parts can be softened or blurred by rounding over sharp intersecting edge lines, a plane can be broken up by adding a plane or two - by chamfering. Parts that don’t require meeting flush can be stepped back to create a shadow line - light and its effect becoming a design consideration
Rather than me rambling on - how has using "traditional joinery" affected what you make and how you make it?
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
Add image file

I've found the same thing to be true as I'm learning different types of joinery and how to make it with both hand and power tools. Depending on the project, and if I'm designing it, I do most of the planing in my head. I will pull out some graph paper and work out the base dimensions of things, but I leave the details till I get to that part. For a recent project making a small cabinet, I made the carcass out of plywood. The project was to be painted so I was using Poplar to make a face frame to hide the plywood edges. A year or so ago, I would have just cut out the various pieces of Poplar and then brad them directly to the plywood carcass, hoping the various pieces of Poplar would line up nice and tight and not leave any gaps. This time around, I made the face frame using mortise and tenon joinery. After getting the frame together and dry fit, I could then take the whole piece over to the cabinet carcass, verify it was covering things properly and not overhanging too much in the wrong places. Where it was overhanging too much, I could just take the frame apart again and plane off a bit of the offending piece. When I was satisfied with the way the dry-fit frame was fitting to the carcass, I put some glue in the mortises, put the pieces together, put some glue around the back of the frame and was able to quickly attach it to the carcass with some brads. The joints in the frame were all tight, no gaps and it looked good. It obviously took more effort to make the mortises and tenons, but the end result made it worth the effort.

If you want to reply via email, change the obvious words to numbers and
remove ".invalid".
  Click to see the full signature.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
Add image file
Upload is a website for homeowners and building and maintenance pros. It is not affiliated with any of the manufacturers or service providers discussed here. All logos and trade names are the property of their respective owners.