What is a ‘Loose Tenon?’

Loose tenon disassembled

Some readers seemed confused by my description of assembling a benchtop with the help of a “loose tenon.”

The expression doesn’t mean that the tenon rattles loose in the mortise. Rather it means that the tenon is not integral to either piece being joined. It is like a Domino or a biscuit. It enters mortises in both pieces.

I drew up two illustrations to show how this works. The drawing at the top illustrates the joint when it is apart. The loose tenon is shown floating between the two components of the benchtop.

Loose tenon ASSEMBLED

The second illustration is an “X-ray” view of the assembled joint with 1/2”-diameter pegs piercing the benchtop pieces and the loose tenon.

“Loose tenons” have many other names, including “slip tenons” or “floating tenons.” All these terms are accepted in woodworking journalism.

Hope this helps.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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25 Responses to What is a ‘Loose Tenon?’

  1. charleseflynn says:

    It helps a lot, and thanks for the alternative terminology.

  2. Wonko T. Sane says:

    Wow. Way different than the loose tenors that used to hang around choir practice

  3. Royce Eaves says:

    Thank you.

  4. Tim_L_Kakapo says:

    People could have clicked through the link you gave to the excellent piece by Richard Maguire, which made a lot of sense to me.

  5. Brian G Miller says:

    The drawings make the post. I’m a “see it – got it” kind of guy, Thanks.

  6. joenatishannj says:

    It’s funny, but if I don’t know what something means, I look it up – that’s the way I was brought up.

    Why some people don’t/can’t use Google and type in (e.g. what is a loose tenon?) I’ll never understand. Actually, I probably do, but I won’t comment further.

    Be resourceful people and don’t rely on others to feed you.

    • Salko Safic says:

      I understand where you’re coming from, but in this instance you are wrong. Mr Google doesn’t provide the answers but the we the people do. If you searched the internet, google, bing,yahoo etc for an answer you will probably get hundreds, but not everyones answer is correct or good. So in my view having one more added to the web is a good thing, after all isn’t that the point of having a blog.

      • Tom Riddle says:

        In my day, we used an ‘encyclopedia’ and dictionary didn’t have a .com – it was a big heavy book. If you couldn’t find the answer, you went to the library and immersed your self in the woodworking books until you found your answer. And we liked it that way.

        These days, we have the internet. if you’re using Chrome, all one needs to do is highlight the term, right click, and select ‘Search Google for “loose tenon”‘. 99 time out of a 100, the correct answer is the first returned (unless the query is political). It’s less work. In fact its less work than submitting a comment

  7. Great Post…and a wonderful joinery system.

    I find it strange (and extremely common) as it would seem many either believe (as stated by Chris here, et al) that Toggles and other vernacular Free Tenon/spline are a modern concept. One of the largest timber frames built in the last 150 years has 100’s in it, as do most of our projects both architectural and furniture. This joinery method is at a minimum over 7000 years old, and possibly older. And why not? It solves so many challenge they are too enumerable to mention, and probably could fill a book of there own if all Free Tenon system be explored.

    Again, great post and a wonderful bench construction modality. I further agree that not draw pinning (or even gluing) these is a common event as friction and numbers often are more than enough while working in concert with other elements of joinery within a design. For bench tops and related, they are a critical element of any I have built or designed, especially in the large green timbers we work with.

    Thanks again for this post…

  8. David Cawthray says:

    This method was found to be used on a Roman barge joining the hull boards together. It was featured on a UK program called the time team where they dig up an investigate lost history

    Cover lost history.

  9. David Cawthray says:

    Here is the link to the program https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9ATMSGEu9R4

    • volzwgn says:

      Fascinating! And essentially identical to the “x-ray” drawn above but dating to 85AD! Thanks for posting this.

  10. Bruce Lee says:

    Been around at least since Pharo was a boy, and used to put classical Greek & Roman warships together.

  11. rons54 says:

    I enjoy writers who make me look things up. I spent an hour last night watching videos about loose tenons.

  12. Craig Regan says:

    I had to repair a chair made with “loose tennons” a few years ago. Instead of the tennons working free of the mortise like in traditional joinery, many joints split on the rail around the inserted tennon. Traditional rail with tennon construction can be repaired easily if a problem arrises; I’m not so sure with loose tennons and dominoes. This great time saver could be the bane of future furniture restorers.

  13. Todd D Reid says:

    I followed your link and got this picture of it like you just described however I didn’t see them pin it on the blog link. I still want to ask if you glue these tenons?

  14. GravelRoad says:

    Thanks for the illustrations!

  15. Chris F says:

    Chris, have you ever read Tim Severin’s book The Jason Voyage about the recreation of the Argonauts voyage from Greece to Georgia? The traditional Greek boat builder used pegged loose mortises in the planking of the ship. The conclusion they came to was that it was not a particularly difficult or time consuming method and very strong. http://indigenousboats.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/how-accurate-was-tim-severins-argo.html

  16. Federico Calboli says:

    A quick question. In your video with Will Meyers you point out that the best benchtop is a solid slab, followed by a laminated one — putting two/three large slabs one next to the other is inferior. Yet given your drawing above, it looks like I could get two/three pieces, put a tenon in, pin it, and have something that might be as good as a single massive top, and possibly easier than a laminated glueup. I am surely missing something but I am not sure what.

    • Federico Calboli says:

      Obviously I’d need more than one tenon, but putting tenons in and pinning them looks like a good and practical way to go

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