Doing Time in the Joint: Introducing the Worshipful Company of Joiners

I’ve heard any number of definitions that seek to draw a line between the joiner and the carpenter. Some people say the joiner is defined by his lack of nails. Others by the outcomes: the carpenter builds bridges and buildings while the joiner builds finer things. In an episode of the Woodwright’s Shop, Roy Underhill defines the joiner by his tools, saying he becomes a joiner the moment he picks up a jointer’s plane.

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.

Back in May, my favorite woodworking blogger The Village Carpenter wrapped up her blog and signed off, but not before she added me to her blogroll under “Hand Tools Only“. When she did this, I was unaware of it and I’m somewhat amused to note that looking back, I haven’t done much woodworking since she did so.

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.

I guess it’s high time I earned that link. 
Well, it’s a good start, anyway…

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.

See those two tenons that are sticking through the arms of the barrow above? Those are the tenons that lock the whole thing together. Even the wheel is held in place by those two framing members…

All those pieces in the picture above are held together and square by those four tenons. Until I had to repair the wheel a few years after this photo was taken, there were two nails in the entire thing. The only reason I used screws on the wheel is so I could change it more easily.
Eight years later it looks like this…

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.

This is one of the only two nails in the piece.  I didn’t need them. Not sure why I bothered to use them. It’s just that I was new at the drawbore tenon and didn’t really trust myself yet.

Cutting a mortise

These days, a lucky woodworker with a decent machine cuts these with a mortising machine, which is a hollow square chisel that is dragged through the wood by an augur running through the hollow center. Most of the time these days, I remove the waste from the hole using a drill and then square the hole with a chisel.
We’ll be doing this chopping it out with just a chisel.  Handily, this is the exact chisel my grandpa used to teach me how to do this thirty-odd years ago.
I really need to make a new leather washer for that chisel handle.
Draw your square with a knife or a mortising gauge and make a series of small lateral cuts… 

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.

Not all tenons are shouldered, which is what the parts of the timber on the sides of the tenon in the illustration above would be called. The mortises in the embroidery frame pictured below are the same size as the tenon pieces and are kept in place by the pegs in the frame and the tension of the embroidery. We’ll see more of it when we pull thread with the Worshipful Company of Broderers.
I brought up the frame because it handily illustrates how everything made of wood in the 16th century at some point passed under the tools of the guilds of joiners and carpenters. Every embroidery frame, every box, every building. So this is going to be a big one…
Want to learn more about Drawbore Joinery?
Read this article at WK Fine Tools by cabinetmaker and Popular Woodworking contributing editor Christopher Schwarz:
Peter Follansbee deals extensively with the mechanics of the drawbore in his book “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” published by Lost Art Press.
~ Scott


  1. Greetings! Thanks again for sharing the fruit of your quest with your readers. You make me want to do more!

    Here is the source of the stool I brought to WMRF-13 and you saw in the Kill it with Fire part 5 where the Corgi was paying attention…

    Mine is uncarved but used everyday as I put on/take off my boots. Using no nails and only two pegs it easily fit inside my suitcase for the trip from Indiana. It gave me the “best seat (anywhere) in the house.”


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