(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
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
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
Rather than me rambling on - how has using "traditional joinery"
affected what you make and how you make it?