A craftsmanship method that has been used by woodworkers globally for thousands of years.
It joins two pieces of wood together to create a perfect seal that is exceptionally strong and robust. In fact, it is considered one of the strongest joint methods, which has allowed both buildings and furniture crafted with this method to endure the tests of time. This joinery method is primarily used when adjoining pieces of lumber at a 90-degree angle. It comprises two components: a mortise hole and a tenon tongue. Essentially, a peg fits into a hole at an angle.
We all have a piece of furniture that we love and take great effort to care for, but if the foundation has not been solidly crafted, everything is in jeopardy. The mortise and tenon joint is one of the most robust and traditional joinery techniques in woodworking because of its flush-fitting design. Providing it is appropriately crafted, it can be incredibly strong and aesthetically pleasing, fastened together with a near invisible seam. It's that extra time and thoughtfulness that goes into your furniture that makes it all the more pleasing, such was craftsman that take the extra time to work with reclaimed wood furniture.
There are many variations of this craft; however, the most common comprises a mortise hole and a tenon tongue. The tenon is cut to fit the mortise hole precisely, a skill that requires exceptionally deft work. Once the joint is fixed, it may be glued together, pinned, and wedged to secure its position. This style of woodwork creates an impressive and beautiful finish on interiors and furnishings. A seamless aesthetic, that is minimal on the outside but beautiful complex underneath. Mortise & tenon joinery is also used in stone and brickwork.
A mortise is the cavity or hole cut into wood specially intended to receive a tenon on another piece of wood. The mortise is usually nothing more than a four-sided hole that has enough material around the mortise walls to ensure the joint is stable and strong.
A tenon is a rectangular piece on the end of a workpiece cut to be inserted into the mortise hole. It typically has four shoulders that wraparound it in a horizontal position. The vertical portion of the tenon is known as a "cheek". Together, the two pieces create a mortise and tenon joint, one that interlocks two components of wood without requiring additional fasteners or adhesives.
This labour-intensive technique can be found throughout history, it dates back 7,000 years. The method can be found in old furniture from archaeological sites in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. However, pinpointing exactly who invented it and when, has been lost to the ages. It can be found in Leipzig, Germany, at the world's oldest intact wood architecture or in Neolithic times, where it was used to construct wooden linings for water wells.
In traditional Chinese architecture, two wooden components such as brackets, roof frames, and beams were made to interlock with the perfect fit, devoid of fasteners or glues to enable the wood to expand and contract according to the humidity. The basic idea behind a mortise and tenon joint is that one piece of lumber is inserted into the other, demonstrating the joint is the strongest when interlocked at right angles.
Since its introduction in the neolithic era, it has endured as a staple in Chinese construction. It draws strong parallels to the yin and yang philosophy as well as the thoughtful nature of wabi-sabi. Many examples of the joint are found in the ruins of houses dating back to the first century BC. In addition, archaeological evidence from Chinese sites shows that, by the end of the Neolithic, mortise-and-tenon joinery was employed in Chinese construction. Archaeologists used tree-ring data to identify four ancient water wells as one of the world's oldest timber constructions.
The research team, led by the University of Freiburg, said that the wells excavated at the settlements of the first Central European agricultural civilization in the Greater Leipzig region are the oldest known timber constructions in the world, dating back to between 5,600 and 4,900 B.C. These timber wells used mortise and tenon joints to hold the wooden well walls together, making them older than the Khufu ship. A 43.6 m long vessel was also found with adjoining wooden planks and sealed into a pit under the Giza pyramid complex around 2500 BC
Its strong joinery means longer-lasting durability when it comes to your homeware. This is because it is tightly fastened together, it will never wobble, and it is near impossible to dislodge. It also makes for beautiful craftsmanship, as all the joints are elegantly hidden.
In a way, yes. The technique and know-how to perfect mortise and tenon craftsmanship requires patience, perceptiveness, and years of experience. It is painstaking artistry that must be honed over time. It of course, can be executed upon poorly, therefore you should find a craftsman that has been using this technique for a handful of years.
Right here on Living in Design, you can also visit our Shoreditch, London showroom to see our many mortise & tenon crafted pieces in person. Visits are by appointment only!
As Chinese history passes from one dynasty to another, this type of joinery remained strong and prevalent amidst the change in the political landscape. Most interestingly perhaps are its endurance into the modern age today. No longer a mark of furniture of the East, but a mark of expert woodwork.
It is favoured globally for its immediate seal of excellence. An indication that the craftsman poured endless hours into perfecting his work of art, making it the highest calibre possible. Not only is mortise & tenon joinery an ingenious and stylish solution, but its longevity is a prime reason why many woodworkers commit to the many hours required to perfect this kind of craftsmanship.
From the Ming dynasty until now, furniture crafted in such a fashion is intrinsically valued for its natural beauty, fluid lines, concealed joints, and balanced proportions. A true mark of class. It is a tried and tested formula that has become a household name for artisans. It lends itself to many different interior design styles, including japandi interiors and minimalist homes. One thing is certain, this craft will continue to stand the test of time for its sustainability, robust nature and elegance.
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