My first hollow-chisel mortise

As a short little project I just finished a wooden segmented doormat (photos will come eventually). I’m also working on a Greene&Greene style mirror, and had already cut the stock for that. But the G&G mirror – and especially the dining room set that will follow – rely heavily on mortise and tenon joinery. When I’ve had a gazillion mortises to cut in the past (for example, the slatted patio furniture in my photo gallery), I used a router and jig. The one drawback of that method is that the mortises have rounded ends. So either I chisel out the ends (time consuming when multiplied by 100), or file over the edges of the tenons (not quite as time-consuming as chiseling, but still quite a bit of time).

I finally took the plunge and am now trying hollow-chisel mortising attachment for my drill press. I didn’t want to shell out the $$$ for a dedicated machine (actually, I simply don’t have space for an additional benchtop tool), and while this had mixed reviews, at $75 it seemed like a reasonable gamble.

It went together relatively easily, and I cut my first mortise in a scrap of leftover oak from the door mat. Smoke!! Lots of it!  Ooops – had the drill press speed set too high. Lower the speed, put more pressure than I’m used to on the lever… and yep, I’ve got a square hole! Amazing. In Oak! I tried a full-blown mortise in a scrap of mahogany (which I’ll be using in the furniture) and it worked like a dream. Woo hoo!

This reminds me of a “debate” in woodworking that parallels math education – the use of technology to take the place of a tedious manual procedure. The “purists” would argue one shouldn’t use a machine until one has perfected the hand technique to the point of automaticity. That is, middle school students really shouldn’t be using calculators until they can do decimal multiplication in their sleep.

I’m not a purist. For one, while I agree that using technology may delay or block the automization of a manual skill, I’d respond – so what? Note that I said “automatization” (is that a real word?) If one desparately needs to multply decimal numbers by candlelight after the apocalypse, one can either remember the algorithm and crank it out slowly, or even look up the algorithm in an old math book. I’d have to do that today to calculate a square root by hand – I can’t for the life of me remember the manual algorithm.  And I often need to compute square roots several times a day at work.

Now, does it matter that I’ve never hand-chopped a single mortise? I do feel a little guilty, like I’m missing out on something important, or taking a shortcut on the road of mastery. Realistically, though, I’m just picking and choosing my hand tool use. I *love* planing certain woods (mahogany is a dream), and enjoy using hand chisels for paring. I often use a mitre box and small saw to cut mitres, rather than set up the table saw (which is not always appropriate for small-scale work, anyway).

I’ve heard that there are often two paths in woodworking – those who start with hand tools, and over time decide to become more efficient with certain tasks and acquire power tools slowly. Others (I’m more in this camp) start with largely power-tool scaffolded work, and move toward hand tools when they’re more efficient (and enjoyable). The bottom line for me is – why am I doing this work in the first place? Largely for enjoyment, the art, and the practical products. So sometimes I’ll do things the slow way simply because it’s more fun. Other times I’ll use power to get something done efficiently (I *never* would have chosen that outdoor table plan if I’d had to cut those mortises by hand!) Most of the time, I think, I’m choosing efficiency – hand tools when power tools aren’t practical, or take too long to set up for a one-shot operation.

Maybe after the Rapture and I’m “left behind,” the black helicopters knock out all electricity and my survival depends on cutting 100 identical mortises, I’ll wish I’d spent more time chopping with chisels. Until then, I’m going to enjoy my new power toy.


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