Reinforcing the Indestructible

Pegging through-mortise-and-tenon joints is an excellent way to reinforce the already strong joint.


Good dowels can be hard (if not impossible) to find, so when I need the right size and the right species, I make my own. It doesn’t take long, and the work is a nice relief from fussing with other details. I start with a straight-grained piece of scrap about 3″ long, and split off pieces with a chisel. All it takes is a good rap with a mallet after I put the chisel in place.


I start by aiming for about 3/8″-square blanks to make 1/4″ dowels. Sometimes the split will be off course, and the blank is made smaller by laying it down on the bench and continuing the splitting by placing a wide chisel on the wood and pressing down or tapping with a mallet. Essentially, this is riving lumber on a small scale. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it, and it doesn’t matter if I lose a few in the process. Split material works much better than sawn for making these short lengths. The blank is stronger because the grain is continuous throughout the length.


When the blanks are close to the right size, I knock the corners off with the chisel or by whittling with a knife. I whittle down the end to make it easier to start in the holes in the dowel plate. The plate is just a 1/4″ thick piece of scrap steel with a series of holes drilled in it. The holes are in steps of 1/16″ and I didn’t bother trying to sharpen them. If they get dull I may take a flat file across the face to create a burr, but this works just fine. If that’s too simple for you, you can buy a fancy dowel plate or try to harden and hone the thing. To use it, I start with a large hole and pound the blank through. The first hole or two will knock the corners off, and the final hole will scrape the entire edge of the dowel.


With a brad-point drill, I drill through the front edge and about 1″ into the tenon. I put a dab of glue in the hole, and drive the dowel in place. After the glue dries, I trim it flush with a saw, then pare it down flush with a chisel. A few swipes with a block plane and it’s finished.

That’s the how to do it part. But why go to that much trouble to reinforce a joint like that – where is it going to go?

I confess that I don’t have a good answer, except that I was copying an original detail that does make a statement about building for forever. But here’s how I usually explain it, “It’s just in case there’s a disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field that yanks us out of orbit and sends us toward the sun. On the way to oblivion it might get hot enough for all the glue to melt and for the wood to shrink enough to pull out. Other than that, I don’t think you need to do it.”

- Robert W. Lang

Put your pegging skills to the test with “Arts & Crafts Furniture Projects.”

9 thoughts on “Reinforcing the Indestructible

  1. Lewis A. Saxton

    When I was little we would stop at an old church north east of Post Falls Idaho. The Pastor there always told of how the whole building had no nails. There were times when due to availability, cost or weight some supplies simply were not available. If you had no glue would your vintage furniture still be in one piece after sitting in it? I believe so; and that is more than likely why those types of joints were originally fabricated. If the piece isn’t that old then the vintage piece would have been "over-built"! But isn’t that what craftsmanship is all about. Building things that are aesthetic as well as durable. And I like to add simple and practical.

  2. Andrew Gieselman

    I have to question the premise that this is a case of "overbuilding". The cheeks of the tenon meet the end grain of the mortices. That’s not a strong glue bond. Also, since quarter-sawn stock is used, the tenon thickness will be less dimentionally stable and may not remain tightly fitted in the mortice after seasonal cycling of moisture content. Pegging the joint seems like a logical choice.

  3. Mark MacMullen

    Great article. By the way, when you make your own pegs, as described how do you releave the air and glue pressure when driving the peg down into the hole? Does your dowel plate have ridges on the last hole? I suspect not, but then I have to ask for the sme reason of wanting to create my own using the species best suited to teh need at hand.

    Thanks.

  4. Dick Greene

    Interesting conversation. I’m not sure why exact replicas are built. No matter how many times I paint the Mona Lisa, it’s still not the real thing. That said, I love Robert Lang’s work. I have many of his books. They have taught me Stickley technique that I use in designs of my own. Those pieces are real Dick Greenes :) :) :)

  5. dave brown

    I like the idea of using the pegs rather than depending on glues alone. Also, pegs add visual and structural appeal. You can look at it and know it’s a solid joint. Ever wonder why false through tenons are so popular? When you’re assembling your joint glue can be messy and I’m never 100% convinced I’ve got good adhesion on all surfaces. The combination of mechanical and adhesive fastening gives me total confidence in the joint.

  6. Tom Bier

    The pegs are there to hold it together if/when it gets abused by some uncaring folks 3 – 4 generations from now. My wife’s late uncle was scrounging Arts & Crafts furniture left on the street in Pasadena 50 years ago. His widow has the good stuff – we have some of the hurt strays. One of these is almost certainly a Gus Stickley armchair with pegged joints that has had a very hard life. Although the through tenons at the front leg – arm have both shrunk so there’s a visible gap the pegs are still holding everything securely together.

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