Full Chisel Blog

January 8, 2009

Tenons: Shoulders or Cheeks first?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 9:49 am

Here is another can of worms, together with dovetail pins or tails, air dried verses kiln dried wood, &c.  I honestly don’t care which is first or best, well that is not quite true, I always cut tails first and air dried wood is much better, I just don’t care for a lot of controversy.  Well that is not true either.

Here is an illustration from Country Furniture by Aldren A. Watson, 1974, and that book together with Eric Sloan books were major influences in my early corruption development of an obsession fascination with hand tool woodworking and history.  This drawing just didn’t get it correct.

Miter Box ?

Here is what it is suppose to look like, there is a saw involved and I would call this a backed tenon saw, but not in the way that the term is used today.

Tenon Clamp & Saw

The properly marked stuff being tenoned is placed in the clamp with the proper offset to match the offset of the blade in the saw with the sole of the saw.  This saw is more like a plane than a saw, it has a tote, knob and sole.  The saw works against the clamp and the shoulder cut is made to the cheek marks left by the mortise gauge.

I intend to make one of these but I will build a slightly simpler version, not all tenon clamps have the multiple angled jaws.

This tool allows for cutting both, or even three or all four shoulders, without repositioning the stuff as you would have to do using a side rest (bench hook) or miter box.

Does this answer the controversy?  No, you could just as easily cut the cheeks first, then the shoulders.  That is just not the way I was taught, nor how I make tenons.  I cut the shoulders first, reduces possible splitting when making the cheeks.  Another reason I cut shoulders first is that I almost never saw the cheeks, I almost always split and pare the cheeks with chisels



  1. I’ve heard about splitting off the cheeks before, but haven’t tried it myself. Is there a concern about the split not being completely straight and veering towards the inside of the board, so that part of the tenon is narrower than planned? If it does happen, how do you fix it?

    Comment by Wilbur — January 8, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  2. Interesting. Based on the Tuesday night chat I requested the Watson book at the library, I can’t wait to get it now.

    Comment by Duane — January 8, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  3. Stephen,
    I’ve tried it both ways and I prefer shoulders first. I cut the shoulders by sawing around the stock using a bench hook. I start by sawing a long shoulder, turn the board 90 degrees, saw a short shoulder, turn 90 degrees, saw the other long shoulder, turn again and saw the last short shoulder. I use the kerf from the previous cut to register the saw for the subsequent cut to help me keep the shoulder line consistent all around the tenon stock. I do it this way as opposed to say sawing the two long shoulders first, in which case I could potentially saw them slightly offset. Also, If I accidentally slightly overcut the shoulder, I saw into the tenon, which will be hidden in the joint after assembly. If you slightly overcut a cheek cut, it won’t be hidden but will stick out like a sore thumb.

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — January 8, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  4. That’s a cool jig, Stephen. Were backed tenon saws normally made by the user? I’ve never seen one.
    Country Furniture is one of my very favorite books.

    Comment by The Village Carpenter — January 9, 2009 @ 5:30 am

  5. Wilbur,

    I start with small splits and go to school on the grain. I sneak up on the split to insure that a bad deep split doesn’t happen. I sometimes have to go the other direction or even cross grain to make the tenon. Most of the time the splits, not being that long works just fine.


    It is generally a good book, a few mistakes but it has a great feel and look.


    The advantage to this jig is that the shoulders line up. Your description is how I cut tenons now.


    Mine of course will be user made, however both the clamp (jig) and saw were commercially available during the nineteenth century at least in Europe. I will use a fine toothed blade sharpened cross cut for my backed tenon saw.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — January 9, 2009 @ 8:06 am

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