When you think about building something out of wood, be it a chair, dresser, or simple cabinet. The first thing most upcoming woodworkers gravitate towards as the ‘go-to’ method of joining the wood together and making sure it stays that way is the trusty, time-tested, nail.
Guess what, you may not realize it but you do NOT need anything more than friction and/or some glue to join wood together in a way that can last a lifetime.
Growing up, my grandfather did a lot of woodworking. I’d spend hours sitting and watching him build and repair things. This happened every single weekend. I was fascinated by how this raw material could be made into almost anything you could imagine.
More intriguing was the fact that most of the projects he did, I never heard a hammer or saw a nail anywhere near them. As a child that was magical, and even to this day there are so many amazing ways to join wood together that can last a lifetime.
So without further adieu, we’re going to look at…
10 ways to join your woodworking projects, without needing nails!
This isn’t a comprehensive list of every conceivable way to join wood ( we would be here for years if I tried to do that!) but it is meant as an introduction for those looking to get into woodworking in a more traditional, hand tool based style.
Mortise and Tenon
If you’re looking for one of the most common, basic, yet strongest joints out there then this is absolutely going to be where you want to start. Its use began over 7,000 years ago and made its way across every continent.
It was even used with some of the stones in Stonehenge.
Just what is a Mortise and Tenon anyway I hear you asking. Well, the mortise is a square or rectangular hole cut out of the first piece of lumber made for the tenon, or a rail, to fit into snugly. When done right a mortise and tenon joint can be held together by pure friction. If you want to ensure a tight fit you can also use a bit of glue to keep it together even longer.
The mortise and tenon will be referenced quite a bit going forward as it’s the basis for a lot of other joints that we will be discussing.
A common joint used in furniture, the Through dovetail shows the end grain of both pieces of lumber you’re joining. Also known as an English Dovetail this type of joint is characterized by a trapezoidal shape or the ‘tails’ of the wood and has been seen in tombs of emperors, and mummies.
It’s a variation of the concepts set forth by the mortise and tenon joint we discussed above.
This joint is strong with using just friction but can be next to impossible to pull apart when some glue is applied.
Early uses of dovetail joints used to be hidden behind a veneer In contemporary works the dovetail was seen as a sign of better craftsmanship among consumers and is not concealed very often, if at all, anymore.
To decide the angle of the dovetail you have to take into account the type of wood you will be using for your project. However, you can keep it at a 1:7 slope for either hard or soft woods and not worry about compromising the strength of your joint!
What do you do if you want the strength of a dovetail, but don’t want to compromise the aesthetic of the natural grain by using a veneer?
Why you chisel out yourself a Half-Blind dovetail! The major difference between a through dovetail and a half-blind dovetail is in the front of the joint.
Commonly you would use a thicker piece of wood for the front of your project. Leaving you the ability to have about 1/4” of wood you would not cut out when chiseling your dovetail joints.
This allows the wood to still hold on tightly, but keep the end grain of the side piece of wood hidden when viewed from the front. This is common when joining the front of a drawer to the sides.
Continuing our journey we will bring one other dovetail variation into the mix. Of course, I am talking about the sliding dovetail. This type of dovetail is used for joining two pieces of lumber at a right angle.
You accomplish this by chiseling or cutting out, the entire length of the board in the typical 1:7 dovetail angle. You then carve out a complementary socket in the other piece of wood but slightly taper it towards the back making it a tighter fit. Usually requiring a rubber mallet to ensure the tightest fit you can have.
Sliding dovetails are commonly used with shelves, frames, and drawer fronts. Another use is in musical instruments such as guitars, and violins where the neck joins the body, however, this is not as common as it used to be.
While it may not have as fancy of a name as some of the other joints we’ve discussed so far. The Box joint is similar in many ways to the dovetail joints that we talked about earlier. If you take two pieces of wood and carve out rectangular sections of the wood that are complementary to each other so that they join together perfectly.
Unlike the dovetail joint, box joints have little to no taper at all. They tend to rely more on glue than dovetails do. The good news is they are still a strong and stable joint for a lot of projects. Many feel they can be next to invaluable for repairing furniture.
Despite its simplicity, this type of joint can be difficult to fit tight. So make sure to line up the cutting marks before ever taking your saw or chisel to the wood, and always make sure to cut a little bit at a time and test your joints multiple times.
This joint is pretty self-explanatory. As one of many variations of a butt joint, the dowel joint is one of the most popular joints. Especially when it comes to tabletops, cabinets, and chairs to name a few.
Dowel joints give the illusion of a standard butt joint. Except without the need for countersinking screws or nails and filling in the hole. This results in a much more pleasing look to the final project!
Unlike a mortise and tenon joint which uses larger square and rectangle shaped joints. The dowel joint uses cylindrical ‘pins’ (the aforementioned dowels) as a way of holding the joint together. All without being seen. These types of joints require careful planning and glue to be as strong as they can get. You must drill two holes that line up perfectly that are half the depth of the dowel itself. Which, of course, you would use glue in the holes to keep the dowel in nice and tight!
Over time the glue, of course, can dry out. However the benefit of a dowel joint is that more often than not the dowels will keep your piece together. Albeit with some creaking due to shrinking wood. This creaking and shrinking of the wood is one reason that dowel joints are not commonly used in higher end hand-made furniture.
The close cousin of a dowel joint, a biscuit joint is a much more forgiving way of having a butt-joint look without the need for hardware like screws and nails. Much like the dowel joint, you need to cut into both pieces of wood, but this time you cut a small slot instead of a hole.
Usually, this requires a special joiner tool. However, we’re all about hand tools here. So the same type of slot CAN be made, with careful planning, using a mortising chisel or a Plough Plane.
One of the benefits here is if you use pre-made biscuits they are compressed so that when they are glued into place they will expand and have an even tighter grip keeping your joint even longer lasting.
Another advantage is that if your cuts are slightly misaligned the biscuit shape gives you leeway to adjust the fit. The biscuit method means adjustments without the need to fix the initial slot. This flexibility makes a biscuit joint a great choice for framework, panels, and cabinet carcase.
Bridle joints are one of the most similar styles to the mortise and tenon joint. The main difference being instead of a cut-out hole and rail used to join the wood together, the bridle joint uses a slot and full-width tenon to join.
This type of joint isn’t as versatile as others and mainly is used for Frames, and rafter work. There are a few methods you can use to create a bridle joint. From using a handsaw and chisel, to a brace and auger to start and finishing up with a chisel.
Before we wind down this article we’re going to take a little bit of time here and talk about a more decorative wood joint, a scarf joint. These types of joints usually are used when a piece of wood needs to be longer than the original lumber. It provides a much better continuity between wood than a typical butt joint. This is due to the long grains joining together.
This joint is very dependent on a high strength glue. It is preferred if you want to have a barely visible glue line, due to its extreme taper of usually 1:8 to 1:10. This is seen quite often in trim and molding applications.
Tongue and Groove
We’re going to finish this off with a tried and true strong joint. This is well known for its flooring, paneling, and parquetry applications. The groove itself is a slot cut along one edge and a ridge (the tongue) on the other side. This allowing for maximum surface contact between the two pieces of wood. This surface contact is what makes this joint so strong and versatile at the same time.
The tongue and groove method is one of my favorite methods because it can be used for utilitarian uses. As well as amazingly detailed parquetry designs, which I absolutely adore, but we will get into those another time.
Bonus Information Section!
Two quick things with all of these joints I would like to touch on before we wrap this up. Keep in mind that these are equally important.
As with all woodworking you need to make sure that you’re paying attention to the grain of the wood. As I mentioned in the section about the scarf joint, glue bonds the best to long grain. So when you’re planning which joint to use, make sure you also plan the lumber itself. This will ensure you’re gluing on the long grain as much as you can. It will bond stronger and longer.
The second thing I’d like to mention is about the gluing itself. Make sure when you’re gluing your joints if you decide friction isn’t QUITE enough for a long-lasting hold, ensure the glue is spread evenly. While you could try and rely on the pressure of the clamp, you should take the extra few moments and spread it yourself and ensure that you have as strong of a joint as you can.
Now, back to the topic at hand.
Don’t get me wrong, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the possible types of joinery that you can do with hand tools. Take a look at some of the absolutely mind-blowing work being done by some Japanese woodworkers out there. Woodworking is as much a building tool as it is an art. If you look at all of the different types of joinery that is done all over the world it may open your eyes to being creative with your own woodworking.
My grandfather used to attempt all types of different joints just to see if he could do them. This included a pretty crazy jigsaw puzzle-like piece he attempted with just a chisel. Oh, and a lot of measuring and trials and errors. It never worked, but he learned a lot about what was, and was not possible for him during the process. Most importantly, he had fun doing it and I loved watching him do it.
Thanks for reading! Now get out to your workshop, grab your hand tools, get some lumber, and get working! If you have any topics you’d like to see me dive into let us know!