With all the wood dimensioned, it was time to start the joinery. I cut the four feet to length and laid out for the mortises at the center of each using a mortise gauge with a pair of spurs. Having recently read Robert Wearing’s excellent book, The Essential Woodworker, I decided to use a variant of his mortising technique.
After scoring deeply with the mortise gauge, I began by making a series of shallow cuts across the width of the mortise with a chisel using hand pressure only. In Wearing’s example, he uses the same mortise chisel used to chop the mortise. However, in hickory, the mortise chisel didn’t work very well with hand pressure alone, so I opted instead for a bench chisel. The idea is to simply raise the chip a bit, forming a corrugated area proud of the surrounding surface.
Once this is done, simply take the side of chisel and, going against the grain of the raised chips, rake them away. This leaves a shallow rectangular recess in the surface of the wood. This is the reason for the deep scores earlier. You now have a pair of “fences” to ensure that your mortising chisel is properly registered, and doesn’t wander off-line. The first cut with the mortise chisel is the most important, and defines the rest of the cut. This technique greatly improves your odds of chopping a good mortise.
In softer woods, I will either begin chopping directly, or bore a single relief hole. However, in hickory, I decided to bore three relief holes in each mortise. This extra step was more than repaid when the time came to chop. I’m not sure my handle would have stood the strain otherwise. Those of you who have bored relief holes with a brace and auger know how easy it is to get slightly off-center. Once again, the recess helps by letting you lay the bit on its side with the spurs between the walls, and then stand it up with the point in place. It’s not perfect, but it does help. Then, bang away!
In fairly short order, I had all four legs properly mortised and ready for their tenons.
I left the legs overlong. This gave me room to repeat a tenon if I made a mistake – the excess is removed once the danger is past. This is something I try to do whenever possible, and it has saved my bacon more than once. The tenons were a bit rough, as mine often are. This time, however, I had a secret weapon:
I had seen Christopher Schwarz finish tenons with a router plane, and had wanted to try the technique. With a new Veritas model in the shop, my chance had arrived. The process is fairly straightforward. Abut a piece of wood the same thickness as your piece against the end of the tenon. This gives a support to the router, and lets you trim in the same way that you would clean up a dado. Proceed lightly, alternating sides and checking the fit, and you’ll have perfectly centered, straight-sided tenons. Of course, this assumes that your mortises are also perfectly centered. If not, you’ll have to modify the technique somewhat, as I will on the blanket chest project.
I finished up the feet by cutting away a small amount on the underside to make two contact pads on each foot. This makes for much flatter sitting, especially on irregular surfaces. A simple 45 degree miter on the top corners finished everything off. You could, of course, finish them any way you like – ogee, roundover, leave ’em square. But for me, in the end, it’s just a sawhorse. I just didn’t want to be stubbing my toe.
Now, the feet are ready to be joined to the legs. But first, I’ve got to do the through-tenon joinery for the stretchers. We’ll do that next time. Stay tuned!