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While teaching a class on handsawing a couple years ago, one student lost his cool. He was cutting a tenon for his sawbench, and he strayed over the line and the result looked rough to him. He grunted, threw his saw down with a clatter and stomped away from the bench.

The classroom got real quiet. This student was a big fella , he probably had 100 pounds of muscle on me, a ZZ Top beard and a short fuse. As he angled toward the classroom door to leave, I wasn’t sure what to do.

So I picked up one of his uncut legs, marked out the joint he needed and sawed it out without saying a word. I didn’t do it like when I teach (history, blah, blah, joke, blah, technical detail, blah, sidebar, blah, blah) where it takes 20 minutes to make a tenon. Instead, I cut it like I do it at home with the radio on. One tenon. One minute.

I left the tenon on the bench and walked away. I was a bit freaked about what would happen next. I was out of ideas. The other students walked up to see my work.

“I get it now,” one student said. “That’s what it looks like , from start to finish. That’s what the joint looks like at the end. That’s what I needed.”

The big guy came over for a look, too. I got him a new workpiece to replace his ruined one. The rest of the day went smoothly.

It’s easy to get intimidated by hand joinery. We expect it to look like router-cut joinery, or some trumped-up bit of fakery by photographers. The truth is that in some cases hand joinery looks better when compared to joints made by power tools and worse in others.

In my work, for example, I don’t go for slick end-grain surfaces. What’s the use? They offer little gluing strength. I focus on the getting the gluing surfaces flat and smooth. And I try to get the fit as close as I can.

But don’t we all? What does this really look like?

Now that we have a macro lens at the magazine, I’ve started taking photos of things that our lenses couldn’t show before, such as close-ups of joinery surfaces.

Here’s what a casework dovetail looks like that I cut two weeks ago. It’s for a sideboard for the Summer 2009 issue of Woodworking Magazine.

In the first shot above you can see how things are pretty clean, but nothing like a router-cut surface. I cut that rabbet on one of the faces of the piece to make it easier to lay out the mating socket.

In the second shot, this is how things looked right before I knocked the dovetail home. Yes, the end grain looks rough. Yes, that’s some junk in the corners. I could pare it with a chisel, but why bother?

And third, you can see the end result. The fit is OK around the dovetail , nothing like you see on a magazine cover. There’s a gap at the back shoulder I could slip a playing card into. But the joint is tight at the front shoulder, which is all that will ever show. I am done and ready to move to the other side of this joint.

I hope this helps you , like my frustrated mountain man student , to relax a bit when it comes to sawing joints.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 13 comments
  • John T

    I have to say that the photos are great. Too often we see pictures in magazines and on TV of joints that appear to be glass smooth. It just goes to show that it is not always the case and that a good joint does not have to have the precision of a CNC machined part.
    Thank you for easing the stress on beginners and showing what real joints look like.

  • Samson

    I’m still kind of amazed how often joints that look like yours dry fitted, can become closer to technically perfect and tight when glued up, and especially if clamps are involved, such as on m&ts for frame and panel doors. Between wood’s compressability, swelling from the moisture of the glue, and the wood gods, often there is forgiveness for slight irregularities. But it’s like Thomas Jefferson said about luck: "I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it." You can increase the odds of joint forgiveness with steps like slight undercutting, good squaring and flattening of stock on the front end, etc.

  • Matt Lawrence

    Thanks so much for this post. Very encouraging, motivational and inspirational!

  • Nick Webb

    Hurrah! This is exactly the sort of nitty gritty things we self-taught woodworkers need to see. Like with so many things in life the bad news is thatyour work does have to be good enough, the good news being that in reality it >only< has to be good enough.

    It’s great to see someone who is brave enough to set out what they think good enough looks like, and from the reaction so far it looks like you’ve got it right. I’ll be amazed though if you don’t get some incoming flak.

  • Mark Clench

    I guess even something as simple as joinery can’t escape the airbrush these days.

    Everyone seems to be after perfection in every aspect of their lives. It is being drilled into our heads every second of the day with clothing ads, fitness infomercials, ect.. so why not this.

    It is no wonder people feel pressure to make the "perfect" joint by hand, to do anything less would make you inadequate as a woodworker in the eyes of the media.

    Then when they have sufficiently broken down your self-confidence, they are free to sell you all the fancy gimicks you can handle to help you cut that perfect joint every single time.

    It is nice to see there are still some people like Chris keeping it real.

    Well, thats my rant for the evening, now if you’ll excuse me I am off to buy a Bowflex.

  • John Grossbohlin

    There ya go Chris, exposing the Arts & Mysteries that an apprentice would learn from him master… they’ll likely drum ya out of the guild for stuff like that!


  • tom fidgen

    Very well said indeed!
    This is what inspires.

  • Glen

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, wow! I feel a lot better.

    Thinking every cut had to be perfect is the reason I left a carpenter apprenticeship 23 years ago and didn’t try my hand at any woodworking until this past November.



  • Christopher Schwarz


    The job of that top rail is to keep the legs from spreading apart. Racking resistance is being handled by a large rail below. So it’s suitable. Also, a shoulder adds strength — something we’ll be discussing in the Summer 2009 issue.


  • Chris F

    Hear hear! This "real life" joinery imagery is very useful. Given the lack of experience of many of us, it’s always good to get a reality check.

    I recently saw an online article (can’t remember where now) that looked at some old joint stools. The outside of the joint was tight, but the inside had a gap of 3/16" or more. It was apparent that this was on purpose–the maker simply didn’t care about the inside shoulder.

    That said…with a piece as small as the one in the article, with only the visible side tight will it provide sufficient racking resistance over time? I’d be worried about the wood compressing and working loose given the relatively small area of support. Or does the glue tighten things up sufficiently?

  • Milford Brown

    Some years ago (maybe a decade), while visiting my earlier east coast homes, I visited a museum (in Philadelphia or Baltimore?)that had a colonial-era secretary, enclosed in a clear plastic box to allow a 360 degree view. Everything that would have been visible when it was in someone’s house against a wall was beautifully finished. The back view, however, showed that the maker didn’t waste time on surfaces and joints that wouldn’t be seen – at least until time to replace the carpet or wallpaper. More recently, looking at the unrestored old Japanese tansu in the back room of an importer in the San Francisco area, it was quite obvious that their makers also didn’t waste time on parts that wouldn’t normally be seen. Why the modern compulsion to obsess about everything?

  • JC

    I couldn’t agree more with Regis.

  • Regis


    Thank you VERY much for these pictures. That’s what we want to see. Too often we think our joints should look like the ones on magazine covers, and it frustrate us.
    The macro lenses were the best tool addition to the magazine so far. Please, keep showing us real pictures like these. They make the task less intimidating. You have no idea how many times I have tried to make perfect joints, but it almost never happens. So, I look forward to more close-ups of your work.


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