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Jointing the past to the future.

Throughout the past one thousand years of woodworking, joinery methods have functioned as a common thread, from mortise and tenon to dovetails, rabbets and tongue and groove.

Today's woodworking shops, with electrically powered machines churning out specialized tasks, may seem a far cry from their predecessor shops, where, a cabinetmaker and his apprentices cut, fitted and glued by dint of muscle alone.

But when it comes to joinery, several of the most popular methods, including mortise and tenon, rabbet joints and dovetailing, have come to us straight out of history.

"There have been joints ever since man started using wood as a construction material," wrote Percy W. Blandford in the introduction to the first edition of his "Woodworking Joints/An Illustrated Handbook."

"A surprising number of those used today were used many thousands of years ago. Some of them were cruder but basically the same."

New materials and mechanization have brought changes, he conceded. "Manufactured boards call for different joints than those for solid wood, and the availability of machine tools has brought new ways of cutting and forming joints.

"The basic construction material for furniture and many other things, though, is still wood," Blandford said. "Much of the final work on wood is still done by hand. Consequently, there are very few woodworking joints that can be called obsolete."

Mortise and Tenon: The Common Thread

When early English settlers set about carving themselves a life in the wilderness of America, they built their houses using a kind of joinery they were familiar with: mortise and tenon.

They would have been better off building log cabins instead, for that could have been done quickly and easily from the materials at hand, said Charles F. Carroll in "Forest Society of New England," a chapter in "America's Wooden Age: Aspects of its Early Technology," edited by Brooke Hindle. Instead, they wanted homes just like those they used to have in England.

"The frame of the traditional English dwelling was held together by notched joints and wooden pegs," Carroll said. "The cutting of large notches weakened the framing timbers, and they could withstand the weight of the roof, walls and chimneys only if they were very thick.

"Thus, the construction of even a small dwelling in New England required the cutting and hauling of tons of timber. The frames of such dwellings were troublesome to raise after they were pieced together on the ground, and it was difficult for builders to join the massive sections, especially when working on the second story or on the roof."

It wasn't until nails became cheap and plentiful and woodworking machinery more highly developed in the mid-19th century that the innovative "balloon house" revolutionized home building. It was nailed together using light 24-inch by 4-inch studs, greatly reducing labor and cost.

Mortise and tenon, though its importance in house building was reduced, enjoyed widespread use in other areas and continues to be the most commonly used means of joining parts of wooden structures, said Blandford.

"A form of mortise-and-tenon joint recognizable as similar to ours can be seen in drawings of early Egyptian furniture," he said.

"Today there are reliable glues, but earlier users of mortise-and-tenon joints had to rely on just the tight fit or various methods of using edges and pegs to keep the joints tight, either alone or to reinforce the inadequate glue that had to be used."

Some mortise-and-tenon joints were strengthened by the use of dowels, which functioned like a pin driven through both parts to give the lock between them extra strength. Today, with strong synthetic glues reducing the importance of mechanical locks, dowels are more likely to be alternatives to tenons or tongues, Blandford said.

Dovetails, rabbets and T&G

"As better tools and greater precision developed, man discovered the dovetail principle," Blandford said. "In this attractive and very functional joint the slight taper resists pulling apart in one direction very effectively.

"The dovetail joint has found a place in mass production," he said. "Machines can cut a variation, particularly between drawer fronts and sides."

Another joint that has been in use for hundreds of years, says Byron W. Maguire in "European Cabinet and Furniture Making," is the rabbet joint, where an L-shaped cut is made along the edge of a board for fitting to another board. "It is really the 'rabbet plane' that 'rabbets' out a cut in the sides of boards, so that they may be overlapped and joined. This was the popular way of joining before milled tongue-and-groove," wrote Eric Sloane in "A Museum of Early American Tools."

"We use tongue-and-groove cuts for flooring and sheathing without realizing how recent this practice is," said Sloane. "Before the 'tongue' was popular, two grooves were placed against each other, and a 'spline' was driven into the 'tunnel' to join the two pieces together." A "plow plane" cut the grooves.

Also, a pair of planes called "match planes" was once used to cut matching parts like tongue and groove, giving rise to an ingeniously formed "tonguing and grooving plane" that performed both functions.

Achieving a Common Goal

As used in modern times, mortise and tenon, dovetailing, tongue and groove and their many variations meet an important requirement for a strong joint: They present several surfaces where parts can be glued together along the grain.

"Mechanical strength in a joint may still be desirable, but not so much as it was in the days of inferior glues," said Blandford. "If a joint gives good side grain glue area, its actual form might be less important."

Today's woodworking shops, working with improved glues, different methods of construction and manufactured board like plywood and particleboard, are a far cry from the "manufactories" of the 1850s. The new materials require different joinery techniques, or at least adaptations of old techniques.

Enough of the traditional joinery remains, however, to serve as a reminder of the history of the craft and the ingenuity with which early woodworkers met the needs of their times for shelter and furnishings.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:joinery
Author:Miller, Hannah
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Dec 1, 1997
Words:1001
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