Almost every task in woodworking comes down to cutting to a line. If you can cut to a line consistently and accurately, you can build anything. There are any number of ways to do it, and the more methods you know, the more options you have and the more problems you can solve. Making a tenon means eight precise cuts, four to define the shoulder, two for the tenon cheeks and two for the tenon ends. It all starts with the layout, and I begin by using a knife and a combination square to define the shoulder cuts.
I used to do these at the table saw, and while that tool is fast, there are a number of reasons I prefer cutting by hand. At the table saw, the surface being cut is down on the table and I like to see what’s going on. Setting up the saw can be fussy, especially if the blade height differs during the course of the project, which it almost always does. But the main reason I cut by hand is the quality of the cut and the low risk of botching the joint. Even the best table saw blade can leave some tear out on the cut line. The shoulder is the visible part of the joint and if you have to make an adjustment after the cut for appearance’s sake, you change the length. When you cut by hand, the knifed-in layout line that you make first is actually the finished edge you will see when you’re done. If you don’t lose that line, you’re in good shape.
You don’t need anything fancy to do this, a simple bench hook holds the piece steady. The knife line acts as a guide for the saw if you use a gentle touch to push the saw forward as you start the cut. I tell students to try to push the saw across the board without scratching the surface. Getting a good start is the key to making a good cut as the saw will want to follow the kerf. If you try to force it, it can jump all around and be hard to control. The layout line takes care of making the cut square, and a decent saw will be easy to balance vertically. If you’re new to this, or a bit rusty, make some practice cuts until you can cut plumb. In this piece the depth is only about 1/8″ and the cut only requires a few strokes if you use the entire length of the saw.
For the long cheek cuts, I prefer to use the band saw. On shorter, non through tenons I will use a jig that holds the piece vertically at the table saw, or cut the cheeks by hand. In this case the cheeks are about 3″ long. That’s more work than I care to do by hand and a lot of blade exposed on the table saw.
I set the fence so that the cut line on the outside of the cheek is lined up with the inside tooth of the saw blade. Click on the photo for a larger version and you can see how things line up. Because I’ve already cut the shoulder, I don’t need a stop to keep from going to far. I slow down as I approach the shoulder line and most of the time the waste falls off.
I put the piece in my vise to make the second, longer shoulder cut. I’m starting at the far side and I’ve tilted the saw down so that the plate of the saw is riding on the first shoulder cut. That keeps both shoulder cuts lined up and when the cut gets going I lean the saw back, and stop when I reach the line for to end cuts on the tenon. Those lines are drawn after the cheeks are cut, but the position of the lines is easily found from the layout lines on the end of the board.
The end cuts are about 1/2″ from the edge of the board, so I can return to the bandsaw to make these cuts without readjusting the fence. Once again the shoulder cut leaves a margin of safely to stop the cut at the bandsaw to prevent nicking into the shoulder.
The idea is to get as close as possible with the saw cuts without going beyond the finished exposed edges. I usually have a little nub of waste left in the corner between the shoulder and the cheek. That can be removed with a chisel held flat on the tenon cheek. If the first chisel cut doesn’t get all of the waste, a second cut with the back of the chisel held against the shoulder line will. Fitting to the mortise is the next step, but before that, I bevel the ends of the tenon with my block plane. That makes it easier to get the tenon started in the mortise, and it prevents the tenon from breaking out the edges of the mortise when it exits on the other side.
You can spend a week with me learning all about making Craftsman style furniture. Here is a link to an upcoming class at Marc Adam’s School of Woodworking.