Home » Paul Sellers’ Blog » Re Easy Angled Tenons Article In Fine Woodworking

Re Easy Angled Tenons Article In Fine Woodworking

A few years ago a contributor to Fine Woodworking, Jeff Miller, made a horrendous blunder in stating that in-line tenons were commonly used in chair making by furniture makers because they were stronger. His assertion was untrue, and I felt I needed to help balance out the issue at the time. It’s this kind of flawed comment that shapes people’s thinking in the wrong way.  From time to time I feel it is important I take points like this to task. The strength factor he presented as a logical fact was so marginal it was inconsequential to the whole but the methodology and logic!!!?? Aargh! His methodology and contribution actually increased the complexity over that of developing simple angled tenons and shoulder lines. But then I thought it was funny here a couple of months ago when he came up with a new article stating the exact opposite. This time he compounded (pun intended) the failure by spending hours making his not-so-simple “simple jig” to use a power router to put shoulders onto the angled tenons he was previously steering people away from.

Tell me that jig looks simple.

He made out that it makes the complexities of angled tenon cutting simple when the angled tenons are not in the least complex or difficult to cut by hand and are simple to do until he comes along expounding on his complex jig-build. To the uninitiated, good writers have a way with words. They can indeed make the simple things woodworkers have done for centuries seem, well, just plain complicated. Rarely can they deal with their inherent ability to create ever more confusion and difficulty.

Review what comes into your mind and try to filter out what often informs your decision making. It is worth considering whether something someone says is simple really is.

48 comments

  1. Justin says:

    I thought the same as I read the article. My experience with your blog, videos, and lessons all led me to the same assertion. Angled tenons are pretty cheap and simple without a router. Not to mention, holding a router that high puts me on edge. If you aren’t scared of that cut, you should be.

  2. Daniel Zehner says:

    One of many reasons I don’t read many Fine Woodworking articles, they rely too heavily on jigs for work that’s simple with hand tools. I’d rather make furniture than jigs, thank you very much…

    • Craig says:

      I agree, far too many articles on Jigs, rather then trying to get people to hand tools, although I think that’s the sponsorship of companies that tell these “woodworkers” to promote their machines.

  3. William D. Elliott says:

    Paul,
    As a direct result of being a student of yours, I cancelled my long-held subscription to Fine Woodworking. When they asked why my subscription of a few decades was being cancelled, I explained that I was a Paul Sellers hand tool woodworker and that the power tool orientation of FWW did not work for me any longer, the lady on the phone just sighed.

  4. Richard says:

    Despite all its weaknesses, I still subscribe to FW (as well as Furniture & Cabinetmaking (UK)) as those two are still the best woodworking magazines available today. Give me another title that is better than any of these two and I will switch!

    Having said that, I have been disappointed lately with FW which seems to think great photographs as great articles. Many articles (like the recent one on clamps) are superficial and contain information that has been widely known.

    As a seasoned jig maker, I agree the Jeff’s ‘simple jig’ isn’t that simple and accuracy must be spot on in its building. I recall a tenon jig also by him to be used with a tenon saw was quite a joke because why not using a tablesaw and tenon jig to cut tenons if speed and precision was the concern.

      • Keith says:

        Popwood lost a lot of their good talent and I think are now struggling to recover. The people that built it up from obscurity must be crying in their beer. The main reason I still get it is to read Bob Flexner’s articles.

        Wood magazine is getting _little_ better — stopped it when it was on its “cute little ornament” (aka Pukey Duck) phase.

        Woodcraft and Rockler took over a couple of the other magazines and meh, ads for their stuff.

        One of the others, Woodshop (?) may have changed but they were always into “make your own power tool from plywood and other stuff.”

        Maybe Youtube and blogs are going to kill them off unless we get some really talented editors and contributors out there.

        • Paul Sellers says:

          I doubt the come back is possible any more as the big boys that buy the magazine advertising space have no loyalty and now use social media, and the mags seem to be a bit, well, dinosaurish when it comes to change and keeping up. I don’t see that anyone is worse off really. Still a lot of good stuff to learn from elsewhere and more diverse.

        • Evan says:

          Mortise and Tenon is probably the closet thing to a good periodical out there and it only publish like bi-annually.

    • Jeremy says:

      I could never build the dang jigs right. I’m no woodworker by any means. But I do build my own things if you follow my meaning. Paul’s books have given me a better direction. I feel that the people must write a story about a sponsoring manufacturer’s tool. But in order to get the job done with said tool a complicated jig must be considered and built. When I flip through a magazine and see an awesome explosion of a project I get excited…until I see the required jig which looks like somebody spilled wood glue in a box of scraps.

    • Peter Littlejohn says:

      If you have the skills to make this jig, you probably don’t need the jig to cut tenons either by hand, or machine.

    • Paul Benoit says:

      I hate to say this guys, but there are some of us such as myself who have no detail vision, that can use a jig like this. The Chris Schwartz saw guide every time I make a saw cut. I flat can’t see the guide line.

      I will have to build a jig something like Jeff’s in order to cut the lid off the keepsake box.

      Paul has my Thanks for his insistent use of the knife wall and his method of sharpening tools have really helped me start woodworking again.

      • Michael J Benoit says:

        This comment was made by my brother. You have to realize he is 100% blind in one eye and 90 to 95% blind in the other. He still does wonderful woodworking projects, but, he does need jigs to keep his lines straight. For those of us with normal sight, I agree with Paul that using hand tools can be much simpler and safer than power tools and often you do not need complex jigs.

        • Paul Sellers says:

          Thanks Michael, I think, though, that we lose the plot in some of this. Jigs are useful for some tasks and suit some people as they develop. That wasn’t what I was addressing at all. I was addressing the spin put on things to suggest something was a good and practical practice when it was far from that and then to come back some years later and suggest something that was a difficult task could be made simpler by making a complex arrangement in jig making. It is simply disingenuous.
          Without full vision, what makes for balance will be different for those with impairments. When you meet a man with two metal claws in place of hands and fingers making pristine dovetails you know he overcame his disability.

  5. Anthony says:

    Hi Paul, I am new to cabinet making, timber framing, just a few months, and after 30 years of Industrial Electrical Construction, This new craft is truly enjoyable, I love it, currently building a cabinet Makers work bench, and I find myself reaching for the hand tools over the power tools.

  6. Bill Milhoan says:

    Can someone provide a link to a more “Paul-like” angled tenon demonstration? As a beginner, I have to say that jig pictured is downright scary!

    • Evan says:

      Definitely second the dining chair. Paul covers about every aspect of the angled tenon and mortise. I don’t even think about them as complex any more, just demanding to cut. Another good example of complex cuts made simple is the saw horses Paul shows how to build.

  7. Lawrence says:

    I think jigs and power tools are fine- *IF* you are making thousands of identical things- but if that’s the case, why not go the whole hog and build an automated robot arm factory to do all your work instead?
    I think most of us here avidly follow Paul’s approaches and philosophy on life (Hi Paul!). Working with your hands is so enriching to our lives, and the journey will always be key rather than the destination. There is a lightbulb moment in all of us when we realise this. The feel through the handle when the sharp saw teeth bite, the silkiness of the planed wood, the smell, texture and rustle of the shavings all bring joy once you know to take time and experience them. How did we ever live before these pleasures?
    I think Jeff Miller probably has some good skills, but in the above he has likely suffered a common issue, whereby he has ploughed on with a solution to a problem without taking stock and working out what he really wants to achieve. We’ve all done it- come up against an obstacle and our egos say “no problem I will engage and conquer for I Am The Master Of This Thing!”. There is however a better way. Let the other 90% of your brain work on the problem and present you with a much more effective and simple solution. Don’t get frustrated and stressed, put the tools down, relax, have a nice cup of tea in the sun, wander in to your family/friends and ask about their day, take a walk or a drive. During all of this, the problem is getting solved by your subconscious, and when done, will present you with “AHA!”. Smile, return to your task and take joy in its achievement, which is likely to be a lot simpler than the way you were originally thinking.
    If Jeff did this with the question of how best to help his readers with a tenon problem, I doubt this blog post would exist.

  8. Mike Bronosky says:

    Listening to people doing public speaking, especially the sermon in church. Sometimes the speaker actually has something to say. Other times they have to say something.
    I use to subscribe to several woodworking magazines, FW was one of them. Then I came across Paul Sellers. Thats when I realized that they, the magazines, were serving as their master the advertisers not the subscribers. One cannot have two masters. They were selling tools disguised as “how to articles ”. They have to say, write, something.
    Now the only woodworking subscription I have is Woodworking Masterclasses, thanks Paul. Thanks for not only showing me what I do need but also what I don’t need, a $10,000 arsenal of tools plus a large shop to store them in. Plus the danger of loosing a part of the body because of lack of Sawstop, no breathing protection, no hearing protection and little eye protection.

  9. Gav says:

    There was an “in-depth” article in the The Australian May 20-21 page 17 of Inquirer re: diminishing pool of jobs for humans limited to city centres. Essentially the demise of regional areas due to mechanisation/automation. The use of the router and jig for something that can be achieved with more simplistic tools and developed handskills brought it back to mind. To quote ‘Future jobs will be in the few domains where humans still retain a relative advantage’ Low tech has many advantages. I repaired a footing and base of a verandah post for a client last week. The replication of the post base required a lathe, or a chisel and mallet and a rasp. The rough sawn 5×5″ timber required a planer thicknesser or a couple of hand planes. Using hand tools allowed the use of a very small space to facilitate a job. If I had the set up and space I would have used machinery for at least part of it just for speed, currently I don’t. Cutting the post to length on site is pretty straightforward with a sharp crosscut and saw horse. Same tools handled dimensioning a bit of formwork. I have a portable tablesaw but it is overkill for this small stuff and I didn’t want to fit it in along with the barrow and hoe , which were preferable to loading up the mixer. Simple things powered by hand can give us versatility and options that machines sometimes can’t. Even if it is just being able to pick them up and move them without putting your back out:)

  10. Russell Lowe says:

    This is why I have so much admiration for Paul and crew,like designing anything of true beauty,the hardest part is to keep it simple while still bestowing the integrity of good solid joinery,which Paul does with ease and class,the way he cuts through the cud to show the raw is beautiful

  11. Thomas Tieffenbacher says:

    Paul,

    Definite sparks here. If one is a hybrid woodworker such as myself Jigs make it easier. I’ve not nor will I read the article. No time. LOL! The pont here was well made re: KISS and enjoying what we do. Charles Neil is a master of the router and simple jigs. I worked with him before you arrived on the YouTube scene. I now use what you have clearly taught and what I learned from Charles in what I do. My friend has said he thinks I like jigs more than woodworking. LOL! He may be right, but I am working at both.
    Accuracy is imperative in all we do as well as safety and comfort. Thanks for your wisdom.

    Thanks !

  12. Brendan says:

    This is just unfortunate. Presumably the magazine is trying to appeal to newbies as well as professionals, but aside from putting a rubbish tool in a person’s hand I can’t think of a greater disincentive than suggesting you need a power router and a ridiculous jig to cut a mortise and tenon. I recently did my second M&T project, which was a table with tapered legs that connected to a lower shelf. It was certainly more than I should have been taking on at the time, but using Paul’s methods I muddled through. When I had to cut a mortise a few degrees off square, I just leveled the piece on my bench, went at it and used an angled tenon. I can’t think of how it would require more than a chisel, mallet, marking gauge and maybe a poor man’s router, if you feel the need, for shaving the tenon cheeks.

  13. Chris Cooper says:

    This demonstrates the weakness of power tool. They have their place, but the skill at using a power tool is not transferrable, this is why I enjoy handtools.

    Though it takes a while to learn, once I learn how to use a hand plane, I can pick up any reasonably tuned plane and use it right away. Learning the idiosyncrasies of a power tool, such as jointer or router, takes a while, but the “skill” doesn’t help you with the jointer or router from another manufacturer.

  14. Richard says:

    I must disagree with this statement “This demonstrates the weakness of power tool. They have their place, but the skill at using a power tool is not transferrable, this is why I enjoy handtools.”

    Hand tools have their weaknesses as well. To say skill at using a power tool is not transferable is incorrect. Many teachers teach the skills of using power tools and those skills are just essential to woodworkers who make a living with power tools as are hand skills to someone who works with hand tools only.

    Whether it is a tablesaw, a jointer and whatnot, you can make the proper cuts if you know the skills and most often, that is independent of the brand or model of the tool. For example, without the proper skill, you won’t know (and most don’t) how to joint a twisted board flat on a jointer, or for that matter, with a thicknessplaner. There are endless examples of power tool skills that are useful, learn-able and transferable.

    I am proficient in both power tools and hand tools and have had decades of experience and successful projects to back up my assertion.

    • Chris Cooper says:

      I’m not saying power tools don’t have their place–I use them. However, they have idiosyncrasies, more so than hand tools. Thickness planers are a good example, where one has to account for snipe, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the brand and model. Yes, people make their living off power tools, but they use the same ones day in, day out. Move to another set of tools and they have to learn the tweaks.

      I can do far more with handtools and only a table saw in far less space (8×16 feet, to be exact :).

    • Jeremy says:

      I have seen grown men stand and stare at a jointer, completely dumbfounded, because their piece wouldn’t fit the jointer. They simply didn’t know what to do. They would inevitably rip the board in two just to use the jointer and glue the pieces back together. Even a battered smoothing plane could’ve saved them time and glue. Money will have been saved as the same men would eventually buy a larger jointer. It’s a terrible cycle.

  15. Steve McGonigle says:

    I recently cancelled my subscription to Fine Woodworking as I became tired of the obsession with power tools, jigs and all the rest. In many ways it is an admirable magazine, and has many fine articles to which I will refer from time to time. They are also great at championing Arts & Crafts type furniture, a style which may have originated in Britain, but which I reckon the Americans took to the finest level. That said, it is somewhat ironic that the reliance and obsession with power tools is in contradiction to the very ethics from which the Arts & Crafts movement was born.
    The ethos which Mr sellers displays with regard to simple but effective hand tool work, along with a rejection of the type of manufacture which leaves no trace of the human in the process (witness dovetail jigs and the like) in many ways makes him the heir to Willliam Morris and the fathers of the Arts & Craft movement. They wanted to see the hand of man, (and woman in the 21st century), in a thing that was made. Not that they was ever an excuse for sloppy or naive work, but that they were disillusioned with the rise of the machine and the diminution of the craftsman. Paul is in his way leading by example, and he must be doing something right when you witness the following he has. What I think comes through most eloquently in his work is a true love of his craft. Things made because it is in our nature to want to make beautiful things that have ‘us’ in their very being. A perfectly made item where the dovetail has the knife marks of the laying out is infinitely preferable to perfect dovetails that have come from a machine. I love to look at the work on old furniture where the craftsman’s hand can still be seen, be it a chisel mark, notes written in pencil and other such indicators that it was made by a human.

  16. Mr. P. Jablonski says:

    I take exception to denegrading fine woodworkers by name. It doesn’t matter whether they’re hand or power tool experts. I happen to know Jeff Miller personally, I own and have read some of the books he’s authored, and have taken hands-on classes from him at his school of fine woodworking in Chicago, Illinois (USA). In addition, Jeff has been a regular contributor to Fine Woodworking magazine since the mid 1990’s, and has been an invited exhibitor at all three of the renowned Handworks events in Amana, Iowa, along with many of the best hand tool experts in the world. Every woodworker has a different method for achieving similar end results. Some are more comfortable and capable with hand tools, some prefer electrically powered tools, and others prefer a combination of both. There is no right or wrong; no method is better than the others. The acid test is in the end result, and Jeff Miller’s exceptional and superior work continues to speak for itself today as it has for many years. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was attributed as saying, “Brilliant people talk about ideas; average people talk about things; small people talk about other people.” Enough said.

    • Paul Sellers says:

      It’s only that the two things he said weren’t really accurate or true and would mislead people because of his credibility as a writer. Just nudging it back on track, that’s all.

      • Jeremy says:

        The fellers above you and the one below me must work for the said magazine or have a considerable bromance going on. Sure are tore up over another man’s opinion.

      • Kyle McCormick says:

        You know what’s kind of sad? I have Jeff Miller’s most recent book on woodworking, and I have to say it is truly excellent. He spends a great deal of space in both text and photos demonstrating proper body position, technique, etc. for the gamut of woodworking processes, and on both hand tools and machinery (In fact, his stuff on proper body position is something I wish you would demonstrate a bit more – I can never see you behind that big bench of yours). In this way its more like Tage Frid’s books, but less encyclopedic and more editorial. No nonsense, no fussy or complicated jiggery. Maybe the most complicated jig he shows amounts to a large block of wood with a clamp on it to hold a workpiece for router mortising while keeping the router from tipping. It’s enough to make me wonder: Do the magazines encourage these kinds of things that the author otherwise would ignore? Have you ever been asked to write or demonstrate something you consider silly or excessive?

        This is why I have come to appreciate Popular Woodworking over Fine Woodworking, despite the many excellent pieces they have: It seems more like an exhibition of the finest, and often the fussiest, most time-consuming, purely pro-level stuff imaginable. I look at them and think: “I will never attempt that. It would take me six months at least and would turn out looking terrible.” Popular Woodworking’s focus on more “normal,” or natural – even vernacular – projects and skills have the opposite effect in that they inspire me to try, much like your site.

    • Rwebb38 says:

      I agree with Mr. P. J

      I gather nuggets of wisdom wherever and wherever I can, and enjoy all forms of techniques as well as the many great teachers I’ve come across in my journey. Each with their own strengths and ideas, but a true love for the craft.

      I get the point is commenting or judging something that is not the best use for joinery. But I am very surprised to see the bashing of FWW magazine, or any other organization. I thoroughly enjoy FWW and their fine staff and have benefited from them and will continue to in the future as well as from Paul’s Blog and others. Each has an important place in our fraternity. My 2 cents.

  17. Richard says:

    “I recently cancelled my subscription to Fine Woodworking as I became tired of the obsession with power tools, jigs and all the rest.”

    If someone’s interest is in hand tools only, they should have cancelled their subscription long ago, because FW has always had its focus on power tools. Only in recent years (10 or less) has it, like many other magazines, put more emphasis on hand tools.

    Only (now defunct) Woodworking Magazine in Chris Schwarz’s time tried to be an exclusively hand-tool magazine.

    My memory could be wrong, Paul Sellers one time was floating in this blog the idea of creating a hand=tool magazine. If there was ever such idea, he must be too busy now with his Masterclass teaching and books to take on a side venture — which often is financially unrewarding, especially with the print version.

  18. Joe Benda says:

    Hi Paul,

    As a returning beginner, this is exactly why I have gone hand tool. Making jigs instead of actual work. Blehhhhh.

    Joe

  19. Richard says:

    It depends on how you define jigs. Traditional woodworkers make and use jigs in their work. To name a few, the shooting board, the bench hook, and the planing board. Jig making is a good thing and can be part of the actual work, whether you use power tools or hand tools.

    • Paul Sellers says:

      Ah, but the point! The point in the first article mentioned and then the second was not about whether using jigs was good or bad, necessary or unnecessary, but simply to say in-line tenons was not the common or better practice, EVER IN HISTORY, and neither was it simpler, and that the new fangled thingamajig didn’t simplify things or make things more practical or accurate at all, as was the whole inference. The jig was wholly more demanding than simply cutting very uncomplicated angled tenons by hand.
      Besides all of that. A shooting board and a bench hook are simply guides made in a matter of minutes not hours. The bench hook, a jig? ‘Fraid not. I think most people agree that making jigs is usually useful. A mitre box for instance makes short work of cutting corners. They also know that it’s a substitutes for developing real hand skill leading to new freedoms. It is also a way of self protection and wood protection because after all you are working with a 1-2 horse-power motor in most cases that needs harnessing and then corralling in some way.Woodworkers using machines often don’t develop hand skills using hand tools and therefore never know of what I am speaking unless indeed they do break free from the mindset machines are always better, faster, more versatile and more accurate. Some times it’s true and sometimes it’s not worth the effort to make them so.

  20. Richard says:

    Oops, sorry Paul. My comment was a response to Joe Benda’s remark that seems to suggest that making jigs is not actual work. As I remarked earlier on, I do not consider the router jig that Miller featured in the FW issue a simple one. One could spend hours and still not get it right.

  21. Tom McKenna says:

    As editor of Fine Woodworking, it’s important for me to defend the credibility not only of our content but of one of our expert authors. Jeff Miller has been building furniture for more than 30 years, including dozens and dozens of chairs, and has been teaching the craft for a quarter century. His perspective and techniques are sound. His reputation and experience are solid, and Fine Woodworking confidently stands by his articles.

    As for the comments about Fine Woodworking having a dedicated focus on power-tool-only projects and techniques, it’s simply not true. Fine Woodworking embraces all the different methods of woodworking, understanding that there are many approaches and preferences, all dependent on the personality of the individual and what gear they own and like to use.

    Let’s celebrate and be respectful of all the myriad ways that people enjoy woodworking.
    –Tom McKenna, editor, FWW

  22. Kemal Erdogan says:

    Hello Paul,

    I am a beginner and find angled tenons (or rather the mortice part) indeed not so easy. Could you please make a post on making one by hand tools

    Thank you,
    K.

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