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Frame & Panel Hope Chest


Frame & Panel Hope Chest

Mortise and Tenon Joinery the Easy Way

By Tom Caspar

I used to struggle with mortise and tenon joinery. I tried every new system that came along, but they all seemed way too complicated. One day a friend of a friend walked into my shop, said “Throw away those fancy jigs!” and showed me an elegant way to make these classic joints. This blanket chest is the ideal project to showcase this technique.

One of the ways I used to get into trouble with joinery was to constantly measure everything. No more. Whenever possible, I use “the thing itself” to guide my cuts, especially in mortise and tenon work. That is, I use an object, not a ruler, to measure directly from one thing to another. Settle on the most important sizes first, make the pieces and then everything else falls into place.

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You’ll see how fool-proof the system is in building this blanket chest. The design utilizes a form of frame and panel construction that goes back hundreds of years. This joinery has proved to be durable and reliable, so if you’re thinking of making an heirloom project, here’s one that will last many generations.

The tenons of this chest line up exactly with the grooves that hold the panels. This simplifies laying out the joints. Cut the grooves first and the rest naturally follows.

Click any image to view a larger version.

The groove’s the thing. Its size and location determine where the mortises will go, so here’s the place to start.

Saw one stopped groove in each leg with a dado set. The end of the leg is marked with lines identifying the two face sides. Put the face side against the fence. Re-set the fence to the other side of the saw blade to cut the second groove.

Put away your ruler and lay out the mortises directly from the rails. This is much easier and more accurate than using a bunch of numbers. Sketch in the tenon on the end of the rail and extend lines down onto the leg. To position the bottom rail, make a spacer that’s the exact length of the panel opening and place it between the rails. 

The top rail should extend about 1⁄32-in. above the leg. This makes your life a whole lot easier because after glue-up you are able to plane the rail to meet the leg, rather than trying to plane the end grain of the leg.

Mortise the legs.  A mortising machine with a tuned-up bit and chisel makes short work of these deep mortises. The groove locks in the chisel, producing a mortise with perfectly straight walls. 

These machines can cut accurate mortises incredibly fast. Here are five tips to make a good machine even better for any project: 

1. Install a wider and longer support table.

2. Fasten the machine to your workbench.

3. Add a homemade riser block to the machine to accommodate wide legs and rails.

4. Lock the work in place with a clamp. 

5. Blow out the chips with compressed air.

5 Ways to Soup Up Your Mortiser 

Set the dado blade height for cutting the tenons. It should be even with the groove in a leg. Fine-tune the setting by trial and error. It’s best to start out low and work your way up.

Cut a cheek on the face side of a test piece. Set the saw’s fence to the length of the tenon. Take two passes across the tenon’s face to remove all of the waste. Make sure the end of the rail is tight against the fence during the second pass. 

Check the accuracy of your cut by holding a tight-fitting stick of wood in the groove. Run your finger across the tenon and stick. They should be perfectly even.

Save this setting! You’ll need it for cutting tenons on the stiles. Mark the position of your hand wheel to record the height of the dado set.  Then lower the dado set and cut the back side of each tenon.

Size the tenon by inserting the test piece into the mortise. If it takes a mallet to get the tenon into the mortise, the fit is too tight. If the tenon drops into the mortise with ease, it’s too loose. The correct fit is somewhere in between.  Adjust the height of the dado blade to find that fit, then cut the back side of all the tenons. 

Bandsaw the notch that forms the haunch.  A fence helps keep the cut straight, but you can also cut freehand, following a pencil line. Clamp a board onto the fence and raise it above the bandsaw’s table. When the waste piece falls out of the notch, it will slide underneath the board and won’t get trapped between the blade and the fence.

We accidentally cut off the haunch on one tenon. Here’s an easy fix: You can insert a new one! Cut a dado right in line with the tenon and glue in another haunch.


Lay out the mortises in the long rail directly from the stiles. Cut spacers that are the width of the panel opening and place them between the stiles. Then draw a pencil line along the side of each tenon.

Pinch sticks directly measure the size of the panels. Misreading a ruler can get you in trouble, but these sticks are always accurate.

Plane the top rail  flush with the leg after you glue up the chest’s front and the back. This beats planing down the end of a leg to meet a rail! 

Cut off the dowel pins that lock the joints with a Japanese-style flush-cutting saw (see Sources, below, left). Its teeth have no set, so they won’t cut into the wood around the pins. Glue the pins in the front and back assemblies and saw them flush before you glue up the entire case.

Slip in the bottom boards during the final glue up. They fit in a groove that goes all the way around the inside of the chest. Tongue and groove joints hold the boards together so you don’t have to glue them to each other.

Position the hinges on the top and mark the screw holes with an awl. Each hinge sits snugly in a mortise that’s as deep as the thickness of a doubled-over hinge, so there’s no need to mortise the top. 

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February 2000, Issue #78.