Woodworking magazines are a wealth of information. I’ve been a subscriber to Popular Woodworking since 1998, and I have plenty of editions of Fine Woodworking, Wood, Woodcraft, Shop Notes, Woodsmith and many others on my book shelf. Every so often I trot out an entire year’s collection and look through all of the offerings. Great step-by-step projects. Excellent technique articles. Outstanding tool reviews. Each edition has much to offer.
Of course, there are the times when you’ll seem to read the same article over and over again in several editions of different magazines. “Master the Mortise and Tenon!” “Mortise and Tenons made easy.” “Cut spot on mortises and tenons.” And, those may be in three different magazines in the span of eight months. Hey, let’s face it; some topics are so essential to woodworking that you need to see them every so often.
A few years ago, there was this big push to do an article that really left me confounded. I saw it first in Popular Woodworking, then later in Wood. I’m sure it must have been in a few others. It was a wood joint torture test. The premise of these articles is a sound one – let’s find out just how much strength do each of these joints have. It’s a topic that has reared its ugly head in woodworking circles for generations. The tests were devilishly simple, and looked like they were cooked up by Wile E. Coyote of Looney Tunes fame. Basically, a sample of each of frequently used joints – dovetails, mortise and tenon, rabbets, biscuits, etc. – were placed on a work platform, and a 55 pound anvil was dropped a certain distance onto the joint.
The results, as they say, were spectacular. All of these joints, save the beefiest mortise and tenon, were demolished. Splintered. Crushed. The test did expose some of the strengths and weaknesses of each type of joint. For instance, a 90 degree box joint totally flattened out after its date with the anvil, while the dovetail did offer some resistance to the force of gravity.
My only question, however, is what exactly was the point of each of these tests? Sure, if you routinely abuse your woodworking projects, you had better build them like timber framed structures. But, for a hope chest, is a box joint necessarily worse than dovetails? The tests also showed that wood breaks away from pocket screwed joints when hit by an anvil. If this makes you believe that a mortised and tenoned face frame is superior to one that’s pocket screwed, and you have the time and determination to do all of that extra work, be my guest. However, aren’t most face frames joined to the cabinet box, gaining tremendous support from the case itself? In some cases, speed of assembly AND strength are the guiding principles.
Some woodworkers may use this test as further evidence that the ‘Old Masters’ who built furniture before us used only classically cut joints because that is the only way to do it right. But, hey, if the Shakers were so creative as to create work saving devices as the circular saw blade and the washing machine, don’t you think they would have relished the opportunity to use pocket screws or biscuits if they had the opportunity?
Am I saying that there’s no place for classic woodworking joints? Not at all.
Am I saying that there’s no place for new-fangled woodworking joinery techniques? Absolutely not.
What I am saying is that woodworking is an incredible craft, and there is an incredible array of choices available to today’s woodworker. Feel free to pick the right joint for the right job, regardless of the era from which it came, or how it fared when an anvil fell on it.