Describing Loose Tenon Joinery to Customers

Domino joints have two mortises and a single floating tenon to connect them. But if you call that it a "loose" tenon, will customers misunderstand and think it's not strong? June 4, 2012

I make some chairs using Festool Dominos. Is it okay to call the joinery "mortise and tenon"? I suppose a more accurate description would be loose tenon, but that sounds bad, like it's not secured. And, yes, the chairs are sturdy. Sometimes you just need to cut wide slots and make bigger tenons and/or double up.

Forum Responses
(Furnituremaking Forum)
From contributor M:
Call it what it is, dude. Or else invent a marketing description that makes people think m&t without actually saying it...

From the original questioner:
Thanks! That's one vote for no. I'm on the fence about this. The joinery uses mortises and tenons, but when I hear m&t, I usually think of the more traditional type. However, I'm not so sure about other furniture manufacturers and how they handle this question (with any loose tenon joinery).

This is for the marketing materials. Mainly, I want to say the products are not made with screws and dowels and the average high end shopper would likely be most impressed with "mortise and tenon," regardless of whether or not they understand what it is. However, I don't want to lie or totally mislead.

From contributor B:
Well, let's see… You're cutting mortises in both pieces, aren't you? And you're inserting a tenon of some type into them - sounds like a version of a mortise and tenon joint to me.

What if you miscut a tenon or mortise (like everyone probably has), and glued in a piece of wood to correct the gap? Would this not be a real mortise and tenon joint, because you had glued material into the joint to alter it? What if you were laminating layers of material, and left the middle layer longer to create a tenon, like in a door rail? Would this not be a real tenon?

I would probably call your chair construction "mortises with inserted tenons." It describes the joint in a way that people who are not familiar with woodworking may be able to understand, and it seems to describe what you are doing. Loose tenon is a woodworking term that only woodworkers probably understand, and you're right, it's not loose if it is properly glued in place. I've seen and repaired many high-quality chairs that were constructed with dowels, and many times the dowels weren't glued very well, either. You can create either a poor joint or a good joint with lots of different techniques.

From contributor S:
How about calling it "Contemporary Mortise & Integrated Tenon Joinery."

From the original questioner:
I suppose the easiest and right thing to do is just call it "all wood construction." It's vague, but accurate, and what customers really want to hear.

From contributor J:
I believe this is one of those grey areas. As stated, a loose tenon joint does still consist of a mortise and a tenon. My opinion, though, would be that traditionally, mortise and tenon implies a specific type of joint, which is not a loose tenon joint.

I build interior doors with loose tenons and I believe they are as strong as a "true" mortise and tenon joint. But I'm not sure how I'd label them if I had to? Maybe you just need to expand on it in your marketing description a little. Instead of just saying M&T, go into more detail about the joint and why it's superior to X,Y, and Z types of joinery.

From contributor N:
Is it considered a spline joint when you use a separate piece for the tenon?

From contributor C:
I think contributor B has a point; you are making mortises and inserting tenons. Perhaps if you look at the typical mortise and tenon joint as an integral tenon and the type of joint you're using as loose, inserted or, as contributor S said, just call it "Contemporary Mortises.”

From contributor W:
Why not pluralize both words, as in "Mortises and Tendons". That way you are being truthful in your description.

From contributor L:
Not meant to offend anyone, but as professional woodworkers we should know the proper terminology for our profession.
"Mortises and Tendons" is incorrect.
A "tendon" is the tissue that connects muscles to bones.
A "tenon" is a projecting piece of a member that fits into a mortise cut in another to form a joint.
"Mortises and Tenons" would be correct.

From contributor O:
Contributor L is right - both in his definitions and request for accuracy in our professional language. I think we can all agree that ignorance is a plague today and education of our customer goes with the territory in order to survive in the marketplace. If your customer is knowledgeable and you confuse wood and tissue, you will look the fool.

And on a complete aside, "mortise" comes from the same (Middle English) root as "mortal" and "mortuary." This from the shape of a proper mortise resembling the shape of a grave. The same root also gave rise to the word "mortgage" - as in "pay until you die" or something like that.

From contributor Z:

What about taking a couple of pictures of your construction methods the next time you are building one of those chairs? That will avoid any confusion over the type of joinery you are using.

From contributor P:
You can call it a loose tenon or a mortise and tenon and your clients won't know the difference. They will understand "lifetime guarantee it won't break" perfectly.

From the original questioner:
That's a whole other topic. How wise is it to give a lifetime warranty?

From contributor I:
I believe that method of joinery is also referred to as mortise and floating tenon?

From contributor H:
Loose mortise and tenon. Cut the mortises in both pieces, then cut a tenon that fits into the mortise. Loose mortise and tenon joinery. I use it all the time and it is incredibly strong.

From contributor Q:
I don't think anyone but a real woodworker would have any respect for something built with "loose tenons." I want then tight, dammit!

Floating tenons and splines are both correct. I think there is a discernible difference between mortise and tenons and floating tenons. I don't think the terms are interchangeable.

All wood isn't clear enough - most folks would allow screws in an all wood piece, because most folks don't care or know enough about the skill required.

I remember the good old days when I first considered print ads. After we shop guys wangled a few hours over the precise wording, the bored but kindly ad rep referred us to an article on "manufacturer's copy." Here we were trying to mention everything that made us so proud, without even considering what a shopper wanted in furniture.

You want people to buy your chairs, talk beauty, quality, hand rubbed finishes, custom design, skilled craftsmanship or (if nothing else) price. Sell the sizzle, not the steak.