It also makes project math a little easier. Since your parts will simply be butting against each other, you don’t have to calculate the allowance for extra material for the tenon. This can help you avoid mental errors when prepping your project parts.
The real key to loose tenon joinery is being able to accurately and easily machine the mortises. Mortises cut into face grain, like on the face of a chair or table leg, aren’t too hard to cut. They can be done using a mortise machine, hand held router, or router table. But cutting mortises into the end grain of a rail is tough. The JessEm Mortise Mills do a good job of making it easy to accurately locate the mortises and an equally good job of making it easy to cut the mortises.
How the Mills Work. The first step in using the Mortise Mills is locating them on the material. Two primary adjustments are required. The technique for this varies slightly between the two mills and will be covered in more detail later.
Both Mortise Mills consist of a carriage that slides back and forth on rails. A drill bit is inserted through the guide bushing on the carriage. To make a mortise, you apply down pressure to the spinning drill bit while at the same time levering the carriage back and forth. This action forms the mortise
JessEm’s Mortise Mills rely on a special drill bit (Photo 2).
The cutting tip looks similar to that on an upcut spiral router bit, but the bit is designed for the lower speed of a drill, not the high speed of a router. Depth of cut is controlled by a stop collar on the drill bit.
The loose tenon material can also be purchased from JessEm. 50-piece bags of the 1/4″ material cost $9. Bags with 40 pieces of 3/8″ material cost $13. 30-piece bags of 1/2″ material cost $15. Now we can look at how each of the mills is set up to make mortises.
Using the Pocket Zip Slot Mill. The Pocket Mill comes with a 1/4″ guide bushing and drill bit and cuts mortises only for JessEm’s 1/4″ x 1-1/4″ loose tenon material.
The first step is setting the depth of the drill bit (Photo 3). It should cut slightly deeper than 1/2 the length of the tenon and is locked in that position using the stop collar.
The Zip Slot Mill comes with a 3/8″ guide bushing and bit, so is set to make mortises for JessEm’s 3/8″. x 1-1/4″ loose tenons. Additional guide bushing and bits are available that allow making 1/4″ or 1/2″ mortises, (Photo 7), giving you more loose tenon size options than the Pocket Mill. Setting the cutting depth is done the same way as on the Pocket Mill.
Next, you’ve got to lock in three settings: the length of the stroke, the position of the carriage plate, and the position of the mill on your material. If you love nicely engineered tools, you’ll love the Zip Slot Mill.
Finally, you can use the ‘cross hair’ lines, which will provide the carriage and material stop position (Photo 11). The maximum distance you can set the carriage to is 2″, so you can get to the middle of pieces up to 4″ thick.
How They Differ. Obviously there’s a significant price difference between the two mills. The Pocket Mill is limited to 1/4″ mortises, while the large mill can handle 1/4″, 3/8″, and 1/2″ mortises. Adding the 1/4″ and 1/2″ guide bushings and drill bits will cost $25 and $33, respectively. The large mill provides more joinery versatility, but if your work is primarily in 3/4″ material, 1/4″ mortises are fine.
The big difference between the two mills is in set up. Once I used the built-in scales on the large mill, I was spoiled. It’s much more user friendly than the Pocket Mill, with easier repeatability of settings. The dust collection worked great, although this isn’t a tool that, like a router, sprays dust everywhere if you’re not using dust collection.
Since you can customize the stroke length on the large mill you can easily make your own loose tenon material and adjust the stroke to fit. The longest mortise the large mill will cut is 3-1/2″.
The large mill is bolted or clamped to a bench. You bring the material to the tool and clamp it in place.
This is easier than the Pocket Mill on which you hold the mill and material in alignment and secure them in a vise.
Final Analysis. Both of these mills do what they promise, which is to provide a relatively easy way to cut mortises for loose tenon joinery. JessEm typically produces high quality, well thought out products and these tools don’t disappoint. As an extra benefit, by drilling one hole at each end of the stroke, the mills can be used as doweling jigs (Photo 16).
The scales on the large mill made the required set up very easy to do. Changing one guide bushing for another is simple. The guide bushings on both mills are not simply bushings. They have bearings, so should be long-lived.
Having cut mortise and tenon joints a variety of ways and watched many of my students do the same, I think most woodworkers new to mortise and tenon joinery will find that using the Mortise Mills is simpler than traditional mortise and tenon joinery. My biggest complaint is that the drilling process felt slow, especially when using the 1/2″ bit, but it’s not a deal breaker.
The Pocket Mill works fine, but my advice is to save your pennies and buy the large mill. It’s a tool that can grow with you and your woodworking.
Photos By Author