Woodworking Joints: Use of Carpentry Joints in Furniture

There are several common woodworking joints, specifically those carpentry joints in furniture that affect its strength and life. There are fundamentally three types of wood joint: screwed or nailed and glued, machine-generated woodworking joints and hand-crafted carpentry joints.

We shall ignore the first type, because there is no place for nails and screws in the joints of higher quality home furniture. Sure, they can be used for securing such components as upholstery and hardware, but not in the actual structure of the piece. Glue is also use along with traditional wood joints, but the best carpenters can construct strong chairs and cabinets that can be taken apart and reassembled with just a mallet - no need for a hammer, screwdriver or even glue. Here are some traditional carpentry joints:

Mortise and Tenon Joints
The mortise is a cavity that is drilled or chiseled into a piece of wood to accept a tenon. In the tradition mortise and tenon, the mortise is rectangular in shape, and accepts the female tenon, cut to exactly fit the mortise. The tenon is normally cut with shoulders that hit the sides of the mortise once it has been fully inserted or seated.

A variant is the through mortise, where the tenon passes right through the section of wood, and is visible on the other side. Through mortises are often used for tables and benches, where a wedged pin is hammered through a hole cut in the end of the tenon to secure the joint. A bridle joint involves a mortise cut down from the end of a piece of wood, so the top is open. The tenon is slid down the gap and often glued or pinned (see below).

Dovetail Joints
Dovetail joints are popular carpentry joints used to construct boxes such as drawers and cabinets. Each part of the woodworking joint is shaped like a dove's tail, and is virtually impossible to pull apart other than from the reverse direction to which it was inserted. They can be cut by hand or machine, and are extremely strong wood joints. The following are the most used types:

Through Dovetail: this is the simplest type of dovetail joint, use when appearance is not important such as at the back of cabinets and drawers. Male and female parts are cut across the full width and depth at the end of each piece of wood making up the ends and sides of the box so that each edge shows the joint.

English Dovetail: taking a drawer as an example, the male section is cut on the edge of the drawer side and the female at the edge of the front. It is cut in the form of a 'half blind' dovetail, meaning that the joint on the front is not cut right trough to the front face, so is invisible when the drawer is closed. Because it is cut on the edge, the English dovetail offers maximum drawer capacity, and it cannot be loosened when the drawer is used.

French dovetail: the female part is cut down most of the width of the inside front of the drawer and the male part a single dovetail cut down the length of the side. The side is slid down the front to form the box. This is equally as strong as the above, but you get less capacity in the drawer since this design must be cut in from the side of the drawer, so each side starts about a half-inch in from the front edge. This is also known as a full blind dovetail since both the dovetail sections of the joint are hidden.

Sliding Dovetail: this is used to join to boards at right-angles to each other. A wedge-shaped dovetail is cut along the width of a panel or board, the narrow part of the wedge at the top. The male part is then shaped to slide into the male section. This is a very powerful way of fitting two boards together at right-angles.

Butt Joints
This is a wood joint rarely used in carpentry, but is used for frames, such as picture and mirror frames. The ends of the frame are cut at 45 degrees using a miter block and tenon saw, then glue together. To strengthen the joint, a thin shim can be inserted and glued into a saw cut down into the joint from the corner. Normal butt joints are week and used only in the cheapest furniture, if at all.

Dowels: dowels are wooden pegs used as cheap tenons that are glued into holes on the other part of the joint. Although cheap, they can offer fairly strong joints, particularly when used to join planks together to make a table or some other large flat area of wood. You would rarely find dowels used in higher quality furniture other than for tables and the like.

Pinned Joints: often used with mortise and tenon joints, pins or thin dowels are pushed through holes drilled through the joint to solidly fix the tenon.

These are more common types of carpentry joints used in furniture. There are other woodworking joints that can be used for specific purposes, but the vast majority of the joints in your furniture will be one or other of those above, excluding, hopefully, butt joints.

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