Loose Tenons & Workbench Tops

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We think of loose tenons as a modern joint, but it is far from it. Early Greek and Roman boats were made with loose tenons that were pegged to keep the hulls together.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that Richard Maguire also used this same technology to glue up his benchtops (read all about that here). I’ll be honest, I’ve always relied on glue alone (when I didn’t have a monumental one-piece slab top).

But my view changed a couple years ago when we got a bad batch of epoxy and several benchtops delaminated. If I ever have to glue up a slab benchtop again, I’m adding loose tenons.

Interestingly, Maguire doesn’t drawbore the loose tenons in his tops. He states: “a draw bored peg here would have been much weaker than this straight through approach.” I do believe I will be experimenting with this joint – both drawbored and not – to see for myself.=

Maguire wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of loose tenons in a benchtop (though I heard it from him first). Recently I got to inspect an early 20th-century French workbench from La Forge Royale that used the technology.

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This commercial workbench was surprisingly rough in manufacture. Joints were deliberately overcut throughout to make the bench easy to assemble. The “breadboard” ends were merely nailed or screwed on. No tongue. I could go on and on. It’s still a great workbench (and still standing after 100 years), so I’m not knocking it. But I was surprised.

Despite the rough construction, the builders took the extra time to add loose tenons in the benchtop’s joint. That fact says a lot to me as to how important a detail they thought it was.

So it’s worth a thought for your next workbench.

— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
Personal site: christophermschwarz.com

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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13 Responses to Loose Tenons & Workbench Tops

  1. Chris Decker says:

    Richard is the man. Both of you guys have had a huge influence on my woodworking. I promise that’s a compliment. 🙂

  2. toolnut says:

    Is Richard still writing a book for LAP?

  3. Royce Eaves says:

    A beginner like me makes loose tenons by mistake. I wonder if wedges could fix them. My attempt at making a mortise gauge almost ended with a loose tenon. but I pegged in a cam on the back side that holds it fast. I would never intentionally make it that way, but it works.

  4. By loose I would assume a friction fit insertable by hand?

  5. Stan says:

    Thank you for touching on this interesting technique.

    I too read Mr. Maguire’s post three or four years ago, and a lightbulb burst in my head. I did some research and learned that it is very ancient indeed, having been used to join planks on Greek ships when the Roman empire was a collection of mud huts on a hill above a swamp. I assume that drawboring was critical to closing the joints on the planks forming curved surfaces on wet hulls.

    Please keep us informed of your adventures using this technique.

  6. Bob Jones says:

    All thread would be easier. I kinda wish I had drilled holes for a few well placed all thread rods through my top for the same reason. Oh well.

    • johncashman73 says:

      I used All Thread in my first bench, back in 1979. I didn’t know any better. It adds nothing to the strength of the bench, and was unnecessary work. And, I hit one years later when adding a holdfast hole. I’ve never used All Thread for something like that since.

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