With dimensioning complete, I gained a golden nugget of wisdom: cut first, plane later.  It saves you planing work.  Now onto the joinery.

Perhaps I’m repeating myself from previous posts, but one of the reasons I find doing things by hand so attractive is that it gives you the ability to stray from accuracy yet still be extremely precise (thereby, freeing you from the shackles of numbers).  What do I mean by this?  I don’t have to create some jig to to find a point exactly 28.5″ up the leg to drill out a mortise exactly ½” wide by 3″ long.  So without the numbers, how do you tackle the problem of cutting uniform mortises across four table legs?  Here’s what I came up with:

I  set the legs in their positions and determine which faces I want to be visible on the outside.  Once determined, I mark and rotate them 180° out and clamp (or rubberband) them together.  Now every face I see should contain a mortise (yet to be cut).  With a square, I marked around the outside circumference treating the four legs as one.  These marks will determine the length stops of my mortises:

Marking the Mortise for Legs

The last cog prior to actioning the mortise is figuring out the wall.  I eyeball it.  In my case, I want the rails and stretchers to bias the outside of the table, so I find a depth that looks “good enough” for me, set my depth/wall gauge (which in this case, is a little Starrett square), and draw my pencil line to it:


With measurements complete, anchor your piece down (I use 2 holdfasts) and start chopping.  How do you know what the other wall will be?  I’m using a ½” mortise chisel, so my walls will be ½” wide (and all I really care about is the near wall I marked).  When I saw the tenons, my ½” mortise chisel will also become the star performer in measuring those out (but that’s for the next post).

Mortises are always chopped perpendicular to the grain.  Start about 1/8″ from one stop (with the bevel away from the stop) and start chopping.  Make your way down until you’re about 1/8″ from the other stop (1), then reverse your bevel and start flowing the other way (2).  Keep doing this until you reach the depth that you want for the mortise and tenon.

Once I reached my depth, I intend on foxing these bad johnnies, so you make your final chops to the line of each stop (3), at an angle to create a dovetail-like crevasse (4):

First MortiseSec-Mortise
Third MortiseFour-Mortise

I usually stop twice during each “flow direction” to vacuum out the waste, which does kill a little time. When I was on my 16th and final mortise, I had this process down to about 15 minutes (from probably about 45 minutes) per mortise.  Though this isn’t my first time chopping mortises, I mainly learned my method by watching Roy Underhill; look around the 18-minute mark.

Next up: foxing the tenons and assembling the fortress.

And for the last lesson learned: I have a garage-born workshop.  Unless it’s really cold outside, the garage door stays open.  Unfortunately, this leaves a way in for visitors.  I also like to milk a tasty beverage while I work .  Since I’m in Britain, I’ve found a 2.7% abv ale that fits this role nicely (albeit, I’m sure one can make an argument against this during “Woodshop Safety Week/Day” or the like).  Unfortunately I get 2 or 3 thirsty visitors an hour (perhaps I should open a pub?).

The ProblemProblem Solved

The German’s are so smart…

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  • Jonas Jensen

    Mortises in 15 minutes sounds fast to me. So I suppose that practice do make perfect 🙂
    It might be a little off topic, but is that a mini tool tray that is visible behind the German lidded cup?


    • 15 minutes was my “timed test” – it’s more like 30 when I’m working at a comfortable pace not trying to prove something.

      The tool tray you see = reversible bins in the center of the workbench. There are 4 of them: right side up they are bins for tools, upside down they add to the workbench surface, put a spacer underneath them and they act as built-in bench hooks.

  • Ralph J Boumenot

    Hi Snakeye,

    for some reason, your posts aren’t showing up when you do them.

    I am about to start one squaring five boards. I’m glad I read the comments from Shannon on your last post. I’m going to cut my boards to rough width first . I’ll see what losing 2″ will do for me.

    You don’t seem to have any problems ripping boards in a vertical position. That operation is my Achilles’s heel so for. How long did it take you before you got a plumb cut like that?

    • You know, I really can’t answer how long too accurately… I’m probably horrible and just don’t know it! Truthfully, I just pay attention to not stray from the mark I made to split it and then planed out the imperfections with my jointer plane.