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Woodworking with Will Myers


Tusk Tenons… How Strong Are They?

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One of the questions most often asked about the Moravian workbench I wrote about a few years back, concerns the tusk tenons (aka keyed tenons) that are the backbone of the design.

The tusk tenons on the bench I built over four years ago have performed flawlessly. That bench is still the one I use primarily, it travels with me to classes and on other trips, assembled and taken apart scores of times.

Nevertheless, the keyed tenon seem to have a not so great reputation in the woodworking community. I think that this bad reputation comes not so much from the older forms of the joint, but from later times, more specifically arts and crafts furniture.

The early forms of the tusk tenon are generally much larger and more robust. During the arts and crafts movement, starting in the 1870’s, tusk tenon joinery appeared quite often on bookcases, clocks, tables and chairs. Most of these were more for decoration of the piece than structural. Most are made small with a small amount of wood past the wedge.

 Over time, the wedges would get loose, someone would drive the wedge back in too tight and… Crack! The end grain of the tenon would blow out. That’s my theory anyway. I am not trying to knock art and crafts furniture, these small joints were fine for a bookcase or clock. Really, how much thrashing does a clock or book case get most of the time? Different story on something like a workbench though.

I have not been able to find an exact date when this type of joint came into existence. Most sources say the joint seems to have originated in central Europe. As these folks immigrated to the United States they of course brought knowledge of this type of joinery with them. T

The Moravians (Old Salem, NC), from which this bench design originates, came from what is modern day Czech Republic. The oldest known mortise and tenon joint is of the keyed variety excavated from a well in Leipzig, Germany. It was found to be 7000 years old.

What gives this type of joint strength and the reason it has endured millennia, in my opinion is enough wood beyond the wedge on the tenon (as the vintage ones are made) and as you will see in the video the wedge itself.

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Stanley Planes

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