The Oxford English Dictionary takes the “Defined by his results” definition: “A craftsman whose occupation is to construct things by joining pieces of wood ; a worker in wood who does lighter and more ornamental work than that of a carpenter, as the construction of the furniture and fittings of a house, ship, etc.” and dutifully notes that it first appears in print from 1386.
One of the reasons you haven’t seen many wood chips fly is that I’ve been remodeling my kitchen (using power tools, I confess). The other is that I’ve been doing research and acquiring a box of tools that are as near their period form as possible. As always, I get by with a little help from my friends and it never ceases to amaze me how many people have taken on this project as if it was their own.
I’ve had leads on tools emailed to me and received tools mailed to me from as far away as Georgia (thanks, Noel!) and the UK (thank you, Douglas!). As you probably know, some of them I’ve revived from the slumber of ages and some of them I inherited.
At this point I’ve acquired enough tools to begin building the rest of the tools I’ll need and for that I shall need joinery.
In the Joint, Part One
In the 16th century, there were many joints that did not rely on nails to hold together and it was the joiner whose specialty was the making and execution of those joints. The key joint, in my opinion, wasn’t the dovetail so prized by modern cabinetmakers, but the mortise and tenon.
At its simplest definition, mortises are holes and tenons are slightly smaller bits sized to fit inside the holes. The tenon is then usually held in place by pegs or nails or in the case of knockdown items like trestle tables, a removable key.
If you think about it, that seems a bit weak, but it isn’t. Houses and furniture that was built in the 16th century this manner are still standing today. A bit closer to home, I’m talked before about the 16th century wheelbarrow I made using mostly period joinery, the key joints being four through tenons that form the chassis.
That sounds fine and I’ll admit that it looks a bit ramshackle, but bear in mind that we’re looking at a farm and garden tool that I made out of $25 worth of crap lumber from Home Depot and when I wasn’t using it to haul sandbags and lumber, it was parked under a tree for eight years.
No matter how much I loaded the thing down, those tenons held tight.
The pins holding the tenons in place are known as “drawbore” pins, which means the holes are slightly offset and the pin is being yanked in two different directions, preventing it or the joint being held from moving.
Cutting a mortise
Then, go in at a slight angle and remove the waste between each lateral cut, working with a nice, sharp chisel and working slowly to keep your edges square.
Rinse and repeat, working as deep into the wood as you need to go. Not all tenons need be through-tenons and there are a dozen or so ways to stop them short and lock them in using wedges if you’re not up to the drawbore technique.