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A Mortise and Tenon Nightmare

I spent some time working in a high-end shop located in a poor industrial area in Northern New Jersey. From the outside you would never guess that inside there was a set of ten chairs being produced to be sold for $66,000. I think this is way too much for anyone to spend on a set of chairs—but to be fair these chairs were made from Makassar ebony and had ivory inlay. To this day I remember that each chair required 12 mortise and tenon joints. For $66,000, there is no doubt that there was not one straight line on these legs, rails, or back.

When I was first hired, I joined a group of 6 highly skilled masters who all looked at me happily. It was then I knew that I was to be given the task to create 10 chairs with more than 120 joints…PERFECTLY.

The shop owner was a real collector of any machine that was at least 40 years old and weighed over a ton. “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” he would say. He was right. These beasts would run all day and work strong. There was one machine though, that didn’t work as well as the others—yes, it was the mortiser. The very machine that I would be working with to mill 120 mortises. They all needed to be the same and all needed to be perfect- there is no such things as “good enough” when the client is paying that much. There was a moment where I actually thought of cutting them by hand.

Setting up the mortiser for production was a challenge. I could tell by its location in the shop that this machine didn’t see too much action. I had no choice but to create my own clamping table with blocks so that each leg that went on the table was being cut the same exact way as the first and the last.

A few test pieces showed me that this milling wouldn’t even be “good enough.” Everything was outdated. The table wasn’t stable and the sliding mechanism was not accurate. Not to mention that the hollow-chisel mortising bits were not clean or sharp enough. At this point there was nothing to do about the mortiser; perhaps the shop owner would buy a new one with his $66,000. Until then, I was stuck with it. One option I had was to replace all the bits. So I took a break from the project to wait until they arrived in the mail. In the end the chairs turned out very good, but there is no doubt that without the new clean and sharp hollow-chisel mortising bits, the project would have been a train wreck.

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