Most traditional Chinese 3-way miter joints consist
of three (or more) interlocking pieces, each with their
own configuration of tenons and mortises. I’ve created
a simplified version that requires only two pieces, the
leg and two identical but mirror-image aprons. My joint
won’t win awards for authentic traditional joinery, but it’s
a good jumping-off point. Mastering this joint develops
skills that will allow you to tackle more complex versions.
A good place to start looking for authentic examples is
Gustav Ecke’s excellent book Chinese Domestic Furniture
(see Source, below).
Creating a 3-way miter by hand requires three skills:
precise layout, sawing straight lines (see “Using a Pull
Saw,” below) and accurately removing waste. No single
step is especially difficult, but there are a good number of them. The order in which
you complete the steps is
the key to success. A fourth
requirement isn’t so much
a skill as a personality trait:
patience. Mastering this
process takes practice.
Start by milling the
stock. Use light-colored
wood at first, so your layout
lines will be easy to see and
imperfections will show
clearly as dark crevices in
the assembled joints. In
3-way miters, the aprons
and legs are squared to the
same dimensions. Every
piece must be straight. If
one piece has a twist or
bend, it won’t matter how
masterfully you cut and
chisel—the joint will never
Cut the aprons and
legs to final length—the
aprons on opposite sides
must be identical (or all
four aprons, if the table
is square). Lay out all of
the cuts on the top and all
four faces of each leg (Fig.
B). Use an accurate square
and a sharp pencil or a
knife to create the lines.
The Leg Joint
The first cuts on each leg are diagonal and stopped (Photo 1 and Fig. C). The two diagonal cuts on the outside faces are the most visible of all the cuts you will make, so use a metal straightedge to ensure clean, straight cuts. Position the straightedge so the blade will split the layout line. Hold the saw against the straightedge and flat on the workpiece. Then saw a groove just deep enough to keep the saw from jumping out as you complete the cut. Remove the straightedge. Keep the blade in the groove while using its heel to make a perpendicular cut down the adjacent side to the first stop line. Then slowly angle the blade forward and use its toe to cut down to the stop line on the opposite side.
The second cuts run across the leg’s two inside faces (Photo 2 and Fig. D). They’re the only cuts that aren’t perpendicular to the surface. Use one of the diagonal cuts you just made to position your saw at the correct angle, then saw back across the face to the diagonal cut on the opposite side.
The third cuts form a tic-tac-toe grid across the top (Photo 3 and Fig. E). Although most of these cuts will be removed later, making them now ensures square tenons, because it’s much harder to cut a perfectly true short line than a long one. These stopped cuts also act as a guide for waste removal.
The fourth cuts create shoulders for the miter joints (Photo 4 and Fig. F). Establish a straight, shallow groove and then saw diagonally until you reach the outside edge of the top and the bottom edge of the miter on the adjacent face. If the triangular waste piece doesn’t come loose, make sure the diagonal cut was sawed to a uniform depth—rocking the saw from heel to toe sometimes leaves a high spot in the middle.
The fifth cuts remove waste and reveal angled shoulders on the inside faces (Photo 5 and Fig. G).
Make a pair of deep stopped cuts that run across the top
and down both adjacent faces. Be careful not to cut into
the mitered shoulders on the outside faces, as doing so
will leave a visible mark when the joint is assembled.
The final cut establishes the flat shoulder at the base of the tenons (Photo 6 and Fig. H). Start by
marking guide lines on both inside faces, 5/16"
down from the top and running from the inside
corner to the saw kerf that defines the tenon cheek.
Use the lines to cut diagonally to the kerfs—be sure
to stop before you saw into the tenons!
Use a 1/4" Forstner
bit to remove as much
of the waste as you can
(Photo 7). Then switch
to a chisel (Photo 8).
The shoulder’s surface
must be absolutely
flat, so finish by paring
across the grain. Be
sure to remove any
ragged fibers left in the
The Apron Joint
Mark the aprons for cutting and mortising (Fig. J).
The first cuts create miters on the top and outside
faces (Photo 9). These diagonal cuts are just as visible
as those on the leg, so start them the same way, using
a straightedge. Use the heel of the blade to saw the
line on the adjacent face and finish the cut by sawing
at a 45˚ angle.
Cut the mortise in the top face. (Each apron joint
houses one of the leg tenons.) Drill a 3/8" deep hole
with a 1/4" Forstner bit and then square the corners
with a chisel (Photo 10).
Draw guide lines on the two mitered faces on the
inside of the joint (Fig. J). One line is located 5/16"
from the outside edge and the other 5/16" from
the bottom of the miter—these lines align with the
mortise on two sides.
When removing the waste, use one line to guide
the side of the chisel and the other to establish the depth (Photo 11). Barely tap the chisel for the first
cuts—the grain is so short at the front that it’s easy to
remove too much. You should be left with one relatively
clean end-grain shoulder and two fairly ragged long-grain
shoulders. Make sure the end-grain shoulder is absolutely
flat. Pare the long-grain shoulders to exactly 5/16"
thickness (Photo 12).
True the fit
When you first assemble a leg and apron, don’t be
alarmed if the pieces don’t even go together. Truing
the fit requires patience and thoughtful sleuthing.
Look carefully to determine what might be gumming
up the works (Photo 13). Make sure the mortise fits
the tenon without binding—if this joint is too tight
it can keep the other parts of the joint from fitting.
Once the mortise and tenon fit properly, check the
other joint surfaces for irregularities.
Don’t spend too much time fitting an apron and
leg before adding the second apron. After all, this is a
three-piece joint, and having all three parts together
shows much more than two parts can show. You’ll
quickly learn how a small adjustment on one piece
can affect the way the other two pieces fit.
In fact, because all the joints are interrelated, the
best strategy is to assemble the legs and aprons as
soon as possible and true each joint in stages, roundrobin-
style, using a rabbet plane and a chisel (Photo
14). Use the positioning jig shown earlier to keep the
legs plumb while you finesse the joints. Temporarily
shimming the mortises during this process can help
to identify problem areas. Once all the joints have
been fit, you’ll probably have to permanently shim
some of the mortises. That’s OK; the shims will be
virtually invisible after they’re glued and sanded
Use the assembly jig and the band clamp for glueup.
If you need to apply downward pressure on the
aprons, raise the jig on blocks to provide a clamping
Fig. B: Leg Layout
Fig. C: First Cuts
Fig. D: Second Cuts
Fig. E: Third Cuts
Fig. F: Fourth Cuts
Fig. G: Fifth Cuts
Fig. H: Final Cut
Fig. J: Apron Layout
1. Start by sawing four diagonals on each leg, one on each face.
Use a straightedge to guide the saw. Attach sandpaper to the
back of the straightedge so it won’t slip.
2. Saw the bottom edge of the miter on the two inside faces. Use
the diagonal kerf from the previous step to establish the 45˚
slope. Then work back to the diagonal kerf on the opposite edge.
3. Create the tic-tac-toe grid on the top by making four straight cuts. Saw to the upper layout lines on the adjacent faces.
4. Create square shoulders on the two outside miters by sawing diagonally across the top and one adjacent face. Waste removal begins with these cuts.
5. Make deep stopped cuts across both inside faces to reveal the angled inside shoulders. You’ll have to re-mark some of the layout lines in order to make these cuts.
6. Complete each leg joint by removing the waste from around the
two tenons. Sawing across the inside corner to the tenon kerfs
creates a flat shoulder at the base of the tenons.
7. Remove the bulk of the waste that remains between the tenons
by drilling through the tic-tac-toe blocks.
8. Complete the joint by paring across the grain to create a flat
shoulder beneath the tenons.
9. Start each apron corner by making two through diagonal cuts,
one on the top and one on the outside face.
10. Square the mortise after drilling a stopped hole to remove most
of the waste.
11. Hollow the inside of the joint after marking the shoulders on
both mitered faces. Remove the waste with a series of shallow
chisel cuts, working from front to back.
12. Pare to the guide lines and square the end-grain shoulder.
Removing the waste reveals the mortise—it’s flush with the corner
formed by the end-grain and long-grain shoulders.
13. Fitting the joints takes time. Make sure that the shoulders of
each joint are the same thickness, that all of the mating surfaces
are absolutely flat and that the mortises aren’t too small.
14. All of the joints are interrelated, so assemble the table as soon
as you can. Then work a little on each joint in rotation. Here, a
temporary shim shows high spots that require further work.