How to Cut Tenons by Hand
Cutting tenons by hand is quicker than you think
I’ve been cutting joinery with hand tools since I began making furniture, when I didn’t have the money or the space for big woodworking machines. Nowadays, I still prefer hand tools—especially for joinery. Machines are fast, but I’ve found that I don’t gain much in time or enjoyment by using them.
Cutting the tenons for this pair of doors, for instance, shouldn’t take too much longer by hand than it does with a stack dado cutter at the tablesaw. You can make the process efficient with a few tricks for cutting crisp, clean tenon shoulders and cheeks that need only minimal trimming for a good fit.
And the additional time it does require is time well spent. After all, it’s time spent woodworking.
A step-by-step guide
Begin by marking the tenon shoulders. Use a cutting gauge for clean, deep lines. Wheel or pin gauges don’t cut as crisply. Set the gauge to the depth of the mortise and make three or four passes, cutting a little deeper each time.
Pick up the mortise width. With the fence against the front face of the stile, set a mortising gauge to the width of the panel groove, which is the same as the mortise width.
Mark the tenon thickness. Again, keep the fence on the front face. Scribe the end grain and the edges down to the shoulder line.
Mark the haunch. First, set the cutting gauge to match the distance from the edge of the stile to the mortise. Then use this setting as shown to mark the end grain on the tenon.
Secret to a clean shoulder. Using a chisel, make a series of shallow passes to cut a groove about 1/16 in. deep on the waste side of the scribe lines. This reveals more of your deep scribe lines and helps establish the top of the shoulder.
Cut the shoulders using a backsaw with crosscut teeth. The chiseled groove provides a square reference surface to guide the saw. It also seats the saw below the surface of the workpiece to prevent marring. Stop cutting when you reach the panel groove.
Cut the cheeks with a ripsaw. Clamping the rail at an angle lets you sight along two layout lines (end grain and near edge) for greater accuracy. Cut just proud of the lines, and adjust the rail to vertical as soon as the saw reaches the far corner. Then finish the cut.
The haunch comes last. Start the cut at your layout line on the end grain, and saw down to the shoulder cut that matches the depth of the panel groove.
Trim the cheeks. Test-fit each tenon and remove excess thickness with a rabbet block plane or shoulder plane until you get a friction fit. If the tenon is too wide, pare the edge with a chisel.
Check the shoulders. If necessary, trim the shoulders square and flush to the line left by the cutting gauge. This should take just a few passes with a shoulder plane.
Complete. A nice, snug fit.
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Photos: Steve Scott