More Flawed Concepts from FW

In the current Fine Woodworking Q&A section April 2012 the questioner asks a straightforward question about straightforward joinery with an angle for a chair he is making. He wants to know the best alignment of a mortise and tenon joint if the back of the chair is narrower than the front. The question is answered by a furniture maker, Jeff Miller, who I am afraid gave a very wrong answer that might knock many readers well off track. The heading immediately sets the tone and we have already seen that Fine Woodworking generally uses this to draw people into the article by sensationalising the headers. In this case the heading says:

“Angled Mortise is Better than Angled Tenon.”

This seems like a minor opening statement, but it does preface the whole issue and, as it is said, ‘he who frmes the issue determines the outcome” I see here that that outcome can be good, bad or indifferent. In this case I found it incomplete in discussing the surrounding issues that could have led to being much more informative and so I will try to address them to bring greater balance and prevent a flawed perspective.

I think it’s true to say that many woodworkers (amateur and professional) view this joint area as a conundrum, yet offset (angled) tenons are the norm at these interconnecting points and they have remained unchallenged for centuries simply because they work so very well. Jeff Miller says that, “An angled mortise and tenon is more difficult to make (the tenon has angled shoulders), but it is a better choice for two reasons.” Note the inference here is that the other type does not have angled shoulders. In reality, they both have angled shoulders at the shoulder line. He says that the tenon runs along the length, which is of course true. He says it makes it strong and the alternative is “weaker and prone to breaking.” This is like saying that an 8” x 8” post is weaker and more prone to breaking than a 10” x 10” post. The fact is that that is true. The fact is also true that neither of them will break under reasonable loads. I have in 48 years seen a several tenons broken, perhaps ten, but that’s out of thousands. In my own work I have never seen this type of tenon broken, but neither have I ever seen inline tenons used as a general practice. Most of the ten or tenons I have seen broken or broken myself have been on old tenons brought in for or during a restoration.

 

The most commonly used of joints used in chair construction where foursquare stock is used is angled tenons going into mortise holes parallel to the outside faces of the legs as shown here.

In general, no furniture is ever made with inline tenons for a couple of pivotal reasons Jeff Miller left out of the equation. One is that the method for cutting angled mortise holes demands the use of complex jigs if it is to be done by machine and is very difficult indeed to cut accurately by hand methods. It is also extremely difficult to clamp because the legs are now at an angle that must in some way be compensated for if standard clamps are to be used. I concede that strap clamps should work, but for the commonly used method using angled tenons you simply glue and assemble your sub-frames (front and back frames), set them to dry, and then add the side rails for a dry test fit before final gluing and assembly, which can be clamped very easily from front to back with straight clamps. Of the multiple millions of fully tenoned and mortised chairs created throughout Europe and North America, all of them are made with angled tenons and parallel mortise holes, not inline tenons as is suggested. I am fully persuaded that this method would have been tested and set aside time and time again. Had it proved a substantial improvement, someone would have adopted it, of that I am sure.

The second point he made is that the assembly is stronger. Is that true? I am not altogether sure, but one thing I am sure of is that the difference is only marginal and certainly not worth the very considerable effort it would take to actually make it work.

Another fact that Jeff Miller makes no mention of is that the mortise and tenon he espouses as being “more difficult to make but” the “better choice” is extremely scarce; so scarce I defy anyone to find this as an alternative in any craftsman’s workshop as a general-use procedure.

I hope that this reaches Bill Eckel of Lowell Mass. USA because I would suggest the standard method as the better of the two ways for him to go.

12 thoughts on “More Flawed Concepts from FW”

  1. Many articles are presented authoritatively but miss out very practical aspects that make life work.

  2. Quite simple really. Lose-tenon joinery substitutes for skilled hand work and I would probably find little use for it. That said, we all have to work through our own thoughts and feelings until we discover truth we feel of value to our work. It’s not puritanical so much as integrity in work.

    1. Additionally, chairs of all pieces of furniture receive the most rigorous misuse of all furniture pieces. I could see their use in a prototype, to adjust proportion and see the finished piece, but i could never trust them in any of my work of any kind in the same way I see absolutely no need for dowels and biscuits.

  3. Bill Schenher

    Hi Paul,

    I totally agree with your view of FW and Jeff Miller. I think that FW is in a spot as a magazine were they have to be the best and give the best information. They feel they are the premium magazine for woodworkers out there, and though that is somewhat true, I believe some of there concepts are incorrect. Recently Jeff Miller came out with a tenoning jig for a hand saw, many people were amazed and then I went to my book shelf. I picked up one of my books that is over 100 years old and found that exact tenoning jig for use with a hand saw. Then I laughed to my self, why would you use a tenoning jig for a hand saw when you could just use the saw and be done with the tenon? Who know, I guess that appeals to the masses.

    Love your work and sorry to hear about your father,

    Bill

    1. Paul Sellers

      The point I am making is that the presentation is flawed and that someone was seeking advice and received recommendation that would lead him to pursue a much more difficult method with marginal if any advantage. I would hate to think that anyone would jump through these hoops when a simpler and more practical method proves equal in quality. If this were a question of developing a skill to give greater mastery I would say do it and gain the experience, but it’s not and so I say consider this other method or indeed try both.

  4. Paul Sellers

    You are right. I lost interest in power tools within a few years of using them and then discovered that the real power tools were my own hands. Others have started discovering this too and so it’s been quite a learning curve. Power tools have had their own way for five decades to my knowledge and more decades beyond. They are useful but v boring and need no skill. You spend most of your time with safety issues and that’s sick. My methods come from having made hundreds of chairs and I have personally taught over five hundred people to make their own rocking chairs with narrow backs and wide fronts. My methods encompass both hand or machine methods. I love hand tools. Machines can never come close.

  5. Howard in Wales

    .

    I gave up reading the comics years ago – too many trade ‘tests’ and equipment ‘reviews’ for my taste and not enough hands-on.

    But I’ve just finished another run of chairs in Oak and I’m glad to note that I’ve been doing it right all these years.

    All best from Wales..

  6. What about a bar stool with two angles? I have one I’d like to copy, and it has a splay and rake of 7 and 5 degrees. Is it possible to cut compound angled tenons by hand and get the bottoms of the legs to square up?

    1. Yes, we built a bar stool with compound shoulders two years ago on woodworkingmasterclasses.com. This article was just too silly for words.

  7. Once again I’m probably late to the party on this, but better late than never. Paul, I wish I had begun reading your blog and watching your videos before blogs and videos and the investment in overpriced power machinery. I recently made a tenon jig simply because I’m not very good at cutting straight with a handsaw and my daughter has some burning desire for me to build a rocking chair for her.
    Well, that got me thinking about angled tenons which lead me straight to this page and my new found love / hate relationship with my table saw and the chunk of flesh it extracted from my finger not to long ago.
    I suppose I should invest in another mile or so of scrap lumber to practice and perfect these great, time tested methods. I guess an old friend of mine was right. Dumpsters are our friends.
    I’ve already got a pile of tenons and mortises sitting around that will never fit anything and the cool part is I can quite literally look at my own progress and where your blog and videos have lead me. It’s a nice place.
    So where’s the fabled video about this angled tenon and mortise? I guess I’m just going to have to practice searching your site. 😉

  8. Thanks for this article. I was considering redesigning the mortises & tenons for the braces in a timber frame style pergola swing I am building for my garden with inline tenons instead, after reading how they where superior. But now I think i will stick to my original design anyway.

  9. Great comments Paul. Thank you! The way I look at it, an angled tenon is just a layout exercise but once that’s done, sawing is sawing. Just follow the lines. Parallel or angled is exactly the same process. I’ve yet to figure out how to draw those lines inside a hole that isn’t there yet! I don’t like angled tenons so much because I can’t use my router plane on them, but when you need them, you need them. It’s a small price to pay to avoid trying to angle a mortise hole. I tried that once – nearly impossible to get right and makes lots of scrap.

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