Four proven techniques for working with timbers

How to build it big in the great outdoors

By Steve Maxwell


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Clothesline poles, mailbox supports, bird-feeder stands and garden trellises are all some of the big and beefy outdoor projects I’ve tackled, and all are based on the same four woodworking strategies.

Cutting and fitting big lap joints is the first and most basic technique. You’ll need a circular saw, a 1″-wide chisel and a mallet to make these happen. Start by laying one timber squarely on top of another at the point that they’ll join and then scribe the width of the top timber onto the bottom one using a utility knife. Lumberyard 6x6s and 8x8s vary in size, so you’ll definitely need to custom-cut each lap joint to get a tight fit.

Use your circ saw to cut on the waste side (inside) of each layout line. Then, complete a series of cuts in between these first two, no more than 1/4″ apart. Next, clear out the remaining wood with your chisel and mallet.

As with any lap joint, you’ll need to adjust your saw so the depth of cut extends down to precisely the middle of your timber. This adjustment is easy with 6x6s, but standard circ saws can’t cut deeply enough to get to the middle of an 8×8. I complete both of the critical shoulder cuts on the biggest wood with a Japanese handsaw, then use a chainsaw to complete the waste cuts in between. With the waste chiselled out, fit the timbers together, then mark and cut the other piece so the two interlock with both faces flush.

The perfect pegs to hold timber lap joints together are 1/2″-diameter, hot-dipped, galvanized carriage bolts, with flat washers and nuts. Use one bolt for each 6×6 joint and two for 8x8s.

Need to add support to a horizontal timber? You can let in a 45º knee brace by drilling and chiselling side pockets, or use 5/8″-diameter lag bolts to secure butt-joined knee braces to the faces of posts and beams.

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