Hand Tools

Re: How to tie shoes...
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Sgian Dubh
"There's a little bit of passive aggressive stuff on the UK forum, but less than most places.

But a discussion of the fastest way to do mortises turned into outright war."

That's interesting because I frequent that forum and didn't notice a morticing discussion turning "passive aggressive". Maybe I didn't look at the discussion at all, or if I did look, perhaps I simply skimmed through the thread and missed the nuanced aggression - I'm not the most avid reader and contributor to hand tool discussions.

Still, I do undertake hand morticing from time to time simply because it's sometimes quicker to simply bash out a mortice or two by hand in preference to setting up some sort of machine. Back in the 1960s and 70s I used to do a lot of hand morticing, as well as almost all other joinery, and that was when I was at school working in the school woodworking shop, and after that for the first few weeks and months of my training as a furniture maker.

Almost all the hand morticing I've ever undertaken has been for furniture and joinery items, in the latter case primarily items such as architectural doors and windows, so bashing holes in green 8X8 oak stuff and the like is outside my normal area of work. So, the following is a brief description of what I was taught as a method, and still use today, probably unchanged, when the need arises. I'm certainly not going to say it's the definitive and only 'right' method, but it works.

First, define the the width of the mortice using a mortice gauge set just a hair or two wider than the chisel, e.g., for a 12 mm chisel, set the gauge pins straddling the chisel a bit sloppily, maybe something like 12.25 or 12.5 mm. The length of the mortice is best marked with a knife rather than a pencil because it gives a crisp entry point for the chisel tip.

Set the part to be morticed above a bench leg if possible, and clamp it in place. With the bevel of the chisel facing towards the mortice's mid-length, set the cutting edge ~2 - 6 mm in from the knifed length of the mortice, and gently mallet the chisel to cut 2 - 3 mm deep. Repeat for the other end, then work along the mortice's length in a series of similar cross-grain chops back towards the first cut. Pick out the severed wood leaving behind a shallow groove that should have reasonably defined the mortice's width and length.

After that, with the the chisel about at the mortice's mid-length chop in vertically, but not too deep and lever out the waste using the chisel's bevel. Then maybe make two or three further chops, but now with the chisel leaning over towards the bevelled side and with each chop work towards the mortice end. Then turn the chisel around and chop along the other half of the mortice's length using the bevel to lever out as before. That's about it really. Keep chopping and levering out waste switching the chisel back and forth from time to time along the mortice length until the required depth is achieved. At some point, the chisel's bevelled side will want to start crushing the grain at the ends of the mortice as waste is levered out, but by this point the mortice should have been excavated to the necessary depth, or thereabouts, leaving a space for waste to be pushed into as vertical chops are taken with the flat side of the chisel working towards the mortice ends. There might, or might not be a bit of side wall paring required to get the mortice cut to the correct width.

Is this the 'correct' historical way to chop mortices by hand? I've no idea, but it works for me, and it seemed to work for the old farts that taught me the methodology forty or fifty+ years ago, and I guess they learnt it or adapted the method from old farts they were taught by forty or fifty years before that, and so on going back who knows how far. Slainte.

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