If there’s one thing that makes customers WOW when they see my work, it’s my hand-carved tenons… ~Scott Shaeffer, San Juan Carpentry
Yes, hand carving each tenon adds a little time to production, but it’s one of the fastest ways to greatly increase the aesthetic value of your work. In this tutorial, I’ll show you many ways to carve a tenon by hand. Well, three to be precise. Three ways to make beautiful, shapely, smooth tenons! Tenons so slick it’ll look like the tree grew that way! Okay, before I hype this up any more, lets get to work!
Method 1: Carve a Tenon in a Log Clamp
The Log Clamp is a tool I used at the shop where I first learned the trade. I redesigned the clamp to function a little better and my friend, Mitchell Dillman fabricated it for me. You can see the article about the clamp by clicking on this link!
Using the draw-knife, especially when you’re carving away a lot of wood, can pull on the log in various directions with a lot of force. The Log Clamp was designed to hold large logs tight during this task – and it does just that! The clamp features 3 unique points of contact for good leverage, tool-free clamping action, and a sturdy 1/8″ steel structure. It’s the fastest and safest way to secure your large logs.
You’ll find that most tenons you carve will need to be done on the clamp as your lathe (the tool I’ll show you how to use in the other two methods) is only so long. Beds are one of the most popular log furniture items and every piece in a bed is probably too big for your lathe. That’s one example of where this clamp will come in handy. Even if you insist on using a tenon cutter, the log clamp still serves the same purpose.
Method 2: Carve a Tenon on a Lathe
Carving a Tenon on a Lathe is exactly the same as carving it on the Log Clamp – with one huge exception: The lathe allows you to spin the log much faster. With the Log Clamp, you have to loosen the clamp, spin the log, and re-tighten the clamp every time you’re ready to work on a different side of the log. When carving a tenon, this is especially annoying because of how many time you must do it! The Lathe is faster because all you have to do is unlock the armature, spin the log, and re-lock the armature. Usually this is done with the pull of a pin.
The downside to the Lathe, of course, is it’s size. My Lathe can take up to about 32″ long logs which works for many pieces I build, but for many others, not quite. Also, if you’re working with a lot that has a lot of twists or turns to it, all that shape might keep it from fitting on there as well.
If your log does fit, you’ll find carving with a draw-knife on the lathe will give you the best results of any of the methods I’m describing herein. Unlike the Log Clamp where you have to eyeball the direction of your tenons, the Lathe guarantees your tenons at either end of the log to be practically parallel with each other. Spinning the log on the lathe (you’ll see in Method 3) also counts on your eyeball and a steady hand to get the shape right and it also leaves coarse end-grain. Carving it with the draw-knife gives you perfect shape every time and leaves you with a smooth bevel that’s easy to sand.
Method 3: Spin a Tenon on a Lathe
Spinning a tenon on a Lathe is the last method I’m showing you because you really need to get to know the shape of the tenon by doing it with a draw-knife before you can attempt to replicate it on the Lathe. I say, “replicate” because it’s cheating, really. You’re spinning the log and using a knife to carve a shape that LOOKS like you carved it with a draw-knife.
This method happens to be the fastest method but it has it’s limitations. Size and shape of the log will determine whether or not you can spin your tenon. If the log is lop-sided, it has a tendency to vibrate out of control and possibly fly off the lathe. You can control this a little by slowing the speed of the lathe, but that’ll only help so much. Obviously size is an issue as well – your lathe is only so long.
The “Other” Way
Using a Tenon Cutter is pretty much the industry standard. Most customers don’t even think twice about tenons cut with a Tenon Cutter because they’re so used to it. But that’s why my tenons tend to jump out at them – it’s something refreshing they haven’t seen before and all of a sudden they wonder what else they’ve been missing! Maybe I’m exaggerating… just a little. My point is, a Tenon Cutter just doesn’t give you that “hand-crafted” look.
Here’s a comparison of tenons cut with a Tenon Cutter (bottom photo) and tenons carved with a draw-knife (top photo). Which one do you want your brand behind?
This tutorial was written by Scott Shaeffer
See more of Scott’s work at his website, SanJuanCarpentry.com