tenons: 17th-century joinery

sawing tenon shoulder
sawing tenon shoulder

Yesterday I was cutting some tenons for a joined stool I have started…and I find this is one of the hardest steps to photograph. What I am after is a tenon front shoulder which is slightly angled; and a rear shoulder that is cut behind the line, thus not involved in the joint really. Here’s two period examples:

tenon shoulder detail
tenon shoulder detail


the next  one is a “barefaced” tenon, i.e. it has no rear shoulder at all. This one is a side rail of a chest, the notch in the stile is for a drawer runner.

barefaced tenon
barefaced tenon
Typically, I layout the joinery first, using an awl, square and mortise gauge. After the tenons are marked, I cut any moldings that decorate the rails, then saw the shoulders. (see photo at top of this post, using a mid-20th c. Disston backsaw, sorry Mike) I hold the rails in a modern bench hook, the wooden jig for securing stock on the benchtop for sawing. We have no period reference for this workbench aid, but it’s one that I keep in the arsenal just the same.
After sawing all the shoulders, then it’s time for the fun. I split the waste off the tenons, it’s quick and easy, & it works.
Here the rail is held in the “double bench screw” as Moxon and Holme call it. Think of it as the precursor to the modern handscrew.
splitting tenon's waste
splitting tenon's waste


There’s slightly more to it than that, but not much. With straight-grained stock it’s a great technique. Here’s the roughed-out tenons, which just require paring with a chisel to finish them off to the proper thickness.

roughed-out tenons
roughed-out tenons

6 thoughts on “tenons: 17th-century joinery

  1. Peter,
    I have been followinf you blog for several weeks now and really appreciate your efforts. Today’s is a nice concise pictorial summary of a remarkably simple technique. I first read about this method on John Alexander’s website. It is remarkable how fussily complex M&T joinery has become from the days of “green woodworking”. Rick

  2. Hah–that’s OK. I do use some 18th century saws to make new saws. But those are still not even 17th cent. remakes that would fit your period.

    I have used the splitting method for sometime. Even in dry stock if the wood is reasonably straight-grained it works fine. On tenons with run-out, one needs to allow for the one side so it doesn’t ruin the work.

    Truth be known, I typically use an OWT to clean up the tenon cheeks if there is much work. If I did good on cooperative wood, I grab a rasp to fit the tenon.

    Because I still saw most tenons–it is really as fast with a properly toothed saw–I usually just use a rasp or coarse file to fit tenons.

    There’s a good video (albeit an extremely plodding video) of splitting out tenons at George Springer’s web site. He goes at a snail’s pace I think for clarity. A bit of overcompensation I suspect. It should be quick work.

    Take care, Mike

  3. Hi Peter,

    A question about the barefaced tenon and not-touching rear shoulder: I would have thought that the strength of the pegged M&T joint would come in substantial part from having the shoulders provide a bearing surface. From the examples you’ve shown are we to conclude that the ancients expended the bare minimum of labor necessary to get the thing to hold together or is there some counterintuitive reason why having both shoulders act as bearing surfaces makes for a weaker joint?


  4. In response to John’s question about barefaced tenons, etc

    The strength of the joint comes from the drawbored pin pulling the tenon shoulder up against the mortised member. In most cases of New England furniture of the period, it’s an undercut front shoulder, and a rear shoulder cut away a bit. Sometimes we see both shoulders contacting the mortised piece. That scenario requires stock that is more carefully planed than the other; also a few extra steps to double-check at assembly. There will be lots more on this subject here on the blog, and also whenever Alexander & I finish the foolish book…

  5. I am excited that I have found your blog. the work that you are doing is wonderful. I am wondering a few things. How late in time would joiners have been using these types of joints? Were they seen in used in any of the southern colonies (Va, Carolina)?



  6. Joinery like this went on into the eighteenth century in some places. And yes, the southern colonies had joined furniture, although not in the quantities found in New England, based on the few surviving examples, and the documentary evidence. I am by no means an expert on southern furniture. not even close…see if this link takes you to the exhibit at Chipstone’s website
    http://www.chipstone.org/framesetspecialprojects.html or get the following title from your library Ronald Hurst & Jonathan Prown,
    “Southern Furniture 1680-1830: the Colonial Williamsburg Collection”

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