Multiple Methods for Making a Tenon

Last time, I wrote about some of the ways to cut a mortise. Today we'll discuss how to make the corresponding joint, the tenon. As with the mortise, there are nearly as many ways to make a tenon as there are woodworkers. This post will describe some of the more common methods

Hand Saw

Before power tools came along, woodworkers used hand saws and planes to cut a tenon. To cut a tenon by hand, there are eight cuts that need to be made:

  • Cut the shoulders. Use a crosscut saw to define the shoulders of the tenon. You make four cuts, one on each face down to the thickness or length of the tenon.
  • Cut the cheeks. A rip saw is used to cut down each face of the tenon to meet up with the shoulders of the tenon.
  • Cut to width. The tenon is cut to width the same way as the cheeks.

Once the tenon has been cut, it is usually refined by using a shoulder plane. This is a plane where the blade goes all the way to the edge of the plane body, allowing the cutter to get into the inside corners of the tenon.

Table Saw Tenon Jig

The table saw can be used to make the same series of cuts made by hand when cutting tenons:

  1. Cut the shoulders. Set the height of the blade to the thickness of the shoulder. Using a stop block clamped to your table saw fence, use the miter gauge to make the shoulder cuts. Readjust the blade height for the ends of the tenon and repeat the procedure for the other two faces of your stock.

  2. Cut the cheeks. Set the blade height to slightly less than the length of the tenon. Use a tenon jig to hold the stock vertically while you make the rip cut along each face of the tenon. If your stock is too long to be held vertically, you can use a band saw to cut the cheeks.
  3. Cut to width. If your tenon jig is able to hold the stock securely, you can use the same method to cut the tenons to width as for the cheek cuts. Otherwise, you'll need to cut them by hand or use a band saw or jig saw to cut the tenon to width.

Table Saw Dado Head

Another method cuts the cheeks and shoulders in the same pass by using a dado head in your table saw. Install enough cutters to make the dado head wider than your tenon length. If your tenon is longer than your dado capacity, you'll need to make multiple passes to cut the tenon. Set the height of the dado to the depth of the tenon shoulders.

You use your fence as a stop and guide the work piece through the dado head using your miter gauge. You don't want to use the fence and the miter gauge at the same time since kickback becomes a possibility. Instead, install a stop block towards the front of the fence or slide the fence back (if you have a Unifence). Set your fence so the distance from the left edge of the dado cutter to the fence is the length of your desired tenon.

Slide the wood up against your stop block or fence and guide the wood through the dado head using your miter gauge. If you've set things up correctly, the end of the tenon should be clear of the fence by the time it reaches the dado head. If the tenon is longer than your dado head is wide, slide the piece to the left and make additional passes to remove the rest of the material.

Leave the fence alone and readjust the height of your dado head, if necessary, and repeat the procedure to cut the other two faces of the tenon.

You'll probably notice that this methods leaves some score marks across your tenon, especially if you have to make multiple passes. These generally don't affect anything and are likely to be removed in the process of trimming the tenon to fit anyway.


The router can be used in a table to cut tenons using the same method as when using a dado head in the table saw. The router can be in either a standard router table or horizontally mounted. The latter typically allows you to cut longer tenons in one pass since you can use the entire length of the bit rather than just the radius.

The router table has an advantage over the table saw in that it doesn't leave the scoring marks that the dado head usually does and usually leaves a smoother surface

Another way to use the router is with a jig, such as the Leigh FMT jig for making mortise and tenons. This jig holds the work piece vertically while the router is run around the outside of the tenon, allowing you to form the tenon in one pass.

These are just some of the many ways to cut a tenon. Which method is your favorite? Any popular methods I've forgotten?

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