I tend to look at the mortise and tenon like ye olde code of chivalry: ladies first. Even in a practical light, mortises are the “female adaptor” while tenons are the “male adaptor” of the joinery… so this analogy works out better than I initially thought.  In my limited experience, I’ve found it is far easier to chop out mortises first and later make the tenons to fit:  “Ladies first.”  Of course, you know that “always” and “never” contain a corollary.. mine is that when you’re doing a table-top-exposed-tenon, it’s the male that’s exhibitioning in that case: so I guess it’s “men first.”  But enough playful banter…

Let me preface everything: I am by no means a Master or have major handtool experience to back up what I’m doing. I simply do (and try to gain experience while I’m at it), getting the ideas from other’s blogs or from a book/DVD.  For now, I blog about what works for me in hopes that someone else will find it useful or perhaps step over the potholes I’ve stepped in…

With mortises finished, it’s on to the tenons.   Prior to sawing anything, I’ve found that making a “gutter cut” is extremely useful… Chris Schwarz calls these 2nd and 1st Class Saw Cuts (there’s also more useful info in that link, like an easy way of squaring a saw cut using reflections). I like to think of these “class” cuts as chiseled-out gutters to put my saw blade into (so it doesn’t hop all around as I try to start the cut).  Do it; it will be your best friend…

2nd Class Saw Cut

So I suppose anyone (like myself) can cut a tenon with enough patience and time.  But what I’ve enjoyed with handtools is the ability to cut sooner (and quieter) than I would with some machine; gone are the days where I fiddle with machines and scrap for a full day to mathematically measure out the perfect cut and trial it on multiple pieces.  Every joint is custom fit, and here is the most efficient way I’ve found to do this sans numbers (by using the width of your mortise chisel as your primary measurement):

Sizing up the mortiseTransferring over to the shoulderFinding the center

Marked and ready to cut the 2 registered cheeks and shouldersSaw the two portions of the tenonFrom the register, measure the opposite cheek

Lastly, dial in the final lengthMeasure that length against the actual tenon and mark...Test the tenon fit

***A word of caution with this technique: treat that mortise chisel like a loaded gun. Handle it positively and deliberately and ensure the path from it to the the ground is clear if you decide to measure in the vertical (like the 6th picture, where the blade is resting on the shoulder for stability). Otherwise, I measured everything else horizontally on the workbench. The initial three pictures are taken next to the mortise for ease of understanding; I had positive 2-hand control of the chisel for “picture taking.” But I actually made the mark using my workbench (below): the chisel rested horizontally on the workbench while I pushed my rail into it to mark the measurements with greater safety and stability (rather than holding the chisel in the air with one hand while marking with the other):

Measure safely

I’ve done 12 of the 16 so far… this method averages about 30 minutes per tenon (including the measuring) working at a leisurely pace. Tomorrow’s project will be fine-tuning the fit and converting all 16 of the tenons to the foxed variety.  More to follow…

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