Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Cutting Loose from Cut Lists

I made this plain, box-like bench as an example project for my “Joy of Woodworking” class to demonstrate how two joints (a dovetail and a wedged through-mortise) work in concert to hold a structure together without the need for glue or fastenings. Perhaps more importantly, I also wanted to demonstrate how a one-off furnishing made with hand tools doesn’t necessarily require scale drawings or cutlists (which are more useful and necessary when setting up machines to make a cut.)

I developed the bench by simply selecting a board the width of my hand and the length of the spread of my shoulders. I then crosscut two more boards to hold it a step (my step height) off the ground. No numbers were involved—I just marked the top board to tick marks I made on a stick (that represented my shoulder width) and then cut the two end boards to the step-height length and to match one another! “How wide do you make the stretcher?” the students ask. “Well what looks right to you?” is my answer—I find they have no trouble deciding when they hold up some sample widths to see what looks too narrow to prevent racking and what looks too wide and clunky! “But don’t I need to know how thick the boards are to lay out the joints”? “Well no, you just set your marking gauge to the board itself and go from there!” I reply. “How wide do I make the mortise?” I hold up a chisel and say: “This wide—and you can use this chisel as a gauge to mark the width of the tenon as well!” Everyone seems to be surprised and then relieved to be free of measurements and cut loose from cutlists!
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