Sawing Tenons the Wearing Way

This seems like a good time to digress slightly onto the subject of sawing tenons.  The blanket chest has a lot of them – 24 to be exact, and all are cut by hand.  So, I thought I’d give a quick look at how I saw tenons.

In the past, I had cut my tenons in the “normal” manner – near corner first.  But then, I read The Essential Woodworker by Robert Wearing.  This book, first published in 1988, is one of the best modern treatises on (mostly) hand tool woodworking.  This book turned a lot of my ideas on their ear, and altered the way I did a lot of things.

Wearing recommends starting on the far corner of the tenon, and then establishing a groove across the top before working down the near side.  This approach, for me at least, makes it much easier to saw accurately.  The saw follows the path of least resistance, the kerf, and is less prone to wander when it isn’t having to blaze two trails at the same time.  Of course, a picture is worth a thousand words so…

Sawing Tenons 1

Start with the far corner of the tenon.  If it helps, make a small notch with a chisel that gives you a starting point next to the line.  Normally, my left thumb would be against the saw as well to start the cut, but I’ve moved it for clarity.  Yes, the Bad Axe Large Tenon Saw is a handful, but to me it actually makes the cut easier.  The wide plate is less prone to angle away from vertical, and the weight makes downward pressure a non-issue.  It’s my go-to saw for any tenon over 1 1/2″  wide.

Another trick is to watch the reflection of the wood in the sawplate, and keep it straight in line with the actual wood so that it seems to be one continuous piece.  This will ensure that you stay square and vertical.

Sawing Tenons 2

Once you’ve established the corner,  slowly lower the heel of the saw as you cut, extending the kerf backwards across the top of the wood, staying flush with the line.  This is what establishes your path of least resistance, and makes the following steps much easier.  It’s much easier to go this way than to start on the near corner and try to extend the kerf forwards.  At the very least, that approach constantly obscures your line with sawdust.  In addition, you can see exactly how the saw teeth are approaching the line.

Sawing Tenons 3

Once your kerf extends all the way across, proceed as usual by sawing down the near face, while simultaneously connecting with the far corner.  Wearing recommends tilting the wood for this step, but I don’t find it necessary with this saw.  This allows me to do the first three steps above as one continuous cut, only stopping to reposition the stock before continuing.

Sawing Tenons 4

Once you’ve connected the corners, flip the stock around and connect the corners from the other side.  Once again, I keep the stock vertical, at least with this saw.  I suppose I could simply walk around to the other side and not have to reposition the stock at all, but working up against the bench like that is less comfortable and more awkward for me than standing off the end.  If it works for you, go for it.

Sawing Tenons 5

Now, to finish the cut, level the saw and cut the triangle of remaining wast left by your previous two corner connections.  As I get near the end of the cut, I lighten my stroke and bring the thumb of my left hand up alongside the waste (I’m cutting on the near side) to keep it from snapping off prematurely.

Sawing Tenons 6

And there you have it!  The surface is a little rough, but that’s because my technique is still a little rough.  However, the tenon serves it’s purpose very well.  In the one in the picture, I had already cut the end to width before the shot.  This was done after the cheeks were cut.

I hope this helps pique your interest in this method of sawing tenon cheeks.  If you’d like to see this technique in motion, Shannon Rogers has an excellent video of this approach on his site, The Renaissance Woodworker.  Check it out!


5 responses to “Sawing Tenons the Wearing Way

  1. Good post! I learned a lot from that Robert Wearing book too. Are you cutting on your “line” or just to the side of it and then clean the tenon up? I guess what I am asking is whether or not you are sawing the tenon to the exact size you want it, or are you cutting it a little wide?

    Once again. kudos on the photography.

  2. I have the same question as Yaakov. My practice has always been to saw the tennon too big and clean it to the line. But that may well be becasue I dont have as good a saw or technique as you are describing. Since there are two of us asking about this, I hope you will maybe do a blog post about it.

    Thanks for the informative post on hand cutting tennons.


    Thanks for the informative post on cutting tennons by hand.


    • I cut just a hair “fat”. By that, I mean that I aim for the outside of the pencil line rather than splitting it. I then clean up with a touch from the router plane. That usually ends up being just enough to remove those irregular saw marks you saw. Since I hand-chop mortises, this lets me adjust slightly if needed.

  3. I am not sure why I have the repeat in my comment, but you can take the thanks twice. You have earned it.


  4. Nice article and I love your thoughts about the big tenon saw.

    Just one thing that I’d like to offer is the “Schwarz” nibble across from the far side to create a kerf the depth of the teeth plus about half again. Then keeping the blade in the kerf (not coming out) let the saw cut down the face nearest you. That way you’re keeping the saw in the plane of the cut. I find that if I let the saw come out of cross kerf I lose accuracy. I find it easiest if I imagine the saw pivoting off the far side.


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