The Most Difficult Joint In Western Woodworking

Forget dovetails. If you want to become the envy of woodworkers everywhere, master the miter. It has to be the most finicky joint in Western woodworking to cut by hand.

Here’s that mahogany molding from the last post. It has been mitered, glued and nailed, and had one coat of oil. Almost ready for the wall.



20 thoughts on “The Most Difficult Joint In Western Woodworking

  1. OK, I agree. So what’s the secret to perfect miters?, or should I ask; how do you do thus perfectly?
    Beside picture frames, I seem to also run into snags on miters with furniture molding as well.

    • When I figure it out I’ll let you know. My miters almost always require fussing and they’re still not perfect. But for this piece, they’re close enough. I have a few ways of tweaking the fit that I use, including shooting board and sawing through the miter. I’ll have a podcast on it next week hopefully. Ideally they’d fit from the saw but that almost never happens for me.

      • It’s as you say, “Ideally they’d fit from the saw”, because further tweaking only makes them shorter, which makes things worse, and widens the gap.
        If you figure this one out, I’d be most appreciative to know the secret.

  2. Good looking job, and it’s awfully nice to hear someone else say this. Miters give me fits, whether they’re plain, bridle, or dovetailed. The mitre jack and French mitre saw are a big help, but I think the simple frame I just did this week is the first time I’ve had all four corners close up without tweaking.

  3. The secret to miters is to design your piece so you only need to wrap the moulding around 3 sides. Picture frames are evil as that last corner never seems to line up just right. Just curious Bob, where did you come up with that profile? I have a strip of moulding in that same profile that I cut years ago in a class with Matt Bickford and he called it a picture frame moulding. Was this in a plate in Roubo’s guide to framing and glass cutting?

    • Yeah, my tall miters, like for a skirt or plinth always seem to come out better off the donkey’s ear. Wide, flat miters, like the ones above always give me more trouble, even with a well adjusted plane and accurate miter shooting board. Maybe it’s just me.

  4. Can I assume that you are starting by sawing slightly long and then using a shooting board to finish the fitting?

    …or are you suffering from thinking that the saw must make it perfect without any “fiddling”? I don’t remember reading, anywhere, that an exposed joint needed to be perfect straight from the saw. Don’t you plane every other “show” joint before finishing? 😉

    Maybe “expectation” is more the problem than “execution”?

    • Depends. I’m always trying to get as close as possible from the saw. I’ve found that for me, with any kind of joint, whether dovetail, mortise and tenon, or miter, getting it to fit from the saw is best if I can hit it. In my experience, planning to saw fat and fussing the joint after sawing, especially with joints like dovetails and miters, usually makes things worse. When doing small furniture moldings that only have three sides, and therefore only two miters, I can typically hit it from the saw and not have to mess with the fit too much. If I do have to adjust the miter, it’s no big deal because I don’t saw to length until after the miter fits.

      However, as Shannon alluded to, frames are a different story. Fussing with the joint makes the piece shorter. Therefore, the parallel piece must then be fussed with until it is the same length, otherwise the angles don’t match and turn out square. With frames I will usually add to the length that I need when I saw the miters with the understanding that I will likely need to finesse the joint to get all 4 corners to close well. There are a couple of tricks to doing this. That I’ll go over in the podcast that will hopefully come out this week.

  5. Wish my frame looked half as good 🙂 Just finished glue up on it. I started off sawing close to the line, then used a shooting board to clean up the ends. Still had a degree or two of difference, leaving gaps at the inside of each joint. Ended up sawing through the miter and still had to spend hours chasing the error around the frame.

    Clearly I need more practice 🙂

    • That’s a fine looking machine. Far more machine than I need in my little home hobby shop, but I can appreciate the precision it offers to a pro.

    • Yep, these styles of miter trimmers are more a less a must have for anyone doing a lot of frames. The old Lyons still turn up from time to time. Kind of pricey though unless one is doing a lot of frames. Then there’s the whole storage issue. For the occasional frame maker like myself, they’re not even a typically consideration.

  6. They are actually pretty affordable if you buy them used (as little as a few hundred dollars), and they can be used for any wood that fits under the knives (not just picture framing). The real cost of ownership is in sharpening the knives–they typically weigh about 10 lbs. each and are nearly an inch thick (the bevels are precision ground and are an inch tall). Visualize putting a 45 degree bevel on a chunk of hardened steel an inch thick and a foot long…it cost me about $100 each time I sharpened two of the knives. To replace them, it’s several hundred dollars, but you can sharpen them 20-30 times before they get ground down too far to rework. For what it’s worth, you can even easily cut 2 x 4’s with a chopper.

  7. I am lucky enough to have a Morso miter guillotine, as long as the blades are kept sharp, I get perfect mitres every time in any timber up to 3×3. Covers most jobs. If you have the space/ cash, I can’t recommend one highly enough. Cuts perfect angles up to 90 degrees.

    • There’s your second opinion, Fellas! Also does a great job on hardwoods (which most frame molding are made from), and there is NEVER any damage done to the wood during the cuts (no breakouts or splintering). The two best manufacturers are Schleicher and Morso, but there are others. Check eBay…

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