Blog: My Philosophy On Joinery By: John Heisz

I’ll start this off by saying that it would be a lot different for me now, if my work life had taken a different path. A major influence on the way I build things today is the experiences I had doing it to make a living. Probably the most influential was learning to be efficient in a way that won’t end up costing me in the future. In the real world of building things, you have to balance quality with time spent to get the job done to a level of satisfaction that will get you paid and earn you more work. Everyone wants the best, but very, very few are willing to pay for it. Or, more importantly, wait for it.

So when I start out to design a project today, the approach I take may be a lot different from how someone else would do it, if he doesn’t have that experience.

In everything I do, I try to drive the complexity out of the project, because complexity is the antithesis of efficiency. Complexity takes longer and can drastically increase the number of errors that may happen. One pretty good example of this is to design with as many straight cuts as possible for the parts. Curves or odd shapes don’t sound particularly complex, but take much longer to lay out and cut. How the parts go together is also very important. I will typically use a joinery method that is adequately strong for the purpose, and usually that’s a simple butt joint.  A butt joint is infinitely faster to produce than a box joint, for example, and may result in fewer errors.

Another example is the materials I will use to build things. I don’t limit myself with ideas of perceived quality when the goal is to make something that is mainly functional. That’s not to say that you can’t make something that looks good from a more efficient material – you can, but there are preconceived notions about using materials like plywood that imply you’ve compromised the quality to get it done faster. Or less expensively, like that’s a bad thing.

Whenever possible, I use plywood to build things, and that goes for everything I would make. There are a number of benefits from using plywood, but probably the most important is that it is a dimensionally stable material – it doesn’t behave like solid wood, which expands and contracts with seasonal moisture changes. That stability means that you are free to fasten plywood (or other similar sheet material) solidly without making allowances for movement. This is a huge advantage in so many ways.

So, what does all of that have to do with joinery? Traditional woodworking joints like mortise and tenon are very well suited for solid wood, and they were developed long before there were materials like plywood, or screws, or high strength glue. Basically, in the old days, you had to use a more complex joint even when it wasn’t strictly needed, just to keep the thing together. Today, there are many more options to chose from to assemble parts efficiently, in a way that will be strong enough for the purpose.

Is a joint assembled with glued and screwed butt joints as strong as a well made mortise and tenon joint? Probably not, but does it need to be for a given situation is the correct question to ask.

It’s important to know that I’m not saying that you should avoid solid wood and only use plywood. I use both where they work best. A solid wood kitchen table top will work better and probably look better than one made from plywood, even though the plywood top would be easier to build. There are plenty of places where both are used together to get best from both. A frame and panel door, where the frame is solid wood and the panel is plywood is a great example. Shelves made from plywood edged with solid wood is another.