Most of us are familiar with Aristotle’s popular adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” While these words of wisdom often hold true in woodworking, joinery can make or break a piece of woodwork. The type and quality of joints affects the functionality and sturdiness of any piece of woodwork that is made up of more than one component. Knowledgeable woodworkers are familiar with numerous types of joinery and have the experience to determine when and how to use each type of joint. The most appropriate joint to use for a given task depends on several factors, including the intended function of the piece being fashioned and the woodworker’s skill level. Often, the strongest joints are also the most complex and difficult to accomplish. Beginner woodworkers may want to start out with simpler projects to learn basic joinery skills before attempting to create heirloom furniture pieces that will stand up to the test of time.
Mortise and tenon joints are among the strongest and most commonly used woodworking joints. They are often used to join two boards at a ninety degree angle. In this type of joint, a rectangular “tenon” protrudes from one board, and fits snugly into a “mortise,” or hole of the same shape in the adjoining board. The joint is usually glued and can also be pinned for reinforcement. Mortise and tenon joints have a neat appearance and are commonly used in cabinetry, furniture and door frames.
A dovetail joint is another strong type of joint that is commonly used in drawers as well as other types of box shaped pieces. Dovetail joints consist of trapezoidal shaped pins and tails, with the pins on one board and the tails on the other, which interlock to form a secure connection. Glue is used to reinforce the joints to further enhance stability.
While properly crafted dovetail or mortise and tenon joints will certainly help your piece stand the test of time, every woodworking project does not necessarily require this type of joinery. The woodworker’s time and skill level as well as the demands that will be placed on the final piece should also be considered. For example, while a drawer or chair may call for sturdy joints that can withstand repeated and heavy use, a simple picture frame that will be hanging from a wall untouched can serve its purpose using much simpler joinery.