2 Ways to Cut a 3-Way Miter

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 lead 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

2 Ways to Cut a 3-Way Miter

Create this impressive joint by hand or with power tools.

By Garrett Glaser

 

Admiring the complex 3-way mitered joint between the leg and aprons in an antique Chinese table is natural. But the thought of cutting and fitting this interlocking joint by hand is enough to make most woodworkers run up a white flag. Fortunately, the same joint appears in contemporary designs, which means there’s also a modern (easier) way to complete it. In this story I’ll demonstrate both methods and provide all the information you need to build a table with 3-way miters. Whether you love the challenge of using hand tools or love the reliability and predictability of modern power tools, there’s a straightforward way to fashion this elegant, versatile and time-tested joint.

 

 

Machine-Cut 3-Way Miter Joint

Machine 2D00 cut 5F00 lead 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

 

Simplicity defines this joint, because the cuts on all three
parts are identical. Each part has two miters and two slots
for loose tenons. Only two setups are required, one for
mitering and one for routing. This method is based on a
miter saw, but a tablesaw can also be used. A simple shopmade
jig is used for routing.

The miters must be precise, so a saw that cuts accurately
is a must. Set up the saw to make a perfectly plumb 45˚
cut. Don’t rely on the saw’s scales—if the miters are off
by even a tiny amount, the joints won’t close tightly. Make
test cuts on scrap stock to ensure accuracy.

Start with straight, square stock. Crosscut both ends
at 90˚, about 1" longer than final dimension. Mark the
final length on each piece; mark both ends of the apron
blanks. Set aside a 12" length of the same stock for layout.
Mark a registration line on the layout piece about 4" from
one end. Clamp this piece to the saw and cut a 45˚ miter.
Without moving the layout piece, transfer the registration
line to the saw’s fence (Photo 1). Remove the layout piece
and position it next to a leg blank so the tip of its miter
aligns with the final length mark (Photo 2). Transfer the
registration line to the leg and continue it around all four
sides. Mark every blank this way—mark both ends of the
apron blanks.

Cut miters on two adjacent faces of each blank. Align
the registration lines on the blank and the saw before
making each cut (Photo 3). To minimize tearout, orient
the blank so that the second miter is always made with the
first miter facing up. If the cuts don’t meet exactly at a
point on the inside corner, something is awry—check the saw’s setup. When mitering the aprons, make sure that
the pointed ends of the miters are on the same edge!

Loose tenons reinforce all the miters. Rout mortises
for the loose tenons using a 3/8" straight bit, a 1/2" guide
bushing and a simple jig (Fig. A, below). Use one end of the jig to
rout the left facet of each joint and the other end to rout
the right facet (Photo 4). Square the end of the mortises
with a chisel. Then make loose tenons to fit the slots.

As all of the joints are interrelated, it’s best to check
the way they fit with the table assembled. A positioning
jig and a band clamp stabilize the pieces during this
process (Photo 5). The jig positions the legs and keeps
them plumb; the clamp equalizes pressure on the joints.
To make the jig, cut a piece of MDF to match the table’s
footprint (it’s defined by the lengths of the short and long
aprons). Position the legs flush with the corners. Press
corner blocks against both inside edges of each leg. Then
fasten the blocks to the MDF.

With the table assembled, examine the joints and
mark surfaces that need finessing. Then true each joint in
stages, round-robin-style, using a rabbeting plane, a chisel
or even a sanding block. Keep a couple of bar clamps
handy to strategically apply additional clamping pressure.
If you need to apply downward pressure on the aprons,
raise the jig on blocks to provide a clamping lip.

When the joints fit satisfactorily, disassemble the table.
Apply glue to the legs and short aprons and install the
appropriate loose tenons. Assemble the ends and clamp
them in the positioning jig. Apply glue to the remaining
joint surfaces and install the remaining tenons. Spread
the end assemblies to install the long aprons. Then install
the band clamp and any necessary “tweaking” clamps.

Fig. A: Routing Jig

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 a 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Click any image to view a larger version.

Machine 2D00 cut 5F00 1 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

1. Use a scrap piece marked with a registration line to set up the
saw. Clamp the piece to the saw and miter the end. Then without
moving the piece, transfer the registration line to the saw.

Machine 2D00 cut 5F00 2 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

2. Use the mitered scrap piece to mark all the blanks. Align the
tip of its miter with a line drawn on the blank to indicate its final
length. Then transfer the registration line.

Machine 2D00 cut 5F00 3 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

3. Align the registration lines to cut miters on adjacent faces of
all the leg and apron blanks. To minimize tearout, always cut the
second miter with the first miter facing up.

Machine 2D00 cut 5F00 4 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

4. Rout slots for loose tenons with a straight bit, a guide bushing
and a simple jig. Square the slot ends by hand. Then cut loose
tenons to fit.

Machine 2D00 cut 5F00 5 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

5. Assemble the table using a jig to keep the legs in position.
Install the short aprons and tenons. Spread the ends to install the
long aprons. Then use a band clamp to draw the joints tight.

 

 

Hand-Cut 3-Way Miter Joint

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 lead 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

 

Most traditional Chinese 3-way miter joints consist
of three (or more) interlocking pieces, each with their
own configuration of tenons and mortises. I’ve created
a simplified version that requires only two pieces, the
leg and two identical but mirror-image aprons. My joint
won’t win awards for authentic traditional joinery, but it’s
a good jumping-off point. Mastering this joint develops
skills that will allow you to tackle more complex versions.
A good place to start looking for authentic examples is
Gustav Ecke’s excellent book Chinese Domestic Furniture
(see Source, below).

Creating a 3-way miter by hand requires three skills:
precise layout, sawing straight lines (see “Using a Pull
Saw,” below) and accurately removing waste. No single
step is especially difficult, but there are a good number of them. The order in which
you complete the steps is
the key to success. A fourth
requirement isn’t so much
a skill as a personality trait:
patience. Mastering this
process takes practice.

Start by milling the
stock. Use light-colored
wood at first, so your layout
lines will be easy to see and
imperfections will show
clearly as dark crevices in
the assembled joints. In
3-way miters, the aprons
and legs are squared to the
same dimensions. Every
piece must be straight. If
one piece has a twist or
bend, it won’t matter how
masterfully you cut and
chisel—the joint will never
close tightly.

Cut the aprons and
legs to final length—the
aprons on opposite sides
must be identical (or all
four aprons, if the table
is square). Lay out all of
the cuts on the top and all
four faces of each leg (Fig.
B). Use an accurate square
and a sharp pencil or a
knife to create the lines.

 

The Leg Joint

The first cuts on each leg are diagonal and stopped (Photo 1 and Fig. C). The two diagonal cuts on the outside faces are the most visible of all the cuts you will make, so use a metal straightedge to ensure clean, straight cuts. Position the straightedge so the blade will split the layout line. Hold the saw against the straightedge and flat on the workpiece. Then saw a groove just deep enough to keep the saw from jumping out as you complete the cut. Remove the straightedge. Keep the blade in the groove while using its heel to make a perpendicular cut down the adjacent side to the first stop line. Then slowly angle the blade forward and use its toe to cut down to the stop line on the opposite side.

The second cuts run across the leg’s two inside faces (Photo 2 and Fig. D). They’re the only cuts that aren’t perpendicular to the surface. Use one of the diagonal cuts you just made to position your saw at the correct angle, then saw back across the face to the diagonal cut on the opposite side.

The third cuts form a tic-tac-toe grid across the top (Photo 3 and Fig. E). Although most of these cuts will be removed later, making them now ensures square tenons, because it’s much harder to cut a perfectly true short line than a long one. These stopped cuts also act as a guide for waste removal.

The fourth cuts create shoulders for the miter joints (Photo 4 and Fig. F). Establish a straight, shallow groove and then saw diagonally until you reach the outside edge of the top and the bottom edge of the miter on the adjacent face. If the triangular waste piece doesn’t come loose, make sure the diagonal cut was sawed to a uniform depth—rocking the saw from heel to toe sometimes leaves a high spot in the middle.

The fifth cuts remove waste and reveal angled shoulders on the inside faces (Photo 5 and Fig. G).
Make a pair of deep stopped cuts that run across the top
and down both adjacent faces. Be careful not to cut into
the mitered shoulders on the outside faces, as doing so
will leave a visible mark when the joint is assembled.

The final cut establishes the flat shoulder at the base of the tenons (Photo 6 and Fig. H). Start by
marking guide lines on both inside faces, 5/16"
down from the top and running from the inside
corner to the saw kerf that defines the tenon cheek.
Use the lines to cut diagonally to the kerfs—be sure
to stop before you saw into the tenons!

Use a 1/4" Forstner
bit to remove as much
of the waste as you can
(Photo 7). Then switch
to a chisel (Photo 8).
The shoulder’s surface
must be absolutely
flat, so finish by paring
across the grain. Be
sure to remove any
ragged fibers left in the
corners.

 

The Apron Joint

Mark the aprons for cutting and mortising (Fig. J).
The first cuts create miters on the top and outside
faces (Photo 9). These diagonal cuts are just as visible
as those on the leg, so start them the same way, using
a straightedge. Use the heel of the blade to saw the
line on the adjacent face and finish the cut by sawing
at a 45˚ angle.

Cut the mortise in the top face. (Each apron joint
houses one of the leg tenons.) Drill a 3/8" deep hole
with a 1/4" Forstner bit and then square the corners
with a chisel (Photo 10).

Draw guide lines on the two mitered faces on the
inside of the joint (Fig. J). One line is located 5/16"
from the outside edge and the other 5/16" from
the bottom of the miter—these lines align with the
mortise on two sides.

When removing the waste, use one line to guide
the side of the chisel and the other to establish the depth (Photo 11). Barely tap the chisel for the first
cuts—the grain is so short at the front that it’s easy to
remove too much. You should be left with one relatively
clean end-grain shoulder and two fairly ragged long-grain
shoulders. Make sure the end-grain shoulder is absolutely
flat. Pare the long-grain shoulders to exactly 5/16"
thickness (Photo 12).

 

True the fit

When you first assemble a leg and apron, don’t be
alarmed if the pieces don’t even go together. Truing
the fit requires patience and thoughtful sleuthing.
Look carefully to determine what might be gumming
up the works (Photo 13). Make sure the mortise fits
the tenon without binding—if this joint is too tight
it can keep the other parts of the joint from fitting.
Once the mortise and tenon fit properly, check the
other joint surfaces for irregularities.

Don’t spend too much time fitting an apron and
leg before adding the second apron. After all, this is a
three-piece joint, and having all three parts together
shows much more than two parts can show. You’ll
quickly learn how a small adjustment on one piece
can affect the way the other two pieces fit.

In fact, because all the joints are interrelated, the
best strategy is to assemble the legs and aprons as
soon as possible and true each joint in stages, roundrobin-
style, using a rabbet plane and a chisel (Photo
14). Use the positioning jig shown earlier to keep the
legs plumb while you finesse the joints. Temporarily
shimming the mortises during this process can help
to identify problem areas. Once all the joints have
been fit, you’ll probably have to permanently shim
some of the mortises. That’s OK; the shims will be
virtually invisible after they’re glued and sanded
flush.

Use the assembly jig and the band clamp for glueup.
If you need to apply downward pressure on the
aprons, raise the jig on blocks to provide a clamping
lip.

Fig. B: Leg Layout

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 b 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Fig. C: First Cuts

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 c 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Fig. D: Second Cuts

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 d 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Fig. E: Third Cuts

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 e 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Fig. F: Fourth Cuts

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 f 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Fig. G: Fifth Cuts

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 g 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Fig. H: Final Cut

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 h 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Fig. J: Apron Layout

Cut 2D00 3 2D00 Way 2D00 Miter 5F00 fig 2D00 j 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 1 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

1. Start by sawing four diagonals on each leg, one on each face.
Use a straightedge to guide the saw. Attach sandpaper to the
back of the straightedge so it won’t slip.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 2 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

2. Saw the bottom edge of the miter on the two inside faces. Use
the diagonal kerf from the previous step to establish the 45˚
slope. Then work back to the diagonal kerf on the opposite edge.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 3 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

3. Create the tic-tac-toe grid on the top by making four straight cuts. Saw to the upper layout lines on the adjacent faces.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 4 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

4. Create square shoulders on the two outside miters by sawing diagonally across the top and one adjacent face. Waste removal begins with these cuts.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 5 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

5. Make deep stopped cuts across both inside faces to reveal the angled inside shoulders. You’ll have to re-mark some of the layout lines in order to make these cuts.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 6 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

6. Complete each leg joint by removing the waste from around the
two tenons. Sawing across the inside corner to the tenon kerfs
creates a flat shoulder at the base of the tenons.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 7 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

7. Remove the bulk of the waste that remains between the tenons
by drilling through the tic-tac-toe blocks.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 8 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

8. Complete the joint by paring across the grain to create a flat
shoulder beneath the tenons.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 9 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

9. Start each apron corner by making two through diagonal cuts,
one on the top and one on the outside face.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 10 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

10. Square the mortise after drilling a stopped hole to remove most
of the waste.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 11 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

11. Hollow the inside of the joint after marking the shoulders on
both mitered faces. Remove the waste with a series of shallow
chisel cuts, working from front to back.

Hand 2D00 cut 2D00 12 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

12. Pare to the guide lines and square the end-grain shoulder.
Removing the waste reveals the mortise—it’s flush with the corner
formed by the end-grain and long-grain shoulders.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 13 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

13. Fitting the joints takes time. Make sure that the shoulders of
each joint are the same thickness, that all of the mating surfaces
are absolutely flat and that the mortises aren’t too small.

Hand 2D00 cut 5F00 14 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

14. All of the joints are interrelated, so assemble the table as soon
as you can. Then work a little on each joint in rotation. Here, a
temporary shim shows high spots that require further work.

 

 

Using a Pull Saw

The art of sawing straight and square with a pull saw
isn’t as mysterious as you might think.
I use a fine-tooth flush-cut pull saw to cut 3-way miters.
(The teeth on a flush-cut saw have no set, which means
they don’t flare beyond the body of the blade). You can
spend a lot of money for this type of saw, but I get great
results using a $10 version from a home improvement
store—and I don’t have to worry about the replacement
cost if I kink the blade or break a tooth.

When you saw, the goal is to split the layout line. Don’t
worry—it’s easier than it sounds. Just make sure that the
outside edge of the blade follows the center of the line, so
half of the line remains on the workpiece and the other half
becomes sawdust.

To make a through cut, you follow two adjacent lines,
one across the top of the piece and one continuing down
the side that faces you. Focus first on the top line. Hold the
blade nearly parallel to the surface, but with the heel (the
end closest to the handle) raised slightly, and saw lightly
along the line from the far side to the near side until you’ve
made a shallow groove across the top. Keep the saw in
the groove and switch your focus to the vertical line on
the side. Using the heel of the blade, saw your way down
the line until the teeth of your saw meet the ends of both
lines. If you are cutting square stock, this puts your saw at a
45˚angle. Keep your saw at this angle to complete the cut.
The kerf you’ve created keeps the saw square and plumb
for the rest of the cut.

To make a stopped cut you need three lines—the line
across the top and stopped lines on the opposite adjacent
faces. Begin the cut as you would a through cut, creating
a groove across the top and then cutting with the heel to
the bottom of the first stopped line. But instead of putting
pressure on the heel to continue the cut, make the toe
of the saw do all the work, cutting down the line on the
opposite face, slowly leveling the blade so that the teeth
connect the two points where the cut should stop.

 

Build a Table with
3-Way Miter Joints

The legs and aprons of tables joined with 3-way miters
form an open frame whose dimensions are determined
by the lengths of the three components. Adding a top
can be as simple as attaching cleats inside the aprons
and cutting a piece to fit.

Build 2D00 a 2D00 table 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

 

Cutting List

Build 2D00 a 2D00 table 5F00 cut 2D00 list 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

 

Source

Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.

Tools for Working Wood, toolsforworkingwood.com, 800-426-4613; Gustav Ecke, Chinese Domestic Furniture,
Mineola: Dover Publications, 1986, AQ-1037.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December/January 2011, issue #151.

151 Dec Jan AW Cover 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

 

 

 2 Ways to Cut a 3 Way Miter

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