A stable foundation for the Dresser (Part 1)

The process of constructing the base I’m building now is very well described of one of my favorite woodworking books, “The Essential Woodworker” by Robert Wearing. His book makes any additional writing completely unnecessary and redundant so I should stop this post right here, but because that pivotal text has not stopped the 1,000’s of books and articles on the topic since it was published, it will not stop this blog entry either.


My previous project – the base of the dresser will hopefully look like this.

The base will have 8 pieces in total; 4 legs and 4 rails.  The components will be joined by mortise and tenon, which is a fun joint to make with chisels and saws.  I don’t understand the barrage of products available to make a square hole in a piece of wood.  Making a mortise with a good chisel is fun and “easy” with good technique and a little practice.  I’ve gotten ahead of myself – let’s go back to the start.

The legs are about 2 inches square.  I laminated the legs from 1 inch thick stuff because I wanted all the visible wood to come from the same tree and I didn’t have any thicker stock.  Laminating pieces this small is not very fun with planes.  I did my best to get the laminated surfaces dead flat such that the two pieces do not rock when stacked together.  I took extra effort to arrange the pieces in a way that the grain flows like a solid piece.

Work the legs and rails to the right sizes.  Leave about an inch of waste on the top of the legs to be sawn away after the mortises are chopped.  I sawed tenons first and then chopped the mating mortises, but I don’t think the order in M&T stirs nearly the controversy as Tails or Pins first dovetails, so pick your pleasure.    Here are a few pictures of the process.


Mark out the tenons however you like.  I use my Veritas wheel gauge with the mortise wheels, plus a 6 inch square with a knife to mark the shoulders.  Notice one shoulder (the inside) is thin.  This is perfectly ok.  You really do not need an inside shoulder at all.  The important distances are the outside shoulder depth (which controls the rail offset from the leg) and the tenon thickness.  This technique saves time because all of the rails need not be the same thickness.


Here I am preparing for a “second class saw cut” (according to Robert Wearing) by notching the lead in corner with a chisel to give the saw an accurate place to start working.  You may also notice the kerfs for the tenon shoulders – I like to crosscut my tenon shoulders first.


For the tenon cheeks – saw the diagonal corner – then flip and repeat from the other diagonal – then finish straight across the tenon like I am here.  Remember to saw on the WASTE side of the line.

Base_Tenon_4 Base_Tenon_5

I lopped off the ends of the tenon with a chisel – it’s faster than rip sawing and more fun.  One well placed blow takes care of 90% of the waste, then I remove the last 10% with more caution.

Next I make a square hole with a chisel.  I think body positioning helps with accuracy, but I don’t recall reading this anywhere else.  Rather than flinging your arms around, try manipulating the chisel with your whole body.  I think it helps keep things straight.


Use hand pressure to push the mortise chisel just into the wood to define the mortise.


I’m sighting down the edge of the workbench and the chisel to keep the chisel and hole vertical.

Don’t be scared to smack the chisel.  Old pictures (really old) show joiners standing straight up and holding a mallet over their heads.  If that is really what they did then they made an impact!

I use the “down and back” mortise technique.  I start at one end and remove very little in the first plunge.  I go down the length of the mortice and the depth at the same time.  By the time I am to the far end, I am also at the full depth.  I then work my way back the the end where I began.

Base_Mortise_3  Base_Mortise_4

Clear the waste after every plunge.  The “right” way to do this is lever the waste forward (into a void) and then pull back on the chisel to lever the chip(s) out.  Notice how my whole body is moving forward and back.  I’m not pushing very hard, but I think this helps keep the chisel straight compared to just moving my arms.


The more mortises I chop, the more aggressive I get.  Here is a shot of the waste that was removed in a typical plunge.

Base_Tenon_6  Base_Tenon_7

I trial fit each M&T separately.  If the joint is too tight, the easy thing to do is thin the tenon with a router plane.  Notice I’m using downward pressure over the rail – not the side where it is unsupported.  After the tenon fit to my satisfaction, I chiseled a small chamfer around the tenon edges.  You should be able to do this by hand (no block plane required).  If you can not do this by hand then sharpen your chisel and practice!  This skill will make things easier later – but you’ll have to wait ’til my next post to understand that.

Bob Jones

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