Low Bench Leg Joinery

I’ve been making low benches (both workbenches and general furniture) for a while now and I’d like to talk about the various ways to join the legs to the top. In my experience, some are better or worse than others, depending on several factors, including: (i) the purpose of the finished piece, (ii) the thickness of the benchtop, (iii) the materials used, and (iv) the tools available.

Let’s discuss several choices to join the legs to the top (I swear this is not a clip show):

First, we have cylindrical through tenons. The tenon can be hand carved, turned on a lathe or made with a round tenon cutter (like for rustic joinery). The mortise is bored with a large auger bit or some other boring bit.

And secured with wedges.

Next, we have conical through tenons. The tenon is hand carved with a drawknife or plane and then typically refined with a special tapered tenon cutter. The mortise is bored with a smaller bit and enlarged with a tapered reamer.

Also secured with wedges, but this is a more informative shot.

In addition, we have rectilinear through tenons, which can be cut with regular edge tools. The tenon is sawed to shape with an angled shoulder. The mortise is chopped out with a chisel. No boring tools needed.

This joint needs wedges, too. Seeing a pattern, yet?

Finally, legs can be joined with notched lap joints. The tenon is sawed at an angle with a birds mouth shoulder. The mortise is just a dado in the side of the top. Also no boring tools needed.

But instead of wedges, you need metal fasteners.

There is also the tapered sliding dovetail used on Roy Underhill’s Timber Bench, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

Let’s take these in order. This is just my opinion based on experience; others may have their own takes.

Round Tenons


  • Relatively easy to cut: You just need an augur/boring bit of appropriate diameter (and a bit of skill to follow an angle) to cut the tenon. For the tenon, either use a lathe or log joinery tenon cutter or employ a few common hand tools (saws, chisels, spokeshave, rasps, sand paper) to round off the tenon and taper the shoulder.
  • Strong: Full thickness tenons, glued and secured with wedges, form a secure and durable joint.


  • Hard to correct: If you mess up the angle or wallow out the mortise too much, you’re stuck with it. There is no correcting after the fact.
  • Limited sizes available: If you want a 2″ round tenon, you need to find a 2″ boring bit to cut the mortise. And a drill or brace that can use the damn thing without releasing the blue smoke (or tearing a UCL).
  • Certain materials work better: Leg stock needs to be bone dry, otherwise the tenon may shrink and need to be re-wedged in the future. Also, ideally, the wedges are made of something even harder than the legs. Finally, 2x dimensional lumber may not be thick enough for a sturdy leg.
  • Cosmetics: To me, full size round tenons just look off. If the angles are done right (so the exit holes are proper circles and not wallowed out ovals) and you use a contrasting wood for the wedges, they can be beautiful. But there are too many variables for me.

Tapered Tenons


  • Relatively easy to cut: Same as above, except you need a tapered reamer to make the tapered mortise and typically want a matching tapered tenon cutter to refine the tenon (both are generally available from the usual woodworking suppliers).
  • Self-tightening: As you put weight on the legs, the tapered tenon will seat even further into the joint. The leg stock should still be bone dry, but as long as your legs are made of something equal to or harder than the top, the joint can sort itself out over time.
  • Easy to correct: Unlike the cylindrical tenon, where you are stuck with the hole you bored (including any wonky angles), you can correct the angles using the tapered reamer. Just take it slow and check often.


  • Less strong: The tapered tenon has less material making contact with the top and the wedge is not full width, so for a low workbench or a sitting bench for more than one person, you may need to add a cross rail to each pair of legs stabilize things.
  • Requires specialized equipment: As noted above, you need at least one piece of special equipment (a tapered reamer) to make the mortise. Refining the tapered tenon without the tapered tenon cutter is doable but takes some practice.

Rectilinear Through Tenons


  • Easy to cut: No specialized tools needed. A chisel, a mallet, a bevel gauge (or a block of wood cut to the right angle), and some patience will give you a clean and precise hole (that you can further refine with a file or rasp). I like to bore out most of the waste with an augur bit and pare down to lines, but this is ultimately just a square or rectangular mortise.
  • Strong: Of all the joints described, this one has the most material forming the tenon.
  • Customizable: You’re only limited by the size of the stock (not the size of the boring tool), so this joint can be used for everything from a footstool to a full size standing workbench. I would imagine this is the joint used in the workbench shown in Plate IX, Figure 68 of the marquetry entry in Diderot’s Encyclopedie.
  • Cosmetics: Rectangular tenons wedged at 90 degrees or square tenons wedged at 45 degrees are very pleasing to my eye. I think they look the best of all of the through tenons.


  • Complex layout: Unlike cylindrical or conical tenons, you have to actually lay out both sides of the mortise. This requires carrying compound angles around to the other face. You’ll need to not only S4S the top but also square the ends.
  • Harder to correct: If you overshoot your lines, the only option is to make the tenon larger (which is easy if you overshoot side to side, but much harder front to back).

Notched Lap Joints


  • Simple to cut: This joint can be cut with one saw and one chisel. Even the compound angled version is not particular difficult to work out. There is a reason why saw benches are the quintessential intro woodworking course.
  • Any material works: 2x dimensional softwood lumber from the home center is perfectly acceptable for the legs. Using thinner material for the top (such as 2x dimensional softwood lumber) does not materially weaken the joint, either.
  • Versatile: When using a narrower than ideal top, this joint can be used on the back legs to extend the footprint to a stable depth.


  • Weak without reinforcement: As an external joint, glue alone is unlikely to be enough for a lasting joint. Metal fasteners and gussets are required to keep this joint together long term.
  • Legs protrude beyond the top: Another drawback to the external joint, the legs will likely be in the way for some sawing and other operations. You can fix this by laminating on boards after the legs are attached, making a de facto rectilinear through tenon.
  • Cosmetics: This is generally not a furniture grade joint. There are certain instances where it can be attractive. But most often, you’ll be using this joint for workshop stuff.

So what do you think? Did I miss anything in the pros and cons lists? Have I ruined everything forever?

I mean, yeah. Of course I have. But maybe not because of this article.


This Time of Year

Around these parts (Fairfield County, Connecticut), it’s warming up. This time of year, I’m finally able to drag my workbench outside and get real some woodworking done. My outside workbench, now with new slab and tool tray, is in fact getting quite a workout. I can get a bunch done with just a pair of holdfasts and a few clamps to secure the work. Proper vises are great. But they are not absolutely necessary if you’re not cutting English style dovetails.

Nice to see the slab and tray matching so well, though.

One of my goals for this year is mastering tapered tenon joinery for staked furniture. Or at least becoming facile with it. I have experimented with reamer and tapered tenon cutter before, but in situations where strength was not a primary concern. Chairs and stools are higher leverage projects (literally and figuratively) than credenza bases and side tables.

So with a nice weekend, I might as well make some chips on the lawn with a drawknife and spokeshave to prepare some leg stock for refinement. I resolved to take the tapers further than I usually do off the drawknife. I also spent more time with the spokeshave before introducing the tapered tenon cutter. I’m not sure it was faster than doing more rough work, but the results are more consistent than my prior work.

Like so.

These legs are ash, which was split off from a small timber that checked badly while it was drying I’d have preferred the leg blanks be closer to 2″ square, but you work with that you’ve got (these are 1.65″ square). I’ll add some stretchers between the pairs of legs for extra rigidity.

Aligning the legs for the eventual stretcher.

I am also working through some old boards, some from as early as 2014 that I’ve been dragging from shop to shop all these years. Among that is a red oak 2×12 (nominal size 1.75 x 11.25). It’s about 65 inches long and I could never bring myself to cut it down into smaller boards. So as I figure out how to be precise with compound angled joinery, I might as well make another low bench. The top had cupped and bowed pretty badly so by the time it was flattened, it was only 1.5″ thick. You may not think half an inch of red oak means that much, but it does. This is a sitting bench, not a low workbench, so the little bit of flex means added comfort. But if this were to live in the shop, it would need a 2×4 glued and screwed to the underside for extra support.

Ideally, the top would be thicker than the legs.

I do all my boring and reaming by hand with a brace, so it’s much harder to overshoot an angle or a depth with the reamer that way. But it’s still important to check your angles and go slow. Doing so will ensure the exit holes on the top (ie, visible) of the seat are of consistent size and shape. In the end, some irregularities aren’t fatal to the structural soundness of the piece. But looking nice is important too.

So this is a very long way of saying, if it’s nice outside, I will drag a workbench outside and get a tan while doing some rougher work. It’s harder to rake shavings off the lawn than to sweep them up off the floor.

But such is life.


Sunk Costs (Follow-up)

After very little deliberation and just a few moments of thought, I’ve made a tray to complete the refitted knockdown outdoor workbench. It is also of poplar (to match the new slab) and about as simple as a workbench tray can be. Just a wide plank with a back lip glued and screwed on.

And when it’s sealed with some oil, it might even match!

It’s important not to overcomplicate things, especially not an outdoor workbench. So when I came across a thin-ish poplar board at the lumber yard that was wide enough (more than 14″!) to get both the tray bottom and the back edge, I jumped at it. Sure, it’s only 7/8 after flattening. But that actually maximizes the available depth (the slab is only 2 3/4″ or so).

I ended up not even needing the extra board I bought for the back edge of the tray.

To keep the tray aligned and stationary, I added some long battens with elongated holes and truss screws to the underside. These lock in place with a satisfying snap to the inside of the back legs and the top rails. Is it elegant or beautiful? No. Is it perfectly functional? Yes, of course. And it has the added function of keeping things relatively flat throughout seasonal movement.

Let’s hope the oil fixes that color match problem.

With the weather getting nicer, I’m glad to have this bench back up and running. Poplar gets a bad rap sometimes, which is undeserved in my view. Not only does it paint and stain well (especially very dark gel stains which cover up the streaking and varying hues (from white to purple), but it’s stable and cheap. The rough sawn boards shown on the saw horses above cost $45 in total at a lumber yard just outside New York City.

And that’s what I call a deal.


Sunk Costs

I am not super great at interpersonal stuff. With the exception of a few traumas from my youth, I get past things pretty quickly and don’t dwell on stuff. And by extension, I don’t get attached to much (people or things).

I learned about the Sunk Cost Fallacy early in my life and I embraced the hell out of it and never let go. Which seems a tad ironic as I write it: I don’t easily form attachments because of my religious-like devotion to a core tenet of rational economic action. But I think my low-grade sociopathy makes me a better woodworker. I just don’t get attached to materials or projects because I will never let myself succumb to the sunk cost fallacy.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

Late last year, I used a bunch of scraps to make a knock down workbench for woodworking away from my shop. Whether on the lawn or at my parents’ house in Vermont (which, I just realized, this morning, is a French portmanteau of “Green Mountain”), this bench has served me well. Except the slab top (face laminated Douglas Fir), which got wet in the back of the truck and cupped horribly.

So, embracing the sunk cost fallacy, rather than spending hours reflattening and whatnot, I scrapped the slab entirely (I’ll cut it up for firewood later). I had a lovely Poplar slab that is a perfect replacement and that only needed some minor attention before it was ready for the thickness planer. Sure, that poplar slab was technically for another project in the queue, but I need a workbench for outside now.

The most important tool for hand tool woodworking is a decent thickness planer.

Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that the last slab was 78″ long. But making the poplar slab 76″ would leave an offcut large enough to get four table legs out of. So the new slab is 76″. That only leaves 11″ overhang on each end of the undercarriage. Oh well. Sunk Costs.

I am well aware that is not the correct use of the term.

In the end, I think we could all be better at avoiding attachments. For instance, it would have been easy enough to try and blind peg the top to the existing 5/8 dowels in the undercarriage. But I took the time to saw off and plane down the old dowels and re-blind peg the top with larger dowels (3/4) that completely subsume the old dowel holes.

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.

This post has gone a bit off the rails, admittedly. But I still need to mortise in the fixed deadman (seen on the floor above) and bore holdfast holes in the slab. And attach the Whipple Hook (which works great and is not being abandoned).

Because not all prior effort is actually a sunk cost.


Feeling Nostalgic

When I returned from my sabbatical in 2014 and set up my apartment workshop (and started this blog, natch), I was working almost exclusively on a Milkman’s Workbench that you can see in the banner above. This was actually the third I had made, having practiced and experimented on different thicknesses and depths. But I returned to my initial woodworking roots from a couple years earlier, using the full thickness 2×4 hard maple I had left over from one of my very first woodworking projects.

So finding some downtime a weekend or two ago, I decided to finally finish a new version of the Milkman’s Workbench (made of riftsawn ash, natch) that I had been working on for a while. It’s the same length (give or take a half an inch), but there are some important differences.

Can you spot the differences?

This new bench uses the Red Rose Reproductions Milkman’s Workbench screw kit. In my original, I had made screws with the Beall Tools Big Threader kit (and a router) and added “hubs” with shaker knobs glued into the ends of the screws. It worked fine (in fact, the knobs gave a great grip). But the Red Rose Reproductions screws are very precise and I love the octagon handles. Not to mention the garnet groove that they put into the long screw for the wagon vise.

Ignore the epoxy; I didn’t have the Red Rose Reproduction screws when I first made the vise block.

This new bench is a bit narrower than the original. This, unfortunately, makes it slightly tippy before it’s clamped down (unlike my original bench, which would sit nice and stable on the bench while I got the clamps in place). But it’s more faithful to the original Christopher Schwarz plans.

It was nice to make another one of these workbenches and relive a formative part of my woodworking life. And to do it in my favorite wood (ash), while that wood is still available as it slowly goes extinct because of a parasite, made it even better.

This new Milkman’s Workbench lives in my truck and, quite honestly, has never been used for actual woodworking.



Batchin’ ’em Out

If you’ve been here more than once, you know I’m a hand tool guy. To be clear, I do have power tools that complement primarily hand tool work. My lunchbox thickness planer does the donkey work once there is a tried and true reference face and a squared reference edge off the jointer plane. A double bevel compound miter saw quickly cuts stock to rough length. And you can pry my benchtop hollow chisel mortiser from my cold, dead hands. I also have a small drill press (that at this point is used exclusively for accurate drawboring), a collection of battery-powered DIY tools (a drill driver, a circular saw and a random orbital sander), and a trim router kit for when I’ve truly given up on things.

But doing hand work efficiently is more than just leveraging power when, as and if it makes sense. When there are multiple parts to cut (there always are), it helps to think like a one-person assembly line. Each step in the assembly line is a repeated task. Sure, variety is a the spice of life. But just like a blade and fence setup at the table saw, you want to set it once, do all the cuts, then move on. It’s the same thing for body mechanics at the workbench.

So let’s talk about tapered octagon legs by hand.

The first two tapers on each piece (on opposite sides) go pretty quickly in the face vise. If you work to opposite sides, the other profile is still square and therefore easily held in the vise (in my case, a leg vise). Do that eight times.

If you have a twin screw vise that can hold tapers securely, great. Stay at the face vise. But I don’t, so I move to the tail vise. Pinched between the dogs, the legs sit flush to the bench on the tapers I had just planed to make a square taper on all faces. Do that eight times.

And then you have this.

Now lay out the octagon(s). If you have a lathe and will taper across the entire length, you’re nearly done at the workbench. But I don’t have a lathe and I like to start the taper where the round tenon ends, so in addition to the octagon at the foot, I also lay out an octagon on the top where the tenon will go. A cradle jig that goes in the tail vise holds the work and I taper from square down to octagon at the foot and also from square down to an octagon at the top. Do that thirty-two times (16 long tapers and 16 short tapers).

And you end up with something like this.

That short taper makes it easier to center the round tenon cutter I have for my drill driver, btw. I use a 1 1/2″ tenon cutter, but that’s just a rough cut. With chisel, spokeshave and rasp I take that round tenon down to 1 3/8″ to ensure it’s centered on the blank (it rarely is straight off the tenon cutter). It also helps to bore a 1 3/8″ hole in some hardwood (or at least wood that is harder than your blank) with the bit you’ll use for the mortise to test the fit now and again. Do this four times.

Almost done now! Yes, that’s a Mets colored Nalgene. #LFGM

Finally, I go back to the corners (where they were tapered from square to octagon) and plane in the full tapered octagon from the tenon to the foot. I find taking the facets down evenly first (so the facet is parallel from the tenon to the foot), and then incrementally increasing the facet width at the top near the tenon by counting strokes, works best. Again, if you taper the full length, this step is unnecessary.

The finished leg.

It goes without saying, but I did one leg first to work out the process and then batched out the other three with the process described above. Are they perfect? Of course not. But we are not machines (and should not strive to be machines). And I enjoy the hand made aesthetic far more than machine-wrought perfection.

Okay, I lied. I made a second one to test the process. I’m actually at step 2 for the other two legs.

There is a great rhythm one can get into when batching out parts at the bench. Hehe, batching.


CAP4TR: Addendum

Just a quick update before the weekend. I finished (literally and figuratively) the joined low bench (which is what I’m calling it now). Two coats of Jacobean stain and some dark paste wax. No film finish.

I think it looks great.

It still stinks (both the stain and the wax smell the same to me) but it’s getting better and feels dry to the touch. I’ll give it a few days to cure before I sit on the thing, just in case.

All in all, I remember why I stopped staining projects. Natural wood color is nice and a wipe of Boiled Linseed Oil or Tung Oil is just so much more convenient (and less messy) than staining things. But sometimes you don’t have the wood you want on hand and have to make due. Or, sometimes, the wood you want just isn’t going to match the rest of the furniture.

Although it probably needs one more coat of wax in a few weeks.

I think I stained the thing so that I wouldn’t just turn this into a low workbench. I now can’t glue any blocking to the underside for holdfast holes or a twin screw vise on the side. And it’s better that way.

Not everything needs workholding.


Cultural Appreciation (Pt. IV: the Revenge)

With the first, I ended up with a simple sawbench.

Just when I started to think it was over, I made a less simple sawbench.

Then, furniture’s most misunderstood creature returned, in a minimalist coffee table.

This time, it’s personal.

If you don’t get it, watch the Jaws 3 and Jaws 4 trailers.

For a while now, I’ve been fascinated with the Chinese-style of “staked” furniture construction. Instead of round tenons, they are square or rectangular and therefore able to be made with very simple cutting tools (just a saw and a chisel, essentially). This also means that the angles can be micro-adjusted in a way that outshines even reaming tapered round tenons. So getting the fits and angles perfect is within reach of anyone, especially with some basic angled guide blocks.

If you click the links above, you’ll see I have gradually increased the complexity of the build project by project. And it is now culminating in what will be a sitting bench for the bottom of the bed. No palm or holdfast holes on this beauty. And no softwoods for margin of error.

A mid-build shot.

I was tempted to go stretcherless on this piece. The entire project is 8/4 ash (the legs are actually a bit thicker than the finished top) and there would have been plenty of strength in the beefy, wedged mortises. I even considered lapping the stretchers on with some die forged nails or square head bolts for accent, but it just didn’t match the aesthetic for which I was aiming. After checking all the information available in a single internet image search for “chinese workbench” (which actually turned up two great articles, including one by The Schwarz himself), I decided to mortise in the short stretchers.

Had I done single shouldered tenons like with the original saw bench, I’d be done already. But I had to get all fancy and do double shouldered tenons. Because I’m a masochist.

With this bench, there is 10 degrees of splay but only 2 degrees of rake (remember: splay sideways, rake foRwaRds). So I assumed the tiny bit of rake wouldn’t mess with the geometry of the angled shoulders enough to matter (and that perfectly parallel shoulders would work without fettling). I was wrong and there is one decent gap among the four total shoulders. I keep the shades drawn in the bedroom most of the time, so I doubt the gap will ever be seen, even by me. I did fill it with some matching putty, though.

Close up of the rectangular tenons with hard maple wedge.

I am still tweaking the fit on the second short stretcher and will post some pictures of the finished bench once it’s complete (I also have to level the legs once everything is fitted). But, for now, I will think on whether to paint the base to match the walls in my bedroom or just tung oil and be done with it. Or maybe stain the base in dark mahogany to match the bedroom furniture (which is storebought, btw).

Stay tuned!


Catching Up

The year has started off somewhat weirdly. I was able to take a bit of time off; I even made a new traveling tool chest for my vacation. Which I am quite pleased with, although I wish it had been about 1″ deeper than it is. The upper tray, even at a full half of the total depth of the chest, is still a bit tight for a 12″ combination square. But I make due.

Everything fits, and that’s what’s most important.

The case itself is pretty utilitarian; as are the tills. But the lid is definitely not. I went full groove-in-groove frame and panel with this one. I had never made a lid like this before. All my panels were in the past raised, and I made the choice to glue one long edge of the panel in place in the frame. I somehow mis-sized the piece and there was a bit too much side-to-side float for my taste.

Flat, square and stable.

When it came to picking tools for the actual vacation, I ended up stuffing it a bit to the gills. Glue, blue tape, a few clamps, an egg beater drill. None of these things fit naturally in the design so just get piled in. It does, however, stabilize the tills so nothing bangs around while driving. The chest itself took some heavy dings when I piled it and the travel workbench into the back of the truck (with the stock for other projects). But it held up well so far.

Does look a bit like a baby coffin.

Speaking of the travel workbench, I need to make a new top for that. The slab cupped again (not sure why; it’s been through two flattenings). The front edge sits about 1/8 off the legs. It doesn’t rock and I may just level where the slab sits on the frame, but it changed the peg hole geometry and it’s tough to get the slab off again once it’s in place. But the bench worked great. Not sure I prefer viseless woodworking, but it can be done.

But I really liked the 32″ height for rough work.

I’ll talk more about the vacation projects in a future post. Monster Hunter: Rise came out while I was gone so I got less done than I wanted, but still more than I expected.


Most Important Woodworking Website

There is a website I go to (almost) every day when I’m in the shop. A website with the most important and useful woodworking insights. Truly, it is an indispensable resource for my woodworking needs.

That website:

A trigonometry calculator.

Angles are everywhere; make sure you know how long to rough cut a board.

This is not a joke. Imagine rough cutting a board too short and only learning it after you’re trying to level the legs.

A travesty, for sure.