Someone asked if, “…Paul ever cuts any of his tenons to fit directly from the saw?” and I do, if or when I want to. Yesterday I did a couple like that out of the sixteen that I did cut and fit in reasonably quick succession. But when I cut several tenons of the same thickness in several rails it’s well worth using the Paul Sellers’ mortise guide in tandem with chopping out the mortise holes. On average, and for no good reason I timed chopping out eight mortise holes in a continuous mortising session — my mortise holes took a fraction over eight minutes a piece to chop so just over an hour’s steady chopping. On average these mortises were two inches long and an inch and a half deep by a quarter inch wide, so not big. Surprisingly, it takes the same exactly for a half-inch mortise three inches long and an inch and three-quarters deep. Fact is, I used to do all of my tenons and mortises freehand to the gauge lines as indeed I do freehand cutting all of my dovetails which always did and do generally come off the saw with no need for paring with a chisel. That said, for anyone new to hand tools and the very unique and specific world of hand tool woodworking, a guide like mine combined with the use of the hand router plane gives brilliant results early on in learning. I see all kinds of articles in magazines where someone pare-cuts every meeting part to creep up on the final cut line. Is there something wrong with that? Well, yes and no. There can be if it replaces a more direct approach and a confident build-up of that unique certainty leading to highly skilled workmanship. Pare-cutting has its place but it’s not something I’d recommend if it’s a million miles from the finish line. I say get close up or even directly on simply because I know there is a place beyond that margin that everyone can occupy in the early days of becoming an artisan with confidence. In my world, I see a boldness that comes from earlier practice that defies staying in the comfort zones, defies diffidence and procrastination without being at all cavalier. I think that gaining this confidence early on is an important development for several reasons, not the least of which is efficiency and efficacy. I hope that no one allows themselves to steal away the certain joy of just getting it right straight off the saw through steady and and successive early practice. That would be so sad and there’s no really good reason at all for robbing yourself of the pure skill in mastering dovetails straight from the saw. Procrastination partners mediocrity and is no friend to becoming a skilled artisan. Always best straight off the saw. Now that said, are we not creeping up on the line with the router plane? Indeed we are, be that for tenons and for housing dadoes, but we can choose to get as close as possible too and that is my encouraging aim to get you to take that moderate risk.
Now tenons are a little bit different than dovetails. Getting a mortise hole exactly to equal parallelity between the two walls of the mortise hole and then too to the outside faces either side can be a bit more of a challenge simply because the opening cuts, when slightly off, set the course for the deepening cuts subsequent to the start. Starting out, keeping perpendicularity throughout a deep and longish mortise is subject to a wibble-wobble here and there and yu have nothing but air to gauge how you are doing. It’s also true that the corners along the length of the chisel can be sheer-sharp and these tend to wallow out the walls when you are deeper in the mortise and need to remove the waste. My four doors came out twist free, ready to fit and hang. In door making, my guides are flawless for creating perfect mortises.
Up front, I am not saying at all that anyone should ditch the traditional ways of laying out and cutting mortise and tenons in the more usually accepted way. I am saying that you might well need that way because it could be the only way on a particular project that it might work or that you might find it good to hybridize the Paul Sellers guide with the traditional way or that my system works better in some if not all of your projects depending on how it is made. In many ways, my mortising system is so completely different that it flies in the face of the more usual traditional methods. But that’s not because traditional doesn’t work, more that it was originally developed to work from two direct reference faces adjacent to one another and planed true and square to one another. This too came from an age when all boards came from handwork and not machines. In that day it was more rare to plane all faces equal in parallelity and so only two faces were planed true and square to one another. The opposite faces might be skimmed off only and even retain some if not all of the saw marks. My method does not necessarily replace it as the traditional method was designed for the craftsman to register squares and gauges from the two trued faces only — the proven faces.
In my life as a furniture maker, I had reached a level of mastery where my holes were indeed parallel to the outside faces freehand. It was when I started teaching woodworking and furniture making that there were indeed massive discrepancies affecting the students very adversely and the only answer offered was to buy into the machines and the building to house them. Over many months and years, time and time again, I saw tenons that could never fit the mortise and yet the time of practice to achieve perfection could not be given even in month-long classes and workshops. In my early work life as an apprentice, I had a man alongside me eight hours a day steering, guiding and watching my every move. This willingness to always correct me was of great value. Something impossible in today’s world of apprenticeless woodworking, so I needed an answer to the problem asap.
Thankfully, quite early on in my then new to me teaching role, I saw the need for improving the status quo and indeed something leading to success for my students. Since then I’ve developed several things further surrounding mortise and tenon joinery. It’s been very much an evolutionary process and now it’s used much more universally as a result of my groundwork and to such a degree that many new to the craft might think it to actually be a traditional way rather than relatively new. It only really became public when I started blogging and videoing my teaching to reach the wider audience the internet gives me. When you see any other woodworking exponent using this method then he copied it from my teaching somewhere along the line.
My inventing the mortise guide system as an answer to my student’s needs is now a well-tested system from a background no one else can present from. In my world and in the schools I started, over 6,000 students have tested the efficacy right there at the bench. Combine that with the online work we do thousands of woodworkers have adopted it as part of their daily woodworking life. The fact that it didn’t exist until the beginning of this century seems remarkably bemusing simply because it is so simple and basic and it works so very well. But thinking more about it it shouldn’t be so surprising. Back in the ancient history of woodworking when men apprenticed, it became intuitive through the daily doing of it and doing it by the thousands in any given year. That is never going to happen for today’s woodworker but there are people like me who actually want skilled woodworking rather than the substitute machine work. It’s because of the internet that it has become so widely accepted. Before the internet, it would have taken me a hundred years to spread the news of it so widely around the world but now it has been proven through hundreds of thousands watching online and then too in my hands-on classes. Today, I use it for almost any project I make because, well, it’s such a superbly practical system that addresses the one thing most woodworkers cannot seem to get right and that is the parallelity it gives to our non-through mortises we use in our work a lot of the time. This guarantee of alignment ensures absolute twist-free projects ranging from chairs and tables to every kind of door.
In the quickness of CAD, the machining world and the internet, things get lost and the needle in the haystack may well be a gem of discovery buried in the never never to be found again. There’s a smallish detail most new woodworkers will never find when it comes to our losing the use of hand skills and hand tools. Because it might get lost I’ll record it here for future generations. Twelve or so years ago you could pick up a perfectly good Stanley or Record #71 router plane on eBay for £10-12; even one still boxed and with all cutters unused would not be so rare as it is now. People then, in that time and for about six or even more decades up to that point in time, either were not sure what the router plane did or assumed that it was outdated and ineffective in functionality. Those that did know of it thought that it had only one function and that was to crudely route down the bottoms of dadoes or housings, nothing more. It was the power router that routed it from usefulness. It’s no wonder, even the makers never thought to take it any further, hence nothing more is mentioned in any of their leaflets. Surprisingly, no book ever takes it further either (except of course mine). My going for a more public presence on and through our woodworkingmasterclasses.com, writing for magazines before that, and then blogging, social media, etc, brought about my teaching to pass on the skills from a master woodworker living the life as a designer maker, a lifestyle woodworker and not at all a self-appointed expert, YouTuber or salesman. It was very different because I knew the hand tools I worked with were from a lifetime of using them every day through half a century. I was an original, never copied what someone else was doing online and I can tell you I have seen less than one hour of online videos in the last twelve years. The funny thing is this. All tubers a few years ago teaching about the router plane only ever showed it for one task — levelling the bottoms of dadoes. Even the makers of them showed this task alone. Not one video exists showing anything more than that. When I introduced refining tenon faces to get true parallelity to the main face for tenons it revolutionised the levels of accuracy in tenon cutting and that translates into perfect fits from hand tools, non-twisted doors and the ability to refine amateur work to parallel in equal measure the work of professional machinists. This was something that up until now had never been done in amateur realms. I suppose it is true that I am proud to have taken the router plane use to a new level in the lived lives of woodworkers. This is how craft conservation works and not in some living history museum or any museum for that matter. Craft conservation should never be reduced to merely demonstrating on a platform . . .That’s merely preservation and not cultural conservation which must remain living through the lived lives of the crafting artisan creating and making as much as possible. Now that does not mean a full-time artisan earning a living from the craft, just someone dedicated to making in whatever time they have.
Chiefly, my introduction of the router plane in the much fuller context of refining the faces of tenons for finalising the depth of dadoing, housing, recesses for hardware and inlay work and so on came at just the right time. As far as I know, no one ever used a hand router plane for anything more than just possibly truing up the bottom of a dado. Of course. it stands to reason, this plane was abandoned because we were in an age of machine-only dominance. Remember YouTube is only 17 years old, but its mass popularity and influence is much less at that time. Can you believe that this plane was pretty much abandoned altogether by woodworkers worldwide? Imagine now if you could buy such a plane on eBay for £10. I’m proud and sad to say that this was indeed the Paul Sellers’ effect. Even a Stanley or Record sold via eBay will now reach £150 and they never sell for under £100 anymore. We’ve even shunted the sales of tool makers like Veritas and Lie Nielsen to where they can barely keep them in stock if they even can, so that’s another bonus considering it was all but obsolete a decade ago. Again, I developed the method and introduced it to my students two or three decades ago; for me, this proved the efficacy of the alternative use of the plane. It was tested by thousands of woodworkers in real-life situations as they made the projects in various ways and for different needs. Subsequent to that came a whole alternative to developing mortise and tenons using these simple mortise guides; that’s layout techniques and then truing methods for both mortise holes and perfecting tenons within thousandths of an inch when wanted.
And then came the answer for the shortage of and need for a good router plane at lowered costs. Last year I had decided I just could not let anyone pay upwards of £170 to £250 for a router plane and especially for someone starting out on their woodworking journey. They might not even like woodworking. So anyway, I designed and made a router plane that anyone can make in an afternoon that at the very least equalled the all-metal, mass-produced versions with a level of solidity that any and every woodworker would benefit from and they get to solve their own problem of not having one. Having previously blogged on my then-preferred Preston router plane I yet again sent prices soaring with competitive bids on eBay. Not because it was in any way superior in functionality or quality than the Stanley and Record 71 types. Again, my £32 purchase of a Preston or Tyzack a decade or almost two back sent the prices upwards of £500 when people saw me using mine and they never sell for less than that these days. I had to do what I always told my kids when they saw a problem and complained — ‘Be a solution!‘ I took a few blocks of beech and made half a dozen router planes to my design. We made our kits available and people around the world are now spending an afternoon making their own lifetime router plane for a fraction of the cost of the all-metal ones and it will likely last for a couple of hundred years of daily use. The router plane kit has proven popular after some serious investment having the components like the blade made by a premium Sheffield maker. Here at the shop, we have all made our own planes so there are a dozen and more hanging around. I’ve made 15 to date and also developed other ideas for retrofitting with additional components to use thinner cutters as required and then too a depth stop, incremental markings on the cutter and such so you can dial in a depth in an on-the-go way.
I have a follow-up to this in the pipeline for all of the practicalities going from laying out to depth stops for my router plane and more.