Essential tenon tips

There are easier ways to join wood, but none better

By Steve Maxwell


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One of the best things about being a home workshopper is you can afford to indulge in woodworking luxuries that aren’t feasible in industry. The tenon is a good example.

Though they’re almost extinct on the commercial furniture scene, not so in home workshops across Canada. Since you’re free from concerns about profitability, you can use features like tenons to enhance your work beyond anything that’s measured financially.

In fact, home workshops are one of the last places where traditional woodworking practices survive. As useful as it is to have stores filled with mass-produced furniture at prices everyone can afford, it’s also good to know that dedicated enthusiasts are still free to preserve old-style woodworking virtues.

Besides being strong and trustworthy, tenons can be fun to make. And just knowing they exist as hidden features of a project builds my admiration for the work and the woodworker. There are easier ways to join wood, but none better. Of the several options for cutting furniture-grade tenons, my favourite uses the tablesaw and a surgically-sharp 3/4″ or 1″-wide bench chisel. By cutting regular grooves, called saw kerfs, part way through the ends of a workpiece, waste wood becomes easily removed with a chisel to create the tenon. A variation on this theme employs a hand-held circular saw to create similar kerfs on timbers too large to be moved over a stationary saw. Either way, the approach is safe, accurate and an efficient combination of hand and machine operations.

Tenons are strong because they mimic the way tree limbs intersect tree trunks, taking full advantage of the strength of wood found parallel to the grain. And the first step involved in making tenons is designing them. Tenon thickness should be one-third the thickness of the wood involved, and as wide and long as possible. One problem when discussing tenons is confusion around words like thickness, width and length. Tenon thickness is measured the same way as board thickness; tenon width is measured across the grain and tenon length along the grain.

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