Miter keys

Miter keys DEFAULT

Dovetail Keys

Perhaps no other joint has more strength or better looks than a corner joined by through dovetails. But here’s a much simpler joinery process that comespretty close. With just a router table and a bare-bones homemade jig, you can crank out terrific-looking box corners like the one at right.

1. The jig below mounts to a miter gauge that slides in the miter slot of a router table. Built to the length shown, on most router tables it will handle boxes with sides up to about 24" wide. You can tailor the length to better suit your router table and to accommodate smaller or larger boxes. The miter slot-to-router bit spacing on your table may affect the exact placement of the screws. Be sure to put them where the router bit will not cut into them. (Before you build this jig, please read the next step and note.)

2. Mount a dovetail bit in your table-mounted router. We used an 1116 "-diameter bit with an 80 cutter angle and a 12 " shank for the dovetails shown in the 34 ";-thick stock of the corner. Most dovetail bits will work, and you may want to consider using smaller bits for thinner stock. Raise the bit so it will cut to the correct approximate depth through your workpiece sitting in the jig. Mark the location where the shank of the dovetail bit will pass through the jig in the following steps. You need to remove the stock in this area of the jig so the bit can pass through it. We did so with a dado set as shown below. Make this cut through only the "V" portion of the jig do not cut through the vertical piece that mounts to the miter gauge. You also could make this cut by sawing a series of kerfs with a handsaw and chiseling out the waste.
Note: If your table has a plunge router, it may be impossible to raise the bit high enough to make a full-depth cut. Also, the shorter shanks on smaller bits may prevent the bit from cutting high enough. In that case, you may have to make the jig from 12 " plywood.

3. Pass the jig through the spinning dovetail bit as shown. The bit's shank should prevent the bit from passing through the back side of the jig.

4. Assemble a mitered corner from scrap stock of the same thickness as the wood used in your box. Use this test piece to fine-tune the height of the router bit. Then, on the inside of the "V", mark the center of the dovetail cut as shown.

5. On a piece of paper that's as long as your box corners, lay out the position of the dovetails. You can space the dovetails evenly or unevenly, but it usually looks best to have a symmetrical arrangement. For our box, we put one dovetail in the exact center, with equal spacing between the dovetails. The space between the end dovetails and the ends of the corner equal half of the space between the dovetails. Mark the dovetail centers. Position your layout on the inside of the jig's "V" as shown, with the center of the right-most dovetail aligned with the center mark on the jig. Position and clamp the block at the end of the paper layout.

6. Place your box in the jig, butt it against the stop, turn on the router, and pass the V portion of the jig through the bit as shown. After making the cut, lift the workpiece off the jig and pull the jig back through the bit. Do not leave the box in the jig when you pull the jig back doing so may enlarge the dovetail cut. Make this cut on each of the box corners (four total cuts).

7. Rotate the box 1800 so its bottom faces in the opposite direction it faced in the previous step. Butt the box against the stop, and again cut each of the four corners. Rotating the box in this fashion ensures symmetrical spacing. Move the clamped stopblock as necessary to make the remaining cuts.

8. Measure the depth of the dovetail cuts as shown. Your dovetail key stock should be 116 " thicker than the depth of the dovetail cut. Rip this stock so it's 116 "; wider than the widest part of the dovetail cut.

9. Using the same dovetail bit as before, adjust it 116 "; higher than the thickness of your dovetail-key stock. Adjust the fence on your router table so the bit just barely cuts into the key stock at table height as shown. Pass the stock through the bit. At the end of the cut you will get a small amount of snipe you'll cut this off later.

10. Rotate the key stock end for end, keeping the same face down. Cut the other edge.

Test the fit of this stock in the dovetail cuts. (Slide the unsniped portion of the stock into the dovetail cut.) The stock should be slightly too wide. Adjust the fence forward just a hair and recut the stock. Do this until the stock fits tightly in the dovetail cuts. Cut off the sniped ends.

11. Cut the key stock into lengths about 14 " longer than the dovetail cuts. Apply glue to the dovetail cuts and slide the keys into them, leaving about 18 " extra key length at both ends of the dovetail cuts.

After the glue sets, saw off the excess key stock. A special flush-cutting handsaw works well, or you can use a typical handsaw if you protect the box with a sheet of card stock as shown.


Making the Jig

keyed miter jig

This shop-made table saw jig makes quick work of reinforcing miter joints.

By Matthew Teague

I love the clean look of a mitered box that has continuous grain wrapping around the corners. It’s an easy detail to create, but a sure sign that the maker is paying close attention to the details. The downside of a mitered box? Miter joints are notoriously weak because they have no real mechanical strength; glue is all that holds them together.

You can reinforce miter joints in a few different ways, but my favorite method is to use exposed keys. These hardwood keys are nothing more than thin lengths of wood glued into slots that span both sides of the joint to help hold everything together. To cut the slots for these keys at the table saw you need only a small jig that runs against the saw’s fence. The jig cradles the assembled box at a 45° angle and allows you to guide it through the cut.

Keys not only add great strength to miter joints, they also provide a decorative effect. Once the jig is made, you can arrange the keys in any number of ways, using either a matching or contrasting wood. For a slightly different look, you can cut wider key slots by simply adjusting the table saw fence to take two or more passes for each slot. For angled keys, which create joints that arguably are even stronger, simply angle the blade. You can even use this same jig at the router table to create dovetailed key slots – just be sure to hog out the bulk of the waste in the jig itself before you cut the actual box.

This jig can be made from plywood, MDF or whatever scrap you have on hand. If you choose sheet goods or thinner stock, you’ll need to face-laminate a few thicknesses so that the cradle of the jig is wide enough to hold the full height of the box. I simply glue and screw through all the thicknesses to create one large chunk of material. It’s a good idea to glue up a longer length of stock than necessary, just so that it is easier to hold during the next step.

Once the glue dries I remove the screws so that there’s no risk of the saw blade catching a screw when the jig is in use. You can then cut both ends of the stock at 45° angles on the miter saw or use your miter gauge at the table saw. Instead of cutting the miters to a sharp point where they meet, I like to leave about 1⁄8″ or so flat on each piece; once the jig is assembled and in use, this raises the box off the saw table and allows the jig to move more smoothly across the table.

Once the end cuts are made, cross- cut the stock into two separate pieces. Attach them point-to-point centered on a backer board. You should size the
backer board so that it will stand a few inches above your table saw fence. Use the extra height as a handle to keep your hands out of harm’s way when the jig is in use. This extra height also provides enough room for you to secure your box with clamps when necessary.

You can glue the angled blocks to the backer board, but I simply secure them with a few screws driven in close to the top of the angled blocks (where there is no risk of a blade catching them as you pass the jig across the saw). When the jig gets chewed up from use, this allows you to replace fouled parts easily.

keyed miter jig

Once the jig is ready to go, start by set- ting the height of the table saw blade. Position the box in the jig and hold it alongside the blade. For both strength and aesthetics, make sure your blade is low enough so that it won’t cut into the interior of the box. I usually raise the blade so that it cuts only about three- quarters of the way through the miter joints.

Once the blade height is set, mark out the position of the keys on the box. (If you’re working with a solid box that will have the top cut loose later, re- member to locate keys with the future cutline in mind.) Hold the jig against the fence and position the box against the upright face of the jig. Then adjust the fence so that the blade aligns with your desired key location.

To cut the slots for the miter keys, I usually just hold the box in place against the upright face of the jig and then run the entire assembly against the fence. If the box is particularly large, small or otherwise awkward, you can clamp the box to the backer board of the jig before you cut the slots; just make sure to position the clamps so that they won’t interfere with the cutting procedure. You should be able to make each cut in a single pass.

Make the same cut on all four corners of the box. Relocate the fence to align with the next key location and repeat the process until all your key slots are cut. Once the slots are cut, the keys are easy to install.

I’ve come to love the look – and the strength – that hardwood keys add to a miter joint.

keyed miter box

Simple but handmade. Curly maple sides are highlighted with contrast- ing walnut splines and a textured birdseye top panel.

Download a 3D SketchUp model of this box.

Installing keys is a simple process. Mill a long length of hardwood to fit snug in your key slot. Use a backsaw or band saw to trim it down to make triangular keys of a more manageable size. Glue the keys into place and trim them flush to the box sides with a backsaw or flush-cut saw.

installing miter keys

Square the slot. If you cut slots using an alternate top bevel (ATB) blade, you’ll need to square the bottom of the key slots with a chisel.

installing miter keys

Glue the keys in place. After a dry-fit to make sure the splines are snug but not tight in the slots, add glue and slide them in place.

installing miter keys

Saw away the waste. A backsaw or flush-cut saw is used to cut away the bulk of the waste.

installing miter keys

Clean it up. A sharp chisel trims the key flush. Work from the corner of the box toward the center to prevent tear-out.

This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

popular woodworking magazineOur cover story for the August 2012 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine is Campaign Furniture by Christopher Schwarz. In the piece you’ll discover the fascinating origins of this furniture style, which was popular in the British Empire and America for more than 150 years – plus, you’ll find the drawings and information you need to build a classic campaign chest of your own. Explore the nearly limitless aesthetic possibilities of the humble box as our editors take on 4 Boxes, 4 Ways. In A Trio of Trifids, renowned period furniture maker Charles Bender offers three high-style variations on a carved foot for a cabriole leg.


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Mitre keying jig

Mitre key jig


The mitre is one of woodworking's simplest joints. Being perfectly symmetrical it looks easy to produce, but it’s a joint that is hard to get right and make strong without using unsightly nails or brackets as reinforcement. There are many treatments that can be applied to the humble mitre to increase its strength but not many come close to the elegance of using veneer keys.

I will demonstrate here how to make veneer keys and how their use can add a new visual element to the humble mitre joint while dramatically increasing its strength. A special jig will need to be made to key the mitres effectively and I will use another jig to help clean up the finished joint. Once built these jigs can take a permanent place in the workshop to aid future projects.

Veneer keys are just that, thin keys made from veneer that are inserted into purpose cut grooves on the outer corner of a mitre. The veneer can be a contrasting colour to show off the detail. Or if you would rather disguise the keys, simply match the timber and veneer colour for a near invisible finish. For demonstrating the technique I have made up a maple frame and will be using mahogany veneer for the keys.

After cutting a set of accurate mitres with a good saw. Glue them up in the usual way. I prefer to use a good quality chop saw for small mitres and a table saw with a mitre sled for larger ones.

Click here for Part 2 of this article – Making a mitre clean up jig
Click here to watch a video of the mitre key jig in action


mitre keysmitre keyssolid mitre key
1.Three veneer keys equally spaced
2.Three closely spaced veneer keys
3.A solid mitre key

Part 1: Making a jig to cut mitre keys

Because glued mitre joints are delicate, cutting the grooves for the veneer keys is a risky procedure. To minimize the risk of breaking the glue joint I am going to make a jig to hold the glued mitre fast leaving me free to cut the veneer key grooves without worry.

The jig can be made to any size, the important thing is the design which supports the 90 degree angle of a glued mitre joint. I have opted for a good general purpose size for use with small frames and boxes.

Please be aware while following these instructions that the sizes can be customized for your own needs. If for example you work with large frames, you might want to make a bigger jig to accommodate the larger scale of your work.

First cut the main components. My cutting list was as follows (all dimensions in MM):

cutting list
using a mitre sawglueing up a frameMitre jig
4.Using a chop saw to cut mitres for maple frame
5.Mitred frame being glued up with special purpose framing clamp
6.Finished jig clamped to the workbench and ready for use
cutting on table sawcutting on table sawcutting on chop saw
7 & 8.Cutting the components on a table saw.
9.Using a mitre saw to create the triangular support in MDF
Cut the 45 degree angles of the triangular support plate (B). Glue the triangular support plate to the backing board ensuring the bottom edges are perpendicular and the apex of the triangular plate is centrally aligned with the backing board. Clamp up and leave to dry.

Mark a central 10mm hole in the hardwood vice front (D). Mark another 10mm hole that is offset from the central hole at approximately 45 degrees. This second hole will accommodate the dowel guide pin (E) and will keep the vice front aligned with the rest of the jig. Drill the holes using a drill press then line up the vice front with the jig assembly for marking.

Mark the drilled holes onto the main assembly and again drill the holes using a drill press. There is no need to take the guide pin hole all the way through, about 25mm deep should be ideal.

Insert the dowel guide pin (E) into the offset hole and glue in place. A tight fit is good to keep everything alined. If needed use a mallet to gently knock the dowel into place.

applying gluegluing componentsdowel in hole
10.Applying glue to the triangular support
11.A simple rub joint is ideal
12.Dowel located in hole
drillingdrillingmarking out
13 & 14.Drilling the holes in the vice front and in the main assembly
15.Marking out biscuit positions

Next, biscuit joint the backing board assembly (A+B) to the clamp support plate (C). Then, glue and clamp the two pieces together.

using a biscuit jointerusing a biscuit jointerglueing up
16 & 17.Biscuit jointing the two components
18.Clamped up assembly


A 10mm threaded rod is now needed for the central hole in order to provide the mechanism for driving the vice closed. I have used a locking handle fixing (available from Axminster) which is ideal for this kind of application. Once tightened the handles can be lifted and moved out of the way. If you don’t have a locking handle to hand, you can use a custom cut length of threaded rod with a washer and wing nut on the front end and a washer / nut combination on the back end. If you go down this route it’s a good idea to super-glue the back nut to the threaded rod, effectively creating a bolt that won’t come loose during use. Another simpler alternative is to use a plain old nut and bolt with a spanner to tighten the vice. Not as good as a Kip fastener or wing nut, but will still get the job done sufficiently well.

The next thing to do is counter bore the back of the jig. The nut (when using the locking handle fixing) or the bolt head (when using the wing nut type approach) needs to be sunk so that is doesn’t protrude passed the back face of the jig.

Once counter bored I recommend gluing the nut/bolt head in place to stop it spinning during use. A hot melt glue gun is ideal for this.

using a drill pressusing hot melt glue gunusing jig
19.Counter boring the back of the jig to make clearance
20.Using a hot melt glue gun to secure the nut in place
21.Securing a mitred frame in the jig


The jig is now almost complete. Simply slide the vice front onto the jig, put the threaded fastener assembly through the central hole and you’re ready to cut a set of mitre veneer keys!

Clamp the jig to your work bench with a couple of clamps then use the vice jig to snugly secure a corner of your mitred frame.

Before working on the frame mitres, cut a slot in a piece of waste wood using a fine saw. A small dovetail saw is ideal. This will allow you to gauge the saw kerf thickness. Try slotting in various thicknesses of veneer to see which fits best. You can always use more than one layer of veneer to create keys for thicker saw kerfs.

Once you are confident with your saw kerf / veneer thickness combination it’s time to use the jig.

cutting groovetesting veneer thicknesscutting groove in mitre
22.Cutting into a piece of waste wood to test the saw kerf thickness
23.Trying the veneer thickness for size in the saw cut
24.Cutting into a mitred joint using the jig


Mark out the spacing between cuts and ensure that each cut is as straight as possible. It is also important to keep the base of the cut straight and of equal depth on both sides. Bear in mind that the veneer key will sit on the base of the cut so any discrepancy here will show as a gap at either end of the sawn slot when glued.

A single veneer key will add significant strength to a mitred joint, but using two or three keys will make your joint even stronger. If you are using contrasting woods it can look more appealing too.

Cut the veneer with a knife or pair of scissors. Another important point to remember is the grain of the veneer should run in the same direction as the saw did when you were cutting. This will create the strongest joint possible. Think of it like plywood, you are essentially making room for another layer of timber with your saw cut and just like plywood, each consecutive layer of grain should run in the opposite direction.

cutting veneerveneer keystrimming veneer
25.Cutting the veneer keys to shape with a pair of scissors
26.Veneer keys glued in place
27.Using a block plane to trim the veneer keys


Once the veneer is cut to rough size, spread a thin layer of PVA glue over the veneer keys and insert them into the cut slots.

Leave the glue to dry, then trim the keys with a chisel and block plane. Be sure to follow the direction of the grain to avoid any ripping out. The jig provides a versatile system for both sawing and cleaning up.

Just like dovetails, veneer keys can be used for decorative effect. Try using different spacings between the keys. If you want to get really creative you could even use different coloured veneers for multicoloured joints!

cleaning up
28.Using a small chisel to clean up a mitre key joint


So we’ve covered veneer keys, what about mitre keys? Mitre keys follow the same principle as veneer keys but instead of using veneer for the key, a solid piece of hardwood is used to create a thicker and stronger key. Solid mitre keys can be cut to size on a bandsaw and trimmed with a block plane. The same jig can be used to cut the female part of the joint. Do take care to ensure the keys thickness matches the thickness of the slot you cut in the mitre. Mitres are fragile and will easily split if the solid keys are too thick.


Click here for Part 2 of this article – Making a mitre clean up jig
Click here to watch a video of the mitre key jig in action







52 - Miter Spline \u0026 Dovetail Key Jig

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Keys miter

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