How to saw a tenon…

A few years ago, when I was still a young buck, I decided to make a bedside table and wanted to cut all the joinery by hand. I remember after cutting the tenons for the table skirt to leg joint, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of wanting to slit my wrists out of frustration. I should note that at that time I probably couldn’t have told the difference between a tenon saw and a roast beef saw.

Well, some years have passed since then and I’m only slightly wiser and about 50 lbs heavier…go figure. I do, however, finally have the proper tool for making such joinery cuts…a 16 inch tenon saw filed 10 points rip. You can read about the re-birth of my new saw here in my last post.

There was a method to my madness when I decided to take this old saw down the other day and tune it up finally…I knew that my new super saw bench that I’ve been working on was going to have some pretty honkin’ big tenons, and thusly need a pretty honkin’ big saw.

So I was in the shop today sawing the joinery for said bench, and while I won’t be posting the next installment of the bench build until I finish the leg assemblies, I figured this would be a good chance to share just how I go about cutting a tenon by hand. Besides having the right tool, a couple of tricks can help.

After marking out the tenon cheeks and shoulders, I chuck the work in my leg vise so that the cheek is perpendicular to the length of the bench. This allows unobstructed sawing and provides the most secure clamping of the work, as the saw strokes thrust against the mass of the bench, as opposed to clamping the work so that my stroke would be parallel with the length and could loosen in process.

Now that the work is secure, I go about kerfing in the cut on two sides. I start with the end grain on top of the tenon. Its important here to use a light stroke starting with the toe resting on the far edge away from you and slowly lowering your stroke until level. I aim for about a 1/16 to and 1/8 inch of depth…just get a good kerf established…

Next I kerf in the cheek facing me by placing the saw heel along the cheek line and lightly stroking upwards…

Now, I’ve created a two-dimensional kerf guide for my saw and can begin sawing the cheek. The trick, however, is to cut the tenon in two separate actions…in essence, dividing the tenon cheek into two equal triangles, or corners as Adam Cherubini says.

I begin with the saw teeth buried in the top kerf and apply pressure in my stroke on the heel. This way, the toe doesn’t start to cut on the far cheek line…

With each stroke the corner gets cut away. You can see how I don’t cut into the far cheek line…

When I reach the base of the cheek, I’ve cut out the first “triangle” and can flip the work around in the vise and kerf in the opposite cheek line…

…and then saw out the remaining triangle…

And finish by bringing the cut to just a hair shy of the shoulder line.

By using this two stage approach to sawing a tenon cheek, I’ve found that it eliminates the two biggest frustrations in hand sawing: 1) By using the two kerfed in lines as a multidimensional guide it ensures an accurate and plumb cheek cut, and 2) By keeping the saw teeth at an angle to the face grain (by keeping the toe higher than the heel) it ensures the most efficient action of the teeth and a swift cut.

Making these two changes to my tenon sawing routine turned me from wanting to throw myself onto a spinning table saw blade, to wanting to saw tenons for no reason what so ever ’cause it’s so damn fun!

And after the cheeks are done, it’s a quick trip to the bench hook to saw the shoulders…

And voila…

Repeat for the other cheek and shoulder, and we’re done!

A few swipes of the shoulder plane and she’ll be ready for fitting to the mortise.

Tune in next time and I’ll be putting the legs together on this saw bench so I can get back to working on my tools….enough of this silly woodworking already!!!!!!



Published in: on January 1, 2011 at 10:52 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Matt,

    That’s exactly how I do it. Just makes good common sense. And you get an accurate cut every time.

    I’m making a backsaw that allows the handle to be mounted on either end of the blade so it can be used as a pull saw. Sawing a tenon with it is done just like you did, only the work piece is angled so the cut can be made in more of a horizontal plane. Saw one side, flip it over and saw the other side, stand it up and saw straight across.

    Take care,

  2. Matt thanks again for your tutorial and as usual found it very helpful. As I am just learning how to use hand tools. I am anxious to see your build out on the saw bench as that is on my short list to build.

    Thanks for sharing !


  3. Matt, what a great site! I can’t believe I’m only just now visiting it. Shoot me an email when you get a chance? Cheers! ~ Mark

  4. Hello Matt,

    I love this site. I too am building a beefier saw bench. In case you want to look.

    Can’t wait to see how yours turns out.


  5. […] Anyway, I won’t go into the details of cutting all the cheeks. If you want the particulars, check out last weeks post on HowToSawATenon. […]

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