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Basic Woodworking Joinery Techniques

Today let’s discuss basic woodworking joinery techniques. This is for beginner woodworkers that want to understand what joinery types are good to start with, and when to use each kind.

Woodworking Joinery

Every project has the potential to be changed and modified half way thru.

I’ve done this many times – as I start to see the pieces come together and take shape, I realize there’s something about my design I could immediately improve on.

So I sketch out my changes and I figure out how to make it work with my progress up to that point.

However, your joinery techniques for any project shouldn’t be quite as subjective.

For any given joint, there’s a needed amount of strength, visual appealment, discreetness (I think that’s a word), and expediency.

Each joint type has its ups and downs (and side to sides =D), and today I’m going to lay out some basics on this topic to help you make confident decisions on your joinery types for your next project.

What this is not – this isn’t a how-to on actually creating these joints, though I do have some quick pointers I’ll give you for each one. If you’re looking for detailed guides, see the related articles at the bottom of this page.

Dowels, Biscuits, Loose Tenons

These are all similar but with different levels of strength and complexity.

Loose tenons are the absolute strongest of the 3.

Loose tenons are good for joining aprons or stretchers to legs. Really, for anything that needs to be structurally strong and may take abuse, stronger joints like this one are a better choice. The mortises can be cut using a router mortising jig, and the tenon stock can be made on the table saw.

Loose-tenon joinery can easily be done with a plunge router and a mortising jig.

Dowels are less complex and require less setup to drill, but they also have less strength than the loose tenon joint.

Say you’re building a small entry way table or side table. Dowels would be fine here, since these projects don’t demand quite the same structural integrity that a coffee table or a kitchen table would need.

Dowel’s are drilled with simple doweling jigs (see below). However, these jigs can seem chincy, as they must be clamped very tight in order to keep the jig from shifting while using the drill.

TIP –> If using a doweling jig, be sure to use a brad-point bit. This can help keep the bit from trying to shift.

Dowel joinery is a strong joint that can be easily drill with a simple clamp-on doweling jig.

Biscuits, while the weakest of the 3 joints, are really easy to do.

You make a center line for the biscuit joint, and use a biscuit cutter (a fairly inexpesive power tool, see below) to make the biscuit shaped mortise.

Note – The biscuit is not really shaped like a biscuit, more like a football. But I didn’t name it. If I did, we would be talking about football joints right now…

These guys are a good complimentary woodworking joinery option to a joint that already has a lot of face or edge grain glue area, and you want just a bit more strength.

Biscuit joinery being used for an edge glue up

Biscuits are also helpful if you need assistance with keeping things aligned during glue up, like with a panel, or a face frame.

Woodworking Joinery – Pocket Holes and Brad Nails

I group these together because they are similar in that they eliminate the clamping process and speed up the project.

Not only that, they also both introduce metal joinery into a project (which may or may not be what you want).

Pocket hole joinery is the stronger of the 2, and as long as you have a good jig (shown below), it’s really easy to do.

Board clamped in a Kreg pocket hole jig
Pocket hole joinery after clamped and screwed

BUT – be aware, it is (what I would consider) an ugly joint, so I only use ’em when they’ll be hidden.

Brad nails are more discreet, but they do still leave an exposed nail head that must be either left exposed, or filled with wood filler and sanded down smooth.

Brad nails don’t add much strength to speak of, but if the joint is likely strong enough with just glue alone, brad nails allow you to skip clamping and move on immediately.

A good example of when I would use brad nails is when attaching a face frame to a cabinet carcass. This is OK (in my opinion) when doing rustic furniture, as the exposed nail heads probably won’t be seen, and if they are I really don’t care.

Brad nailing a rabbet joint building a drawer

Or, like in this picture, use brads to construct a drawer when doing rabbets and glue (see below).

Woodworking Joinery – Box Joint and Dovetails

These are more complicated joinery techniques, but are among the most beautiful.

Box joints are great for joining 2 panels or boards at 90 degrees (like with a box). You can build a box joint jig for your router or your table saw.

They are a very strong joint, as it creates a lot of surface area to be glued, and the more area glued, the better and stronger the joint.

The box joint shown in different colors to accentuate detail

Dovetails are common with attaching drawer faces to the drawer box. The simple mechanics of the joint make it superior for the pulling action applied time and time again to the drawer face. It’s basically a joint that will never fail, so long as the furniture is used as intended.

Cutting dovetails can be done with small simple jigs, which is a more complicated process. Or with larger elaborate jigs, which makes the process much simpler. Dovetail joinery is definitely an advanced technique that will take time to master, but is a great milestone for any woodworker.

Dovetail joinery diagram shown in 2 different colors to accentuate detail.

Woodworking Joinery – Rabbet, Groove, and Dado Joints

These joints are basically a way to add just a little strength to a simple glue joint, and not a lot of complexity. The additional strength comes from the different wood grains getting incorporated into the joint, or in the case of solid wood, it increases the surface area for glue.

These joints are also helpful with alignment, and will eliminate the wood shifting out of place during glue up.

Diagram showing a rabbet and dado joint, common with book cases.

These can be done using a router with a straight cut or a spiral bit. You can also use your table saw with a dado blade set, or a single blade making the dado with multiple passes.

Other Joinery Techniques

There are plenty more types of joinery out there to discuss, but as a beginner you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin.

What I’ve listed so far will cover most projects, and it’s best to practice and master a few joinery types before moving on.

In a future post I’ll cover other joints, like tongue and groove, half lap, and splined miter joints.

There are also variations of most of the joints on this page, like the half-blind dovetail, through mortise and tenon, and the mitered half lap (the list goes on).

Attaching Hardware

Typically we use screws and bolts for attaching hardware to our projects. Simple examples – attaching a drawer pull to a drawer face, installing cabinet door hinges, and attaching hardware to your wood shop jigs.


And that wraps up the Woodworking Joinery basics.

Next:
What Kind of Glue To Use

Related Articles:
Pocket Hole Joinery tutorial
Rabbets, grooves and dados


Click Here to see the biscuit cutter I personally use (also called plate joiner)

Click Here to see the doweling jig I use.

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