Free Tenons and Butterflies

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Doweled edge joints get little respect. They keep company with clunky patented doweling jigs and cheap construction. The pegged free tenon, however is the joint that launched a thousand ships. Free tenons not only join the planks of the hull, they also make it watertight. To understand this, look at the joint and think how wood swells when wet, getting fatter but not longer. When

Odysseus had to build a new boat, the radiant goddess Calypso "brought him augers, and he shaped the planks to fit one another and bored mortises in them all. Then he drove the ship together with tenons and pegs."

The pegged free tenon still courses the Chesapeake in the sailing canoes hewn of seven logs. To find a place far from the sea, carry this joint on your shoulder and walk inland until someone asks you what it is. This is not a joint of the carpenter or joiner, but more than any other, it uses wood—as wood.

Norse and Egyptian boat builders used dovetail keys to the same effect as the pegged free tenon. Asian woodcraft celebrates butterfly keys as objects of beauty, exposing them where they join planks with their long grain strength. Europeans use them too, but for some reason have felt compelled to hide their dovetail keys on the underside of the tabletops they hold together.

In work where regularity of appearance matters, snip a template of tin to lay out the butterflies. A few punches with a sharp nail will raise barbs on the far face of the tin to keep it from slipping as you trace around it. Clamp the adjoining boards tightly before you trace around the key to lay out the socket. You can cut the socket entirely with a chisel, but a router plane makes gauging the depth easy.

The dovetail key becomes part of the aesthetic as it spans the joint on the surface.

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