Finding furniture to fit your style and space is hard enough — you shouldn’t also have to worry that your new designer dresser might fall apart. Regrettably, the market is full of poorly constructed items screwed together with the precision of a blind monkey. Recognizing sound furniture joinery will help you dodge crude craftsmanship in favor of solid pieces that will stay in the family forever.
Dovetail joints are to furniture what Beyonce is to pop music: immensely popular, pleasing to the eye and, umm, structurally sound. A set of “tails” on one board locks into a set of “pins” on another, forming a durable 90-degree mechanical joint — it's no wonder they are a favorite for drawer construction. With through dovetails the ends of each board are exposed, whereas half-blinds (see above) hide the joint on one face.
Mortises and tenons
Mortise and tenon joinery is commonly called upon in frame and panel construction. A mortise is a hollowed out recess that mates with a corresponding tenon. In a through mortise and tenon joint, the tenon passes directly through an open mortise. This allows woodworkers to wedge the exposed tenon in place. The less stable blind mortise and tenon utilizes a hidden “stub tenon,” concealing the joint but leaving it more likely to loosen. Mortise and tenon joinery is a cornerstone of Arts and Crafts style furniture, with many makers turning this functional component into an ornate element.
A mitered joint is when two boards are each cut, or beveled, at 45-degree angles, then fixed together to meet at a point. Since endgrain acts as a poor glue surface, additional support is necessary to keep the joint from splitting apart. A splined miter is an attractive way to achieve this structural strength. Splines are small wooden inserts that fit into a saw cut, or kerf, made in the miter. Those looking for an uninterrupted joint instead utilize biscuits, which are small oval inserts fixed in hidden mortises.
Remember, don't be afraid to grill the dealer on a piece's joinery — furniture is a big investment and it's always best to avoid subprime mortises.
(Images: 1 Sauer and Steiner Toolworks, 2 Johnny Williams, 3 Johnny Williams, 4 Gardner Contemporary)
Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student at Maine's Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.