Art of Joinery in House Construction (or how I re-learned my original trade)

I have been re-studying joinery, amongst other things, recently and am currently deep in Moxon’s The Art of Joinery.  I have built many structures in my life and documented quite a few for historic preservation.  Last night, I made it through another oldie from the 1920s Woodwork Joints by William Fairham which really set my stagnant mind in motion.


Queen Post Roof Truss schematic from William Fairham’s Woodwork Joints (1921, revised n.d.).

I know the image isn’t the sharpest but this, to me, shows the level of quality and craftsmanship we have lost in our pursuit of speed, simplicity, and the dumbing down of our trades.  Nothing in this truss is complex in-and-of-itself but requires some layout skills with straight-edge and dividers, not to mention hand skills with saw and chisel.  Few fasteners are required in this type of construction as it depends on the joinery locking the system together.


A compound-cut, stopped bridle joint used in roof truss construction. A common alternative to the above mortise joint.  Not as complicated as it sounds but very solid indeed.

I have read several misguided web sites on woodworking recently lauding Japanese and other Asian-style building techniques for their use of joinery and lack of metal fasteners.  Yes, they are remarkable, just not unique to Asia.  This type of construction is the reason many centuries-old buildings still stand today.

"Japanese" tenon joint.

“Japanese” tenon joint.

Very little under the sun is new technology.  The above joint is a locking corner known as a Japanese corner tenon.  I have no idea if this really filtered into western construction from Japan but it is a pretty neat looking joint.

All the complicated joints are a lot of fun and interest, but in reality, learning the basic mortise and tenon (with the myriad variations) will allow for the creation of most building structures.


Half lapped top rails “through-pinned”.

Even simple half-lap joints are structurally sound with some thought towards design.  The above pinned and half-lapped joint can be found in historic structures tying the top rails of simple buildings together and is also seen in a straight wall run, not just on corners.  This simple timber joint is perfect for small outbuildings, sheds, and chicken coups.


Notching, used to tie purlins tight to rafters.



Cogging, an old-fashioned way of setting joists.

Finally, a few simple joints you may still see used are simple notching, cogging, and bird-mouth joints.

birdsmouth birdsmouth2When I was a young laborer in high school and beyond, laying out and cutting accurate bird-mouths and rafter angles were the tests that separated “the men from the boys” as it were.  Some people could never really get their heads around the angles, even with the ingenious, and simple layout square; many a builder’s best friend.

StanleyThis post took a bit of a rambling turn but more on this subject will certainly follow for good or bad.  I’m always learning, so bear with me as I work through the process on my keyboard and in my head.

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Historic Caravan Image of the Day

caravanningcampi00stonrich_0235 - Version 2  caravanningcampi00stonrich_0235The Lady-Go-Lightly.  It’s difficult to get a real feel for the caravans without a glimpse inside.  This image isn’t very detailed but shows the essentials; kettle, mirror, some basic utensils, and folding chair.  All standard fare for the early caravaners.


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Leather Shop Apron

I finally got around to replacing my very old shop apron.  It was the standard issue split-leather welder style and over many hard years had amassed large quantities of wood glue, grease, metal grime, blood and membrane (from brain tanning), and other unidentifiable smudges over most of it’s surface.  It went into the trash a while back when an unexpected leak in my barn allowed it to saturate and subsequently get some very ugly mold patches in a funky tie-dye pattern.  I expect it was fairly nutrient-rich and I wasn’t interested in trying to salvage it after all these years.

ApronI had some fine oiled leather from a recent project (aprons take a lot of footage) so was able to cobble together a decent shop apron without too much difficulty.  I expect this to last another 20 years or more; maybe the rest of my life.

The image is not great.  Just a poorly lighted mirror shot “selfie.”  Par for the internet I guess.  And no, I’m not glaring.  That’s just how I look.  I guess I didn’t learn to smile well as a kid or it’s just not in the genes.

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Draw Knives

One of my favorite tools and one I have seen misused by too may people over the years.  Often these are snatched up at auctions by antiquey people who want a wall hanging but quality ones can be found on places like Ebay.  I have several styles and they each have their virtues.

DrawknivesMy carriage maker model gets all the heavy work where the carpenter’s razor gets the other 80%.  And let’s not forget the humble but beautiful cabinet scraper.


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Historic Caravan Image of the Day

caravanningcampi00stonrich_0255The ladies having lunch outside the Tally Ho! ca. 1910.  A fine little wagon with mollycroft and Persienne shutters.


Click for source.


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The common spokeshave has not changed much in over a century.  The main types can be subdivided several ways but they are essentially, high or low angle with various shapes to the foot plate.  I find this tool a great help when making bows, handles, or other spindle-shaped things.  A flat shave will take you a long way but I get great use out of a rockered-style (convex front-to-back) for creating the complex shape of a bow handle.

SpokeShavesThese examples are from the very early 20th century and are all probably still in use from that era.  I still have a boxwood low angle shave from my great-grandfather.  The steel is remarkable.

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Three Legged Dutch Chair

DutchChairFrom the issue of “Work” made available today by the good folks at Tools for Working Wood.  Minimalist yet fairly ornate.  It would sit well in a corner to get it out of the way when not needed.


Click the image to head over and have a look at this interesting resource from the 19th century.

While you are in the internet neighborhood, have a look in their store for some great and out of the ordinary stuff.


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