Basic Furniture Joints and How to Make Them

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 Basic Furniture Joints and How to Make Them

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Chances are, if you are looking for cheap furniture with reasonable quality, you stopped going to furniture stores a long time ago.  By the same token, you have more than likely noticed that ready to assemble furniture has also risen in price.  If you are anything like me, there is also a good chance that available furnitures never quite fit in the space allotted, nor do they have the right sized drawers, shelves, and other parts.  


Over the years, I have resorted more and more to visiting the lumber yard, buying the wood, and building furniture for myself.  As a prepper, you may also be interested in making furniture for your own use, and also use furniture making as a skill to hone for the sake of barter during times of need.  Before you start making furniture, however, it is very important to know how to join pieces of wood together in order to make furniture that will look good, be sturdy enough for the application in question, and last as long as possible.  The following are common furniture joints that you should practice making so that you can always replicate them when needed.

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Butt Joint


This joint takes two pieces of wood and connects them at corners, or one edge to another.  It is not well suited for two thin pieces of wood, and can be very unstable even if you are using 1” x 2” posts or beams.  Usually, you have to brace this joint with wedges, screws, or braces further along the length of the parts.  I have also found this joint can be very prone to splitting, especially when nailing the pieces together.  It is better to drill pilot holes in each piece of wood, and then use screws.  


Dado Joint

The dado joint is suitable for plywood or other relatively thin sheets of wood.  To make this  joint, you will need to cut a groove into one piece of wood that will be wide enough to fit the edge of another piece of wood into.  This type of joint is usually used to join shelves to the sides and back of the unit.  This joint works well as long as the shelf is not too long and there is no too much weight on it.  You may still have to add wood blocks on each end, as well as braces in the middle sections in order to reduce the risk of the shelf collapsing.

Dowel Joint

Dowel joints are probably some of the most fascinating I have ever come across because they have been used for centuries in Asia and other countries with little mishap. As fragile as the dowels may seem, these joints are stable and stronger than you would expect.  To make a dowel joint, you need  to start off by drilling holes in each piece of wood that will be joined together.  The holes must align perfectly so that the dowel can be inserted into the hole in one piece of wood and fit into the appropriate hole in the other piece of wood.  You can also glue the dowels in for added strength.

Lap Joint

In order to make this joint, you need to cut each end to be joined in half.  Next, you simply fit the cut pieces together to complete the joint. Unlike many other joints, the lap joint can be made at just about any angle, and also join pieces of material at central locations. It is ideal for making 45  degree joints (such as you would find in a photo frame), cross shapes, and others that might be needed for more complicated furnishings.  

Legacy Food Storage

This is also one of the fancier type of joints in the sense that you can join together curves, odd angles, and many other designs.  As long as the wood matches up on both sides and fits together correctly, just about anything is possible.  To make the joints stable and strong, you can use glue, nails, or staples. If the wood is thick enough, you may also want to consider using dowels.

This joint also lends itself well to tongue and grove stabilizers.  All you need to do is make the grooves and tongues match up.  Before you try this, it is best to practice with other joint types, as this one can truly be one of the most challenging.  

Insofar as the thickness of the wood, you can use the lap joint for plywood as long as it is at least ½ inch thick. If you try to use this joint on wood that is not as thick, it should not support any weight.  Remember, just because you can actually make the grooves or cut the wood in half, that doesn’t mean the resulting wood will actually be strong enough.  That being said, if you use different materials such as plastic or metal, you may be able to get away with using thinner pieces.  

Miter Joint

Unlike the lap joint, the miter joint is used exclusively for making 45 degree angles.  To make this joint, you also do not have to cut the ends to be joined in half.  Usually, you will need to pre-drill holes  for fitting dowels, use staples, or try to glue the angled pieces together.  This joint is not as stable as some others, however it is still very important for areas that show or ones where you want a little bit of design to the joint.  The miter joint is also considered a bit more complicated than other joints because each piece of wood must be cut to the correct angle so that the resulting joint is 90 degrees.

Mortise and  Tenon Joint

In order to make this joint, you need to start off by cutting a hole, or “mortise”, in the end of one piece of wood that will be used in the joint.  Next, take the other piece of wood and cut down the end to be joined until it forms a tongue, or Tenon that will fit comfortably into the mortise.  Historically speaking, this is one of the oldest methods used for joining pieces of wood together. It forms a very stable joint, and can also be made in may variations to suit different needs.  

Surprisingly enough, the mortise and tenon joint can also be used to make some very fancy, and useful  pieces. For example, you can use it to join spokes to an outer band to form everything from wagon wheels to curved surfaces.  If you do not run the tenon all the way through the wood, you can make ladder back chairs as well as other forms.  

While the mortar and tenon joint is very versatile, it will take some practice to center the holes correctly, and also hew down the tenon so that the rest of the material is balanced correctly.  You will also find that joints may be more stable if you use glue, or drill holes so that you can put a screw through the entire structure.

Through Dovetail Joint

If you look at the joints for a wooden drawer, you will probably find a dovetail joint. Basically, you have to cut into each end of the wood to form a series of grooves and tongues.  Next, you would cut a corresponding tongue for each groove on the first piece of wood, and a groove for each tongue. When you joint the pieces together, they will be aligned to form a 90 degree angle.  This joint is one of the most stable, and also the most difficult.  

To make it stronger you may need to use glue to hold the pieces together.  There are three common problems you may encounter when making this joint:

  • first, you may wind up making the tongues too small in relation to the groove. Even though they may be aligned perfectly, they will simply fall apart. To make a proper fitting dovetail joint, I found it best to make the tongues thick enough so that I have to hammer them a bit to get them into place.
  • Second – when you are using thinner pieces of wood, the tongues can be more fragile than expected.  The can easily split if you hammer too much or put excessive pressure on them.  Depending on the wood type and quality, you may also wind up splitting the entire piece if the tongue is too big and winds up acting like a wedge.
  • Third – it is all too easy to make the tongues too thick.  While this problem can be managed easily enough by sanding the tongues down, great care must be taken not to sand too much.   

Tongue and  Groove Joint

To make this joint, simply cut a groove in one edge, and a corresponding tongue in the other end. This joint is commonly used for floor boards as well as other surfaces where you must join pieces of wood together in a parallel fashion instead of perpendicular.

As you can see, there are many ways to make and use furniture joints. With time and practice you should be able to make them all and use them as needed.  No matter whether you build custom furniture for yourself or others, this is a vital skill that every prepper should learn.


* A Scott Hughes Original for FP!

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