You might have noticed that pretty much everything
shown at the beginning had little slots and tabs in it. This has become a popular method of making 3D structures from 2D plates, spurred on by the digital fab movement starting some time in the 2000s. The name for the joint style is called "finger joint" after the woodworking technique
from which it was derived.
These joints are advantageous to make because they positively locate features, to within the tolerances of the material and process, anyway. This is because the tabs must necessarily align and fit into the slots.
Additionally, they create structures which react to loads through the material. Finger jointed structures tend to rely on fasteners only to hold the structure together from expanding outwards i.e.
unseating the finger joints. Otherwise, loads are directly transmitted through the fingers.
Prudent design is still necessary to ensure that the fingered edges are not loaded along the thickness axis, in which they are weakest, i.e.
flapping using the finger joint as a hinge. A finite element analysis
simulation is shown in image 6 - notice how significant stress builds up in the finger joints when the plates are bent. This will be discussed along with methods of preventing it.Open (Underconstrained) Finger Joints
The simplest method of joining perpendicular plates with finger joints. This isn't so much a joint as an alignment feature, without anything else (e.g. fasteners or welding) to keep the joint together. The joint is only strong in the direction of the edge, where the fingers are loaded in compression. This type of joint, especially with no backup, is vulnerable to bending Think opening up a stiff book.Closed (Fully Constrained) Finger Joints
These joints have one part with fingers and the other with fully closed slots. More strictly, it can be interpreted as a type of mortise joint
. The fully enveloping slot captures the fingered piece well in all 6 degrees of freedom, if fastened with screws, but suffers from the same "edge hinging" bending vulnerability without additional support.
These are more difficult to make correctly because material thickness tolerances can impact whether or not the slots fit significantly. This is discussed in more detail in Step 5, tolerancing.Regular Patterns
There exist two popular 'schools of thought' when it comes to how many
finger joints to use. One of them is what I term 'sparse' finger joints, in which a single joint consists of two slots and one fastening hole. That pattern itself is patterned several times, usually at least three - one on each end of the material, and one to hold down the center.
The other is what I call "edge stitching" in which the entire edge has a regular zig-zag pattern of fingers and mating slots. The distance between the 'peaks and valleys' is constant, and repeated for as long as possible. However, unless the part dimensions are a multiple of the slot width, there may be irregularities at the ends.
For example, 0.5" wide slots and tabs work well with a 2.5" (or, really any x
") part width. If the part were instead wider, then the outermost two slots and mating tabs get increasingly wider. The same principle works in metric part lengths. For 12mm slots to be patterned regularly, the parts must be an odd number times 12mm. The extra lengths generally aren't design problems, but for aesthetics, such as a "closing the box" design, it may be important. More on this subject is found in Step 6, making boxes.Direct Welding
Notice that there's been no discussion so far on how to join
the actual edges. Later on, I'll introduce methods of attaching the plates to each other with fasteners, but I do want to discuss welding.
While these joints have historically been the domain of plastics and wood, there are now an increasing number of project which use finger joints as alignment features in steel or aluminum with the intent of welding the joint closed. Welding is perhaps the strongest if done well and is also the least "bulky" method. This has been used to success on fabricated steel structures, such as giant hexapod legs.
In aluminum, TIG welding must be used, or alternatively, a zinc-aluminum braze. The former creates a strong, nearly homogenous weld, while the latter is more of a surface bond similar to regular brazing. However, the aluminum brazing alloy tends to dissolve into the joint, increasing its strength, but not over a properly TIG welded joint.Gluing
Also falling under the no-fasteners joining methods, adhesives can also be used effectively with finger joints. Most plastics, for instance, can be glued with a chemical cement, epoxy, or superglue (cyanoacrylate).
Cementing is particular well suited to plastics such as acrylic, PVC, and polycarbonate because the solvents tend to be very thin, seeping into the tight joints between slot and tab. Plastic cement, as opposed to "glue", is made primarily of monomers of the plastic embedded in a solvent - it actually melts the joint and fuses it again as one piece.
Wood also responds well to gluing, though my experience in this is limited to standard yellow PVA glue and thick CA glue only; woodworking is not one of my strengths.Finite Tool Diameters
It's often easy to model waterjet and laser-cut pieces as having infinitely sharp square corners because the tool kerfs are usually very small (0.01" or less for lasers, and usually 0.03 to 0.04" for waterjets). It is wholly possible to use these finger joint techniques with a CNC router, also a popular 2D fabrication tool. Because the tool radiii are very large, features called "corner passes"
are often added.
This is what it sounds like. The routing bit or endmill literally passes the corner
, keeps cutting for a little while, then backs up and begins to cut perpendicularly. This extra travel ensures that the radised portion of the cut is not interfering with the finger of the mating piece. The corner pass is generally no more than 1 tool radius and can even be less in flexible, compliant materials like wood. The resulting slot would be more constricted at the corners, needing more force to assemble.