Woodworking Basics: How to Make a Mortise and Tenon Joint

How to Make a Mortise and Tenon Joint

The mortise and tenon joint is famous in most woodworkers everywhere in the world. One problem with mortise and tenon joints – it’s not for every beginner. It may not require some fancy and more advanced woodworking tools, but the process requires high precision and accuracy.

When making a mortise and tenon joints, it is best to cut the mortise first before the tenon. This process will give you much easier access and measurement in creating a tenon that would fit perfectly to its mortise. As a rule of thumb, the size and thickness of mortise and tenon should match accurately.

Mortise and tenon joints work excellently by inserting (tenon) one end of a piece of wood into a hole (mortise) to another. Sounds simple? However, it all boils down on how to make a perfect mortise and tenon joint. The best part about using this wood joinery is that you don’t need to use nails and screws. It only requires glue to secure the pieces of mortise and tenon. We understand the difficulty it takes to create mortise and tenon joints, so here’s how to make a mortise and tenon joint.

Tips On How To Make A Mortise And Tenon Joint

In cutting mortise and tenon joints accurately, the sides of the chisel must be square to the stock. Glue connects mortise and tenon joints, as are dowels driven through the joint. If you are using the drill, don’t force it. Let it establish a cutting rate that won’t cause the bit to bind in the wood. Carefully drill the holes for the pins or dowels, disassemble, and apply the glue. Then, clamp the pieces together, and insert the dow­els, leaving them protruding from both sides of the joint. Scrape off any visible excess adhesive from the surface of the wood.

Mortise and tenon joints are famous for furniture and cabinet work. It’s sturdy and durable. Not to mention, it doesn’t get affected by the expansion or contraction of temperature and humidity changes. When appropriately shaped, mortise and tenon joints can even be decorative elements in the finished appearance of a piece. Therefore, making a mortise and tenon joint may be a daunting pros­pect to the novice woodworker. As any ex­perienced wood maker will tell you, the proper layout is just as important as the cutting and shaping to follow.

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How Can You Make A Mortise and Tenon Joint?

The trick in making a mortise and tenon joint is to determine how full is the bottom of the mortise. Make sure to calculate the appropriate thickness so that the tenon ends press against the sides, yet allow the tenon to get inserted completely. The assembly process involves placing the wedges loosely in the slots, carefully adding the tenon into the mortise, then forcing the tenon into the joint, which will force the wedges into the slots. Here are some steps on how to make mortise and tenon joints without using any power tools.

STEP 1: Make A Layout Of The Tenon And Mortise Boards.

Put your project out on your workbench and the tenon cover against the mortise board. This way, you’ll see precisely where you would like them to hitch. Start by marking the tenon’s shoulder lines. It’s where the tenon will stop against the mortise. Imagine putting your head during a tiny hole within the ground. Your head will enter, but your shoulders will stop at the highest point of the opening. 

STEP 2: Mark Your Cutting Lines

Mark the tenon and mortise boards. A dual marking gauge also can help because it will hold two measurements directly. Do all of your markings with familiar reference marks so that you can easily see it. This way, you can see it clearly, and make sure the tenon will fit into the mortise. Set your mortise chisel on the highest fringe of your tenon board and set your marking gauge’s inner cutter to touch the sting of your mortise chisel.

Now that your inner marking gauge is ready, scribe around the end of the tenon. First, transfer the road over to the inner fringe of your mortise board and scribe it where your tenon will eventually enter the mortise hole. Now, set the outer cutter to line up with the fringes of the mortise chisel. Then, a bit like before, scribe the external tenon line, all around the top of the tenon, from shoulder line to shoulder edge.

STEP 3: Start Cutting The Tenon Cheeks

Now you’ll use a backsaw to cut the tenon “cheeks” or the faces of the tenon. You can use a backsaw with rip teeth because you’ll be lowering with the grain. If you’re cutting a small tenon, then a tiny dovetail saw will work fine. However, if you would like to chop a bigger tenon, then a rip tenon saw may be a better option. You’ll also use a bench chisel to chop out a touch trench to supply your saw with a track for starting into the cut. It helps with stability and straight cutting. Start cutting at a 45-degree angle, then start sawing horizontally across the highest end grain. 

Once you’ve made a shallow kerf on top of the board, withdraw to a 45-degree angle and continue sawing right down to the baseline/shoulder line. Flip your tenon piece around within the vice and cut from the opposite side. It’ll even be your guide when sawing downward in an accurate fashion. Repeat the same steps. Then you will already have two saw cuts running down the tenon.

STEP 4: Cut The Tenon Cheeks And Shoulders

Some cuts are across the grain, so it is better to use a special backsaw with crosscut teeth that they call as the carcass backsaw. If you don’t have a backsaw, you’ll use your dovetail saw with rip teeth. However, note that you simply won’t have as clean of a cut. Therefore, the cutting is going to be a lot harder. No worries because you’ll still clean it with a chisel. Secure your tenon, and deepen your shoulder line with a good bench chisel and wooden mallet. 

One or two medium hits using the mallet are deep enough. Now, use your full bench chisel to make a touch angled trench to guide your carcass saw. It will allow your backsaw to rest against the shoulder and can provide more accuracy when sawing downward. Then, place your crosscut carcass saw in a trench and saw straight down.

STEP 5: Cut The Tension Sides

Draw vertical lines down all sides of your tenons. Stop a tad from each side together with your dovetail saw. Use a crosscut carcass backsaw to chop the side shoulder. Since you already have the right measurement, this process should be easy.

STEP 6: Mark Your Mortise Joint

Lay your freshly new tenon on your mortise. Then use a marking knife to form a tick mark at the sides of your tenon so that you’ve got the complete outline of your mortise. 

STEP 7: Cut The Mortise

For the ultimate step, cut the mortise. You do not want the chisel to chop on the top lines alternatively. The force and expansion will lengthen your mortise opening slowly. So, start chopping together with your mortise chisel about ¼ inch faraway from each end of your mortise lines. Use your wooden mallet to hit the mortise chisel. Then, chop straight downward. The angle of your mortise chisel’s slope will cause the mortise chisel to travel downward at an angle.

Keep chopping until you are feeling tons of resistance, then pull the chisel straight out of the opening and “walk the chisel” down the sting of the board a touch bit and chop downward again. Repeat this until you get within ¼ inch of the opposite end of your mortise and stop. Flip the chisel around and repeat the chopping process going a different way.

Frequently Asked Questions

How deep should a mortise and tenon joint be?

As a rule of thumb, the mortise should be 1″ deep and ¼″ wide. The tenon, on the other hand, must be at least ¼ inch thick and would not exceed 1-¼ inch wide. Stick to this rule, and you can create the perfect mortise and tenon joint.

What is the strongest and weakest wood joint?

Mortise and tenon joints are one of the most durable woodworking joints as well as dovetail joints. Woodworkers have been using it for several years. On the other hand, butt joints are the weakest wood joinery method. It may be the simplest, but it is not that durable compared to other techniques. 

Do you glue mortise and tenon joints?

Glue is the primary material to strengthen the mortise and tenon joint. Make sure to brush the glue on the tenon faces and insert the tenon into the mortise. Put just the right amount to avoid any mess. 


Regardless of the challenge in creating this wood joint, it is famous because it is one of the most reliable ways of attaching two pieces of wood at 90 degrees. It may not be as visually beautiful compared to dovetail joints, but woodworkers of all skill levels can build furniture and other woodworking projects with more durability.

It’s best to cut the mortise first, then tenon second. You’ll find it much easier to measure and adjust a tenon to fit into a mortise – vice versa. A router with a spiral bit is the preferred power tool for cutting a mortise, and an edge guide attached to the router base ensures a straight cut. A woodworking workbench makes this process much more manageable. Adding the mortise and tenon joint to your repertoire of woodworking skills makes you a better and versatile woodworker. You can use in a variety of ways and situations.

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