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.

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

  1. Walden: “I hewed the main timbers six inches square…each stick carefully morticed and tenoned by its stump…” In Henry’s time, square rule layout which relied on the framing square, was replacing plumb-line layout with it’s stacked timbers. Jack Sobon was employed several years ago by the NPS to catalogue American timber joinery. I believe the book is still available through the Timber Framers Guild. What the Japanese have over us is that they actually respect and support the skill required to continue the craft.

    1. I think it just lingered on in Asia for an extra generation. The younger Japanese people I have met or worked with have as little interest in these old skills as most of ours do. However, having a longer history, like Europe, there are more structures, museums, etc. that preserve these things.

  2. You may be right George , I see in China , the building of traditional Junks has declined to a point that the last living masters are reduced to building models , apprenticeships has delined as well .
    At least barns still have some semblance of living

  3. Hi George,

    I have been following you for a few years now, and only post here and there. You generally cover all the same subjects I love, study and do. I happen to be a Master Timberwright (a title given to me by my students and Ed Levin before we lost him a few years ago.) I actually started as an apprentice at age 14 with Old Order Amish (which I still have ties to) until I was 23. From here I moved into the esoteric realm of Middle Eastern, African and Asian modalities of timber framing…millenia older and very different in many ways from many of the generally “younger forms” found in Europe, though even these go back thousands of years. I also remind folks (Jack Sobon, Ed and I actually debated this once many years ago) that the Native cultures of the Americas have some wonderful forms all their own, and very similar to the Anu culture of the North Ryukyu Islands, so “timber framing” was in the Americas way before Europeans brought it here. Now there is more and more evidence that Chinese and Siberian cultures may well have been trading here thousands of years before Europe invaded.

    “Scribe rule” is perhaps the oldest method of layout only shortly followed by “line rule.” Both of which perhaps reach a zenith in the Shang Dynasty. “Edge rule” (or mill rule as it is often called today) is less than 300 years old in general application.

    I am not sure that it is to unreasonable to “laud” great praze onto my 大工 (Daiku) counterparts. I specialise in these (et al) folk styles, like 民家 (Minka) and 한옥 (Hanok.) I am affiliated with and following several that have been practicing the craft for over 100 generations (unbroken) and when a family has this type of 1000 year plus history there is much praze to be given. I also agree that there was (it is changing) a disconnect for some time in the “guild arts” of Asia among their young people. You may care to follow “Douglas Brooks,” who is a master boat builder in the Japanese traditions. He is a dear friend and has much to say on these subjects, which some will be published in his book this year.

    I would further suggest that though many joinery methods are not solely Asian in application, most do originate there (other than perhaps some of the “Swiss” lapping modalities.) So as such, from the Turkish Mountain Houses to the Asian employment of these methods in the “Kath Kuni” to the Ainu long houses architecture, it has been in application for millenia before the Europeans had even moved out of pit houses. Much of this moved out of the Middle East and into Asia millenia before ever becoming the norm in Europe. This happens to be a subject dear to my heart that I have studied now for over 4 decades. We haven’t even begun to explore in great detail the ancient history of the Zafimaniry systems of timber framing which many missionaries mistakenly contributed to “European orgin” which is a common hubris in thinking among westerners, but follow more Asian systems in style and modality.

    If you ever want to discuss, explore or venture further into these systems, I would enjoy the dialogue with you. You are the next generation to make these ancient arts “relive…”

    Warm Regards,


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