How to Join Wood Without a Biscuit Joiner

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Many DIY tutorials online suggest using a biscuit joiner to form a strong connection between two pieces of wood. Beginner woodworkers may be understandably reluctant to purchase a tool that only does one thing.

This article covers five alternatives to using a biscuit joiner, arranged from simplest to most complex. 

Methods for Joining Wood By Hand

Alternatives to the biscuit joining process are mortise and tenon joints, dovetail joints, half lap joint, and butt joints (both mitered and not). Butt joints are the easiest to execute and are best used to widen boards or for quick and easy joints on non-decorative project. For a more polished result, consider a mitred joint instead. 

Biscuit joiner

Carving mortises and tenons in wood is an expert-level project, but the resulting joint is extremely strong. Mortise and tenon joints are recommended for pieces that will bear significant amounts of weight. 

Dovetail joints are best when the wood will be subject to pulling stress, as the interlocking design makes them extremely resistant to this kind of force. A beautiful and intricate design, you may also choose dovetail joints for exposed decorative edges.

How to Join Wood Without a Biscuit Joiner

Lets dive into each method step by step.

Butt Joint

By far the simplest kind of joint, no power tools are required for this method of joining wood.

  1. Determine if this is the right joint for your project. A butt joint may be easy and quick to execute, but it is not very strong, and does not have a finished appearance. Butt joints are perfect for joining two boards together to make a wider board. Small projects that won’t be subject to much pressure or movement are also suitable applications for butt joints. 
  2. Square the wood. The joint will be stronger and last longer if the two surfaces being joined are perfectly square, or as close to it as possible. You can use a table saw to square the wood, or jointer and planer can be used to get the planks square. There are a variety of other ways to square a board too.
  3. Mark the two sides of the joint. The wide part of a plank of wood is called the face, while the narrow side is called the edge. A butt joint can connect two faces, two edges, or an edge and a face. Make sure you mark the edges you have squared.
  4. Apply glue to each surface. You can use traditional woodworking glue or polyurethane-based glue, but be aware that polyurethane glues tend to expand as they dry. You may need to clean up excess glue when the project is finished. End grain will absorb more glue than face grain. You may need to compensate for absorption by adding more glue.
  5. Glue the joint. When both surfaces have been coated with glue, rub the two surfaces together to eliminate any bubbles in the glue. Align the pieces and use clamps or gravity to hold the wood in place until the glue dries. 
  6. Reinforce the joint. Nails or screws provide necessary reinforcement to butt joints. Drive your chosen fastener through both pieces of wood. If you are working with hardwood, you must drill a pilot hole to prevent cracking.  

Mitred Butt Joint

In a mitred butt joint, two pieces of wood are cut at a 45 degree angle. The angled ends are glued together and reinforced, forming a neat 90 degree corner. 

  1. Decide if a mitred butt joint will meet your needs. Decorative pieces that will not be subject to significant pressure or movement are the best application for mitred butt joints. You commonly see this kind of joint in window trim or on picture frames
  2. Determine which way to cut the wood. If you’re cutting trim, an internal corner is one that recedes from the main room, while an external corner protrudes into the room. A good rule of thumb is to cut the mitre on the front face of the timber for internal corner mitred butt joints, and on the back face of the timber for external corners. 
  3. Cut the mitre into the wood. For the best, most accurate results, use a sliding mitre compound saw. If you don’t have one, you can make fairly accurate cuts using a mitre block and tenon saw or jack saw. 
  4. Continue with the butt joint instructions above, starting with step four. Once the wood has been mitred, use adhesive to join the two boards. Reinforce the joint with fasteners.

Half-lap Joint

A half-lap joint is the easiest alternative to a butt joint. It requires some level of precision to cut the laps, but is much easier to execute than a dovetail joint. 

Piles of wood pieces
  1. Learn when to use a half-lap joint. Stronger than mitred joints, but not as complex as mortise and tenon joinery, half-laps joints are best for building frames. Bed frames and basic furniture can be constructed using this kind of joint. A half-lap joint is constructed by cutting part of each piece of timber away and joining the two ends. 
  2. Prepare to cut the wood. Generally speaking, you should remove half the material from each piece. This way, when the joint is assembled, it will be uniform in thickness. Use a combination square to find the center, or measure the total width of the timber and divide by two. Mark the halfway point on the timber. 
  3. Cut the wood. Use a circular saw and chisel or a table saw to remove the excess wood. The size of the finished lap joint should be the same thickness as the width of each individual piece of wood.  
  4. Finish the joint. Apply glue to each face of the lap and clamp the joint together. Screw the two surfaces together to help support the joint during the drying process.

Dovetail Joint

Dovetail joints are most commonly used for load-bearing applications that experience some movement. They are very strong, but tricky to execute. Dovetail joints are popularly used to attach drawer fronts, because this kind of joint is very resistant to pulling force.

  1. Mark and cut the first piece of wood. Dovetail joints are interlocking puzzle pieces. The protruding portions are called ‘pins’, while the receding sections are known as ‘tails’. The depth of each receding section should be the same as the thickness of the board you will be attaching. You can cut them by hand and remove the excess wood with a chisel, or use a good dovetail jig and router if you need to make a lot of dovetail joints. 
  2. Mark and cut the second piece of wood. Lay the first piece of wood on the end of the second piece, and trace the tails and pins with a pencil. Cutting pins and tails to match will allow the two pieces to perfectly interlock. 
  3. Assemble the joint. Apply glue to the connecting surfaces and insert the pins into the tails. Clamp the joint until the glue dries. One of the best things about a dovetail joint is that no additional fasteners are needed. 

Mortise and Tenon Joints

This technique takes time and effort to master, but is one of the strongest woodworking joints, perfect for heavy duty furniture that will bear significant weight. 

  1. Gather your patience. Mortise and tenon joints require exact alignment, which can be difficult for an amateur to achieve. Precision is key to fitting the pieces together, and you may find yourself feeling frustrated. 
  2. Cut the mortise. Use a router with an upspiral bit and an edge guide to cut a rectangular hole in the wood. This hole is called the ‘mortise’, and it should be half the thickness of the wood, and four or five times deeper than it is long. 
  3. Cut the tenon. Use a table saw with a tenoning jig. The tenon should be on the end of the wood to be attached, and should be the exact size of the mortise. Check the fit of the mortise and tenon when you’re getting close. They will need to be perfectly aligned in order to make a clean joint. 
  4. Assemble the joint. Coat the tenon and the mortar in woodworking glue. Insert the tenon into the mortar and clamp the boards together. Glue should be sufficient to hold the joint, but some variations use pins or wedges to lock the joint together. 

If, after reviewing all of these options, you’d still prefer to go with a biscuit joiner, take a look at our review on the best biscuit joiner.

Conclusion

You don’t need a biscuit joiner to join two pieces of wood. Alternatives to biscuit joints include butt joints, interlocking joints such as dovetail or mortise and tenon, and half-lap joints. Determine which joint is right for your skill level and set up, make the necessary cuts, and assemble the joint using glue.

Additional fasteners may or may not be necessary, depending on the type of joint.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.