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It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing something that’s out of the ordinary. Woodworkers tend to worry and analyze things so much that they often settle for less, when doing things right isn’t that much of a stretch. A case in point is the curved rails on the back of a Morris chair. How do you make the tenons on the ends of the curved parts neatly meet the straight uprights? How do you get all those shoulder cuts to line up?  Before you begin to worry about how to cut them, you can likely paralyze yourself by worrying about how to lay them out. Maybe straight rails in the back will be comfy enough, if you get a thick enough cushion.

It’s not that bad. It all depends on how you think about it. The shoulders of the tenons need to be parallel to each other, and the same distance apart on all five rails. The tenons need to be at a right angle to the uprights. This means that they leave the curved rail at an angle, and worrying about the angle is a good place to get stuck. Here’s my solution, an incredibly useful device called a stick.

I took a piece of scrap and marked off the finished distance between the two uprights and made cuts to define the shoulders. Then I marked off and cut a 3/8″ wide tenon on each end. Now I have a deluxe stick that is a physical representation of how the finished tenons in the curved pieces need to be. To mark off the tenons I simply put the stick on top of the curved rails with the front edge of shoulder on the stick even with the front edge of the rail. Then I marked the locations of the tenons on the curves by tracing from the stick. I carried the lines down with my adjustable square, and across the opposite edge with a sliding bevel. The process was ridiculously quick and simple, and all the layout lines matched exactly, leaving me most of the afternoon to worry about how to make the cuts. Maybe I should market this as the “Stickmaster 3000”?

–Robert W. Lang

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Showing 11 comments
  • Paul Feller

    I’m with Andrew – completely lost from either description. Maybe you could put this in the magazine with step-by-step photos for us slow but visual folks?

    P Feller

  • Alan Schaffter

    Pretty nice, straightforward, and simple!!!

    But . . . I’m waiting for the tip how to cut the shoulders and tenons . . . JUST AS EASILY! How about a "Tenon Master 3000" that is just as simple AND JUST AS INEXPENSIVE for the tablesaw or router for those of use who would rather do it that way than with the appropriate hand saw and chisels, etc.

    FYI, one other way that doesn’t require as much marking- if you have full size plans, make enough copies of the proper view and attached them with rubber cement to each part.

  • Dennis Reischl

    Bob–Thanks much for sharing this, but like Andrew, and despite your additional explanation, I’m having a hard time picturing the process. Any chance of shooting a short blog video of it? Dennis

  • Bob Lang


    As you can see in the second photo, all I did was trace the location of the tenon from the stick to the top of the curved rail. The shoulder line needs to be transferred all the way around the curved rail. I just marked with a square down each side of the rail, from where the pencil line meets the edge.

    The shoulder line is traced on the top, I went completely across that edge with an adjustable bevel set to the pencil line. Then I used the bevel to mark the opposite edge. I cut the shoulders by hand with a back saw (after knifing over the pencil lines). I made the cheek cuts on the bandsaw, cutting just outside the pencil lines on the top edges.

  • Andrew Yang

    I get a bit lost in the description of how you end up marking the tenons. Any chance of a few additional pictures to help the description along. Seems like a bit much for the Stickmaster 3000, but I’m a bit new (or slow).

  • Ed in Lawrence, KS

    I notice that you made your back rails via lamination rather than steam bending. I have your plans for the Morris chair and, based on the old Stickley book that Lee Valley sells, was going to steam bend the slats. Which is more authentic? Also, I’m interested in how you cut the rails. Marking is the first test, making the cuts is the second. My thoughts right now are similar to what Steve says, i.e., attach pieces to the curved slats to make them "square" so I can use my table saw.


  • Steve

    I have a simple and fully general technique that I use when I’m confronted with odd angles and curves: I ask myself the question, "What material would I have to add to the piece to convert it into a simple rectangular block, with mortises and tenons that are square to the surfaces?" And then I add that material, either using double-sided carpet tape to add it directly to the workpiece, or else attaching it with screws to any jig or fixture that the workpiece will be mounted to.

    Once the workpiece has been "rectangularized" in this way, laying out the joints is pretty simple.

    Whenever possible, I actually start from the other end, so to speak: I start with a rectangular block of stock that’s large enough to contain the workpiece, cut the joints, then "carve" the workpiece out of the block.

  • Patrick

    In this application I’d call it a Stick-ley.

  • Mike Thompon

    Mr. Lang,

    This is a fantastic tip, thank you so much for sharing. It makes me wish I could have just a few hours to work with a true master to learn how things should be done and how to think about thinks more efficiently. I guess for now I’ll just have to settle for your blog entries, magazine articles, and fantastic books (most of which I own…they are some of my favorites).

    Thank you again.

  • Rob Porcaro


    Thanks for this tip!

    Here’s how I have laid out tenon shoulders on a curved apron:

    Mark the location of the shoulders on the inner edge of the curve. Place a straightedge on the edge of the bent lamination as a chord across the curve, intersecting it where the shoulders will be. The shoulder line is drawn square with a plastic drafting square held against the straightedge at the intersections. It works but is a bit awkward and I’m still left with having to draft out the tenon cheeks on the wood.

    I like your direct method much better! It takes care of everything. I hope I remember it for the next time the situation arises.

    To make an adjustable "Lang Innovations, Inc." "Universal Stickmaster 3000", I guess you could put two short pieces, each with a tenon, on a sliding T-track inlaid in a long stick. Of course, make it from brass and anodized aluminum and guarantee "perfect joints every time."

    Thanks again,


  • Bob Miller

    "Here’s my solution, an incredibly useful device called a stick."

    I can’t stop laughing. Thank you for that and also the the really slick trick.

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