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Mitered Breadboard Ends by Adam Maxwell

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Adam R. Maxwell


My wife and I homeschool our children, which leads to some rather interesting space conflicts in the modest-sized house that we rent.

Last fall, it seemed that our oldest (9 at the time) would benefit from a desk of his own, so I started looking at images of vintage school desks using Google’s image search.

The style that seemed best-suited is a simple desk with an sloping top that lifts up to reveal storage.  Since I had poplar on hand, I built the desk from that. The front legs were turned on a pole lathe, and the drawbored mortise-and-tenon joinery was all done by hand.  The intent from the outset was to paint the base, but I wanted a natural wood top, and poplar is too soft for a good writing surface.

I had a short piece of 6/4 hard maple that would fit with the overall dimensions of the piece (which in turn were determined by the size of the poplar stock I had).

This was the first time I’d made a desk or table top, so I put out a query to the oldtools list on the best way to hide the end grain. The overwhelming response was to use breadboard ends.

Breadboard Ends

Also known as clamps, the idea seems to be that they allow expansion of the wood in the top, hide its end grain, and prevent cupping. A simple haunched mortise-and-tenon joint seems rather typical, so that’s the route I was going to take… until trawling the oldtools archives brought up this gem of a post by Don McConnell on mitered breadboard joints.

The ASCII art in that post has to be seen to be appreciated; it brought up memories of ASCII katanas while lurking on in college! I initially dismissed this as too difficult; after all, The Boy was probably going to write on this or do something stupid like carve his name on it. Give my dad a chance and he’ll tell you about the hole I made with a pocketknife in our VW bus’ seat. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, and the apples didn’t fall far from the tree.

However, it also seemed like a good challenge to my hand-tool-only world, and I thought it would look pretty neat on this desk. The desire to do something hard won out, so the remainder of this article is really just a photo essay with long-winded captions.

Making the top

No photos of this part, but it was straightforward enough. I resawed my 6/4 maple stock (by hand, of course!), and bookmatched the two boards after flattening them. They were joined with tongue-and-groove (using a Stanley #49 plane) and hot hide glue. The resulting desk top was about 1/2” thick after final flattening.

Making the ends

I chose 4/4 walnut for the ends, since I wanted some contrasting wood in the top. The breadboard end width was arbitrarily chosen to be 3/4”, which looked about right to my eye; I didn’t want it to dominate the top, and didn’t want it to be so narrow that the tenons would have no depth:

After marking out the end width, I ripped it. Ripping overhand at the bench is nice for stuff like this, since I can use holdfasts to keep it solid:

IMG 5051

The next step was to square up the piece and establish a reference face for further marking. Trivial, but absolutely necessary:

IMG 5053

With a reference face, I could now use a mortise gage to mark the groove location in the end piece. I prefer pin-type gages; I think this is a Stanley #73, since my favorite gage (an Ultimatum) was set up for other operations. Set it to the width of your plow plane iron, which was about 3/16” in this case:

IMG 5055

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