My Supreme Suckage: Hand Mortising


Other bloggers are wary of pulling down their pants. Not me.

I suck at a lot of things, but I really and truly suck at mortising by hand. The problem isn’t really my results – I can get a clean, straight hole. The problem is I’m so dang slow. I have tried every method out there. I practice during lulls in my schedule. I have a good sharp chisel and a strong mallet.

Honest, I have been at this for years and years – since I cut my first mortise by hand in 1993. You can’t help me. Don’t try. I am the mouth-breather of hand-mortising.

This week I’m quite stressed about it. You see, slowness doesn’t hurt anything when you can simply work until 1 a.m. in your own dang shop. But this weekend I’m taping a couple episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop” with Roy Underhill, and I’m going to have to mortise for the camera. And we only have 23 minutes and 41.5 seconds for the whole show. That should be enough for me to cut one or two mortises (and it’s not even a show about mortising).

So this week I’ve been trying to speed up my mortising act while building a bunch of try squares that each have a through-mortise and a bridle joint.

So far, I have shaved at least half a second off my time per mortise. (Victory lap!)

If you stink at mortising, check out Jeff Gorman’s excellent site here. He surveys the pros and cons of many methods. In fact, it was from Gorman that I learned the “central-vee” method of mortising, which is my favorite.

Anyway, back to the basement to bash some wood.

— Christopher Schwarz


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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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27 Responses to My Supreme Suckage: Hand Mortising

  1. But… those are some very beautiful through tenons. Why be in such a hurry?

  2. Well, I understand the time pressure of performing for the camera, just so long as you don’t get all hyper in caffeine fits like Roy!

  3. That’s exactly how I feel about sharpening cabinet scrapers. Only I take forever AND my results still suck.

  4. used Balsa wood on the show, just tell everyone its pine, and don’t let the camera get to close. remember, television is magic, even if its all in one shot.

  5. dneder says:

    Don’t let him intimidate you! The first thing you encounter, literally, when you walk through Roy’s door is a morticing machine! “Do as I say, not as I do” – Eh Roy?

  6. psanow says:

    How about a quick step off set to a mortising machine. Just have Roy talk for a minute about the chisels and voila! Chris is back and the mortise is done. Magic of television. Pay no attention to the screaming machinery. Maybe Roy wouldn’t go for that.

  7. actually , I think Roy’s old trick is the best. Just have one almost done ahead of time. Start on one, the say, “Lets take a look at this one that I was working on early”,, blah blah blah….

  8. daltxguy says:

    Just start one and then pull out the one that’s already ‘in the oven’. There’s no other way!

  9. I would bet that A. j. Roubo and his contemporary menuisiers didn’t wear watches. Is there anything in Roubo’s writings that would indicate that he could chop a mortise any faster than you can? I like Bill schenher’s suggestion: make one ahead of time. They do it on cooking shows all the time. Like a fine gourmet French dinner, it takes as long as it takes to make a fine joint. One more suggestion: whenever you chop mortises, take your watch off and put it away. Don’t worry about how much time it takes. Lose track of time and enjoy the moments.

  10. Are those squares made from teak or is that oak? I like the beveled off edges of the stock.

  11. are you working on the Holtzapffel bench, or is that just a good place for pics?

  12. John Switzer says:

    When Roy runs out of time he always goes with something like “well, you get the idea”

  13. petefav says:

    I suggest to use the bench chisel it has less surface area therefore less time wasted wiggling around and less time over all! Start on one side work your way to the other in the V “with a flat bottom” shape. Can be all over in 4 minutes.

  14. jwatriss says:

    -If your mortises are str aight and clean, you’re one up on some of the old timers, based on some of the chairs that I’ve seen.

    -I do remember talking to one Mr. B. Boggs, during a class I took with him years ago. He used a western chisel that he re-ground and re-handled to emulate a Japanese chisel. I don’t do much hand mortising myself, in large part because the Iles chisels I have are so kludgy and top-heavy and awkward to wield. Lining up each cut is just NOT as instinctive as paring cuts, or chopping waste; I have a hard time putting the chisel where I want to with ease. Vintage pig stickers that I’ve tried are less meaty, and just feel more nimble, but even still… Given his choice, it would seem that the venerable M. Boggs agreed that a well balanced chisel was important. And I had the impression that he knew a thing or two about mortising by hand.

    Given that, I do have an Iyoroi 6mm mortise chisel you can play with if you like, I haven’t used it in more than a year. I love the way it feels, I hate that it’s metric, and doesn’t pair well with my SAE tooling. (I suspect that’s why Boggs re-handled a western one.) I hate feeling guilty about having, loving, but not using, and not selling it. I should look into having SAE sizes made…

  15. Your Dutch tool chest is saving you so much room when you travel now, surely you can fit the powermatic mortiser in the car, too. 🙂

  16. tsstahl says:

    The list of woodworking stuff I suck at is soooo long.

    You are still blessed. 🙂

  17. mctoons555 says:

    Well, no matter what happens or what you guys do, I bet it will be a great show (all the previous ones have been). I can’t wait to see it.

  18. abtuser says:

    Gah, I ended up with two stitches in one of my arms last time I tried ‘speed’ hand mortising. Doc wondered why I wasn’t in shock when sewing me up. Thank goodness for very sharp chisels. Deep clean cut, no pain (yea, I didn’t even feel it).

  19. I’ve been hand morticing again on my bench build. The last time was 16 years ago at college. It makes you really appreciate a HCM! I managed about 10 mins to create a 1/2″ through mortice in a 31/2″ pine leg. Sweet looking squares BTW.

  20. gillcj says:

    I’m quite partial to the method Paul Sellers shows here:
    I think this might be a variation of the “central-vee” method you refer to. He also demonstrates with the piece butted up to a clear plexiglass panel, so the viewer can observe the chopping.

  21. Mike Siemsen says:

    Maybe you could call in a body double/stuntman to cut the joint for you.

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