The highlight of this wood bench is its wedged mortise and tenon joinery that are featured by the contrasting wood.
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Like most of my hardwood projects, this one started with breaking down the material to rough lengths and milling the material. I did a video on my milling process that I’ll link below, but the short of it is I’m making the wood flat, square, and straight.
While I work on that I want to talk about tools. I’m using all these big machines to speed things up, but you don’t need them. Last summer I did a series on machine substitution and went over how to do everything these machines do with other tools. And as far as milling goes, you can also just buy S4S lumber which is wood that has already been milled for you. And the joinery for this can be done with just three tools, we’ll get into that later.
None of the material I had was wide enough for the bench, so after milling I had to do some glue ups to make the legs and bench top. For me this project was a challenge to see how fine of a project I could make, so you’ll see more planing than usual. Like how I hand jointing each glue joint with my jointer plane before gluing them up for the tightest possible glue seam. Like, if I had hair, it wouldn’t fit in this joint.
These boards are super flat, so I was able to get away with just using small clamp right on the glue seam itself to keep the boards aligned. A better technique is to make and use a clamping caul, especially if you have multiple seams or your stock isn’t completely flat.
After the glue dried, I fed the panels through my thickness planer again to make sure they stayed flat.
I should have waited ‘till later because I had to do touch ups, but after the glue ups and milling I removed all of the milling marks from the pieces with my smoothing plane. I was thinking that it’d be better to smooth them before the joinery was finished, but I didn’t think about how they would get dinged up while I manhandled them to cut the joinery.
Before I can layout for joinery though I need to get the top and legs cut to final dimension because I’ll be measuring from the edges. To get the legs to identical lengths I made sure my miter gauge was square to my table saw blade and cut one end on each piece, then set the stop on my gauge and cut both pieces to length.
The bench top was a little wide and needed to be cut down. For aesthetics I wanted the glue line to stay in the middle of the piece though so instead of bring it to dimension with one cut, I made two cuts removing equal amounts from each side.
The first joinery I laid out was the tenon on the end of the stretcher that will span between the legs. I used a marking gauge to get really accurate lines. I’m marking two sets of cut lines on these. I’m going to remove some material from the very edges to create a shoulder. The other line that’s farther inside will be for the wedge.
The first cuts I made were the shoulder, but before I cut those I set up some extra lighting for dramatic effect. It’s probably obvious to you, but these shoulders are actually very important. I practiced this joint in some scrap wood before building this because I’ve never done these before. I didn’t put shoulders on the practice piece, so as I drove the wedges in the wedges actually pulled the entire piece through the mortise because there weren’t shoulders there to catch the outside of the mortise and pull the joint tight.
Next I cut the slots that the wedges will go into. I started by drilling 1/4” hole at the base of the line, this helps make sure that the wood on the outside will bend and fill the mortise and not break off or create a split that goes down the wood. Then I cut down the line.
Now for the mortises. I did two different techniques for them, but there are loads more. For the legs after I marked out the location I drilled out most of the waste at the drill press. Of course a hand drill would work too, just make sure you drill straight or angle slightly towards the middle of the mortise so you don’t accident drill outside the lines.
To clean up the mortise, I switch to chisels at my bench and start hogging out the waste, slowing as I get closer to the line and taking a lot of care not to go passed it. I like to use a wide chisel on the sides to keep them flat, but when I get to squaring the corners I switch to a smaller chisel.
This mortise was cut to the size of the tenon, but I’m going to wedge in the tenon so the ends of the mortise need to be slanted at the same angle as the wedge. The number of that angle isn’t important. I cut the line for the wedge 1/4” from the edge, and the wedge will be 1/4” thick at the surface, so I just mark a line off camera 1/4” from the end of the mortise and start chiseling back to it. I’ll show more on the marking process later. I’m chisel through end grain right now which is super hard, so start with a narrow chisel to take smaller bites and as I get closer to the finish I switch to a wide chisel to finesse it down to the final size and make it nice and flat. This is done on both ends of the mortises.
Time for the tenons on the top of the legs that will go through the bench top. This will be a double tenon so I need to establish a shoulder at each end and remove waste from the middle to form the tenons. To keep these super consistent and do them quickly, I set up some stops on my miter gauge and use it at the table saw to remove all the waste. For the waste in the middle I leave some chips that I’ll just break out and chisel smooth.
When I set the depth of cut at the table saw, set it deeper than the thickness of the top of the tenons will be a bit proud, that way I can cut them flush at the end. So I use my marking gauge to transfer the depth of cut around the piece so I can cut off the rest of the waste from the shoulders. It would’ve been easy to do this at the table saw, but part of my goal with this project was to get a lot of hand tool practice in.
Now I go through the trial and error of laying out the mortises on the underside of the bench top. I just use my marking gauge and keep going back and forth until everything is spaced equally. I haven’t cut the slots of the wedges in the tenons yet, because I was afraid that floppy piece at the end of the tenon may deflect as I measured against it.
With the mortises marked out I start cutting them out. This time I use my hand drill because this piece is too big to manage at my drill press. I tried finishing the mortise with a chisel like before, but you’ll notice these mortises are oriented perpendicular to the grain instead of along the grain. That means the long sides of the mortises are all end grain hard maple. Chiseling that stuff was very challenging so I switched methods. I set up a fence and used my palm router to clean up the mortise. The mortise could’ve actually been cut out with the router instead of drilling and then routing it. The other nice part of this technique is it makes sure that both of my mortises are perfectly in line with each other. Once I finish one side, I just move my fence and repeat. But, my bit isn’t long enough to go all the way through. So once I finish a side I flip the piece over and use a flush trim bit to finish the other side. The ends are short so I just freehand them close to the line. I’ll be chiseling the angle in them soon anyway, and it’s long grain which is easy to chisel.
Once the routing is done, I square up the corners with a chisel. This might seem unnecessary, but I needed to. Next I layout marks 1/4” past the ends of the mortises for the angle the wedges will need. I use my marking gauge for the ends, but it’s not long enough to reach the middle, so I use a rule and marking knife for those.
Next is something I have’t seen before, but probably has been done before. I use a flush cut saw to make a sort of depth and angle gauge to chisel to. I cut to the line at the top of the mortise and on the bottom I don’t cut at all, so my saw makes a cut that goes from the stop line on top to the edge of the mortise on the bottom. If I hadn’t squared the corners a minute ago, that cut would’ve been a lot harder. Then I just chisel away and make sure not to go past the saw cut.
Now I jump back to finishing the tenons on the legs. I drill 1/4” holes at the drill press just like I did on the stretcher. Then cut them with my hand saw. I’m not a hand tool expert, but I’ve been using them a lot more and learning a lot. If you’re interested in me doing a video on hand saw technique please let me know in the comments below and whenever I stop feeling like I really suck at it, I’ll do one up if there’s interest.
Everything is ready for glue up at this point, so I take the smoother plane back to all the parts because it’ll be harder after the glue up. It also because super obvious I didn’t do a good job flattening my workbench top, so I guess that goes on the to do list. If you’re interested in a workbench, I recently did a video on this one and have plans, there’ll be links to that below.
Once the glue dried, I flush cut all of the tenons to the surface. Then I came back and smoothed it down with my plane. I’m new at this kind of woodworking though and didn’t get the finish I wanted, so I broke out the sander. I know, take my hand tool card and tell me I’m not a real woodworker, that’s okay, but at least I didn’t use a CNC.
Last up is finish. I stuck with my staple of three coats of general finishes Arm-R-Seal, lightly sanding in between.