Build a Frame Saw Part 2: Mortising

Frame saw

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The frame saw that I devised for my students is, among other things, a great exercise in woodworking joinery. It teaches the student the importance of what I call ‘interdependency’. I use this term to describe the symbiotic relationship between two elements, in this case a joint, and their pivotal role (pun intended) in the success of the design, as accurate execution of our mortise and tenon joint will ensure the functionality of saw. Unlike many mortise and tenon joints that are glued together and may hide major mistakes, such as over excavation, loose gaps or chipped away wood, ours will be seen when the saw is dismantled and might hinder its performance when it is tensioned into action. Our saw’s joints are dynamic joints that need to pivot a few degrees in one plane only, and if they are poorly made, it might bring the whole project down.

Laying out the mortise

Using a square and a knife I scored two lines across the saw arm’s which indicates the mortise’s length. Then I carefully placed my 1/4” chisel in the middle of one of the lines and stabbed the wood decisively. I find that when I show this to my students, some are anxious that they might not land exactly in the middle without proper measuring, so I tell them what my first woodturning teacher, the late Andy Motter told me: “Use the Jedi technique” that is, trust your senses, aim and execute. I monitor my students actions when they do this for the first time, and only if they make a huge mistake, I tell them to try again. 

Frame saw

Instead of consulting with my drawings for the length of the mortise, I relied on the width of the saw’s central beam as an indicator for the mortises’ length. Remember, I intend to cut two tenons at the end of the beam to fit into the mortises in the arms. After transferring the beam’s width dimension I used a square and a marking knife to score the lines across the saw’s arms.

Frame saw Frame saw Frame saw

When I felt that my stab mark was pretty much centered, I opened my cutting gauge until it reached the beginning of the stab mark from one face of the arm. I locked the setting and scored the first line. Then I checked the distance from the other face to the stab line to see if I landed on its end. If I find that the gauges blade scores inward into the stab mark I adjust the setting, retrieve the blade until it corresponds to the end of the mark and score the second line.

Frame saw Frame saw

Finally, I was ready to excavate the mortise. There are many schools of thought as for the right way to bore a mortise with only a chisel (mostly using a mortising chisel). Since we don’t have any mortising chisels in school I have to teach my students a way to do this using bench chisels, and that means that the process is slower but also less strenuous on the tools. 

To excavate my first mortise on this project I used a very common technique, stabbing along the mortise length and then digging the fibers up while working the chisel bevel down. From time to time I pared down the mortise’s end walls and at the conclusion of the process I pared down the side walls using a 1” wide chisel.

Frame saw Frame saw Frame saw When my students started to make their own mortises, I noticed that some students produced messy mortises. Some of the messiness is attributed to the lack of visual understanding of what exactly happens down there in the mortise, while others find it difficult to scoop up long strands of fibers from the bottom of the mortise using the bevel down technique. In any case I knew I needed to look for a better approach. After spending some time with my books and more time combing the internet, I think I found the right technique for us. It is based on a youtube video by Marc Adams (see below). 

Mark begins his mortise by relieving a beveled frame inside the mortise’s perimeter.

To make the beveled frame inside the mortise's parameter stab vertically (chisel bevel facing inward) on the borders of the rectangular layout.

To make the beveled frame inside the mortise’s perimeter, stab vertically (the bevel of the chisel facing inward) on the borders of the rectangular layout.

Then hold the chisel bevel up at an acute angle and pare towards the stabbed demarcation you created earlier . Work around the perimeter until a beveled ramp is formed.

Then hold the chisel bevel up at an acute angle and pare towards the stabbed demarcation you created earlier . Work around the perimeter until a beveled ramp is formed.

Then he cuts out four triangular cavities on each of the mortise walls. He alternates his chisel between 90°, (the chisel’s back is flush with the walls) and pares down at an angle of 45° or lower (bevel up) towards these walls. After the triangular cavities are excavated he begins to level down the pyramidal shape in the middle of the mortise, this time holding the chisel bevel down. At the end he pares down and smooths the mortise side walls using a wide chisel. 

Frame saw mortising 4 Frame saw mortising (1) Version 4 Version 3 Version 2

I think that this technique helps the student realize, through an incremental method, what the steps are towards success. Each step ends with a defined geometry and only once that has been achieved, you can continue towards the next step. 

Watch Mark demonstrating his technique in this video. 

Next time I will talk about cutting the tenons… 

Click here to download the frame saw drawing…

Click here to read part 1

 — Yoav Liberman

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Yoav Liberman

About Yoav Liberman

Yoav S. Liberman is a woodworker and a teacher. His pieces have been featured in several woodworking books, most recently in Robin Wood’s CORES Recycled. Yoav teaches woodworking at the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan, and also frequently guest teaches in craft schools across the country.  Between 2003 and 2011 Yoav  headed the woodworking program at Harvard University's Eliot House. Yoav’s articles have appeared in American Woodworker and Woodwork Magazine. He frequently contributes woodworking web content to a number of digital publications   Yoav has a degree in architecture and later held two competitive residency programs: at The Worcester Center for Crafts in Massachusetts, and the Windgate Foundation Fellowship at Purchase College, New York. He lives in Chestnut Ridge NY.

2 thoughts on “Build a Frame Saw Part 2: Mortising

    1. Yoav LibermanYoav Liberman Post author

      Dave, thanks so much for sharing this great video. Paul is a fantastic teacher; I have learned so much from him over the years. I like the fact that he shows how to successfully excavate a mortise with a bench chisel, and that he shows how to do it almost effortless holding the chisel bevel down. After trying Mark’s way with more than a dozen students I decided to modify it so we alternate driving the chisel in: (1) Perpendicular to the mortise end walls, and (2) in an acute angle, bevel facing down, towards the wall. I am going to add two illustrations to illuminate this, perhaps as a supplement to this entry.

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