A New Manual for Biscuit Joiners
The 27 time-tested techniques to tame this often-tricky tool.
by Robert W. Lang
from the February 2007 issue
The biscuit joiner is one of those tools that promises to make life so much easier. The ability to make relatively strong joints quickly and easily makes this a tool you really must have. Yet many woodworkers find it frustrating; for some reason the joints never quite line up and in the end it doesn’t seem to save that much time.
It isn’t the fault of the tool. The truth is that most woodworkers don’t know the right techniques to make the most of their biscuit joiners, and there are some common attitudes and assumptions that hurt more than help, and don’t speed things up.
Some joints in woodworking are for show and some are for utility. Biscuit joints won’t make your friends and family ooh and aah over your skills, but they will help you locate and connect parts without much fuss so you can get on to more important things.
Fifty years ago, Swiss woodworker Hermann Steiner had a great idea and formed a company called Lamello to market the oval-shaped joining plates and the tools to cut the slots. I first saw one in 1981 when the German-born foreman of the cabinet shop I was working in brought out a new toy he called a cookie cutter.
We were all impressed with what it could do, and every one of us wanted one of our own. What stopped us in our tracks was the $600 price of the machine (Editor’s note: 2007 price; it still lists for about the same). The Lamello model is undoubtedly the best in the field. It’s made like, well, a Swiss watch.
The Lamello is still the highest-priced machine in the category, selling for four to five times the price of other machines. In a production environment the investment is worthwhile, but if you’re not using it on a daily basis, the lower-priced models will likely meet your needs. But if you drive to the tool store in a Mercedes or BMW, you won’t regret buying the Lamello.
Make the Machine Perform
To make the average biscuit joiner perform at its peak, there are a few things to check and possibly adjust. First you want to minimize any sloppiness in the tool’s plunge mechanism.
Every model is a little different, but generally you want to check that all the screws are tight and the motor slides freely on the base. Spraying a dry lubricant on the tool’s ways will help. Check the fence. It too should move freely; the stop may need to be adjusted to 90°.
The last adjustment to make is to set the depth stop. This is done by making a test cut for a #20 biscuit, with the tool on the correct setting. You want the resulting cut to be a bit beyond half the width of the wooden plate. This allows the two parts to join snugly while giving you a bit of room for lateral adjustment during assembly.
Make a cut in some scrap, put a plate in the slot, then draw a pencil line where the plate meets the edge of the slot. Then turn the plate around, reinsert it, and draw a second pencil line. When the gap between the two lines is between 3⁄32″ and 1⁄8″, you have the depth setting adjusted correctly.
The Nut Behind the Wheel
With the machine ready to go, it’s time to make sure you understand how the tool works and what it’s good for. In some applications it’s ideal, but it’s not a panacea. If you’re joining two pieces of solid wood edge to edge to make a panel, the main benefit of the biscuit is to align the parts. The joint is strong enough as it is, and adding biscuits may introduce additional problems as well as make extra work.
Turning a corner is a different story; with biscuits, you can make a simple butt joint in a case or box into a much stronger joint. You also get the benefit of having the parts line up at assembly – if your technique is sound.
Using biscuits in miter joints can be an iffy proposition. Biscuits work well if you have the machine perfectly aligned when you make the slots. If you’re off by even a tiny amount however, the error will be doubled, and you’ll likely do more harm than good.
In any type of joint, small errors in aligning the tool to the work as you set it in place, and as you make the cut, account for nearly all the problems you may encounter. It’s common to think that the machine is so easy to use that you can’t go wrong, but like any other joint, the care you take setting it up and cutting it make all the difference.
Two Total Time Wasters
People tend to concentrate on two things that don’t matter and then ignore the most important part of the process. Centering the tool’s cutter in the thickness of the material isn’t necessary. You’re far better off to set the fence by placing the tool on a flat surface, putting a piece of the material you plan to use next to it, and lowering the fence until it touches the top face of the material.
Now you have the tool set so that the cut is indexed both from the fence and from the base of the machine. That is far more important than having the slot centered. There is in fact a big advantage to having the slot offset; it ensures that the face you want to show won’t be hidden by accident.
It is also much easier to keep the machine flat by working from the base for as many cuts as you can. I only use the fence as a last resort. The jig shown above right will hold the work flat for you and provide a flat surface for the base of the machine.
To make this jig, all you need is a flat piece of Medium-density Fiberboard (MDF) or plywood, a smaller piece screwed down to one corner, and a third piece below the front edge to act as a hook to your bench. Attach the jig firmly to your bench with a clamp or a few screws, and mount a hold-down toggle clamp as shown above. This will hold your work safely, letting you keep both hands on the machine and it gives you a flat reference surface for the base of the tool.
If you need to make a joint in the middle of a piece, such as a fixed shelf in a cabinet, clamp a guide block in line with the location of the bottom of the shelf and make the cut by plunging vertically. The guide registers the cut, and lets you use the broad face of the tool to hold it steady while you make the cut. Mark your registration lines on this block if you will be making repetitive cuts.
The other useless, obsessive activity people engage in is measuring the exact location of each slot. Just make a series of pencil marks by eye to locate the cuts. It won’t make any difference in the finished joint if there is some variation in the distance from plate to plate. And again, the variation in the locations will prevent you from putting parts together in a way you don’t want them.
Get a Grip
To get a good cut, the piece that gets the slot needs to be firmly clamped to the bench. If you try to hold the work with one hand and plunge the tool with the other, you’re giving away half the control you have. Put both hands on the machine, and put them in the right place. The handle on the top is there for a reason.
Most people ignore the handle and hold the fence down on the work with one hand. This tends to be self-defeating as you’re still likely to tilt the tool as you make the plunge. It also introduces some risk; you’re putting your hand in the path of a spinning saw blade. Accidents with biscuit joiners are rare, but if you put your hand on the handle you gain better control and you eliminate the risk of injuring yourself entirely.
Most biscuit joiners have pins or some other device to prevent the machine from shifting sideways as the saw blade moves into the work. When you put the tool in position, put it down, then move it in. This will keep the pins from engaging before you have the fence or base of the tool all the way down.
When you’re ready, with the work firmly clamped and your hands on the tool, lock your arms before you pull the trigger. Make the cut by shifting your weight forward from one leg to the other. If you keep your arms immobilized while plunging, you won’t tilt the tool as you make the cut.
Apply downward pressure with the hand that’s on the handle, and forward pressure with the other hand. Take a moment to make sure the fence is flat on the work and the face of the tool is against the edge you want to cut before you turn on the motor.
Another effective way to make a cut without putting your hand at risk is to hook your thumb over the top of the handle, with your fingers at the top of the fence. From this position, you can plunge the cutter into the work by squeezing the fence and handle together.
When you make a cut vertically at the edge of a board, only a portion of the tool is in contact with the wood, and the weight of the machine is almost all beyond where the cut will be made.
I extend any registration marks so that I’m lining up the cut with the base of the machine, not the front. This keeps my head and shoulders above the tool. I push down with the hand on the barrel of the tool, and in with the hand on the handle as seen below.
The action of the saw blade plunging into the wood creates a lot of dust and wood chips. Most machines have a dust bag, but these tend to clog in the narrow chute between the blade and the bag. It’s still a good idea to use the bag, even though you’ll need to stop and clean it periodically.
If you’re plunging horizontally you might want to remove the bag, but going vertically the exhaust chute will be aimed at your face. Be mindful of the spinning blade as you put the machine down. Loose tools on the bench can be struck by the blade if you’re not careful setting it down.
Putting It All Together
One of the truly clever elements of biscuit joinery is the plates themselves. The textured surface is the result of the biscuit being compressed during manufacturing. When the plate gets wet, the wood swells up, resulting in a tighter joint, as seen above right.
Since most common woodworking glues are water based, this swelling occurs right after assembly. If you’re using a glue that doesn’t contain water, such as polyurethane, there won’t be any water present to swell the biscuit. A light mist of water sprayed on the plate, or a swipe with a damp rag just before inserting the biscuit in the slot will ensure that the plate swells.
The downside to this is that the plates can swell enough when exposed to damp humid air to make insertion difficult or impossible. Keep them in an airtight container or Ziploc bag and they won’t get fat on you.
If you’re just getting used to biscuit joining, or haven’t used your machine in a while, it pays to make a dry-run assembly to make certain that everything fits together the way you want it to. If you need to make a correction, you don’t want to try to do it with your glue drying and biscuit plates swelling.
If you have a miscut slot, you won’t be able to make an adjustment without making the slot too wide. Glue a biscuit in the slot; after the glue dries, trim it back to a flush surface. I look at the way the grain runs on the plate, and use a chisel pointed “uphill” to split it off just above the surface, then I trim it back to flush with a paring cut with the chisel. Once the hole is filled, the slot can be recut properly.
I’m careful about how much glue I use, and where I put it. I put a bead of glue at the top of each side of the slot, staying about 1⁄2″ away from the ends. I put glue in all of the slots before inserting any of the plates. This lets the glue run down the sides of the slots, coating the sides of the slots.
When the biscuit goes in, I’m looking for the glue to coat the sides of the plate without squeezing out all over the place. If you put a plate in a glued slot and immediately pull it back out, you’ll be able to see if you are applying the right amount of glue.
I put the bead of glue for the other slot of the joint on the biscuit plate, as seen below right instead of in the empty slot. This keeps the glue from running out of the slots when the piece is turned over for assembly.
In addition to being messy, there is another negative consequence to using too much glue on the biscuits. The moisture in the glue has to go somewhere, and as the plate swells this moisture migrates into the surrounding wood. If it’s solid wood, and the slot is near the surface, the surface of the wood can swell directly above the biscuit. Because of the swelling of the plate, the joint will stay together after a short time in the clamps. Many people will proceed without waiting for the glue to dry.
This swelling will disappear when the moisture evaporates. If you plane, sand or scrape the surface above the biscuit without waiting for the glue to thoroughly dry and the excess moisture to evaporate, you can end up with biscuit-shaped depressions in a day or so. You can prevent this by avoiding excess glue and waiting at least overnight for any assembly to dry before further processing.
The biscuit joiner may not be the best choice for every situation, but it does deserve a place in almost any woodshop. When you know the secrets of using it, that place won’t be on a shelf, gathering dust. PWM
What’s In a Name
There are several sizes of biscuits available, but the #20 (at the bottom) is by far the most commonly used. I’ve often wondered why we in America call these thin wood joining plates biscuits. To me, a biscuit is thick and fluffy, not thin and hard, and I was introduced to the tool as a cookie cutter. The answer is in what happens in translation.
The inventor coined the term “holzlamelle,” a combination of the German word for wood, and the French word for thin strip or plate. Nothing to do with baked goods, but a mouthful. One of the many German words for cookie was adopted in Europe.
When we go from German to English, this is one of the places where there is a difference between American English and British English. “Cookie” is a Dutch derivation and was used in America long before it was used in England. What we call a cookie, the English call a biscuit.
The English now use the term cookie, but limit its use to soft and chewy baked goods. A British tax case defined biscuits and cookies based on if they get hard or soft when they go stale. (The British court is silent on the subtle differences between wafers and crackers.)
When first imported to the United States, the name was translated with the British usage, and we adopted the term biscuit. The translation may be fuzzy, but we like the machine so well, we don’t care what we call it. — RL
This article is from the February 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.