Introduction: Hand Cut: How to Create an Elegant Door Handle With No Power Tools or Fasteners

This handle was a design solution for a recently finished bench cabinet. The design of the piece had a minimalistic modern aesthetic that focused on the beauty of the solid maple's grain over polished, uninterrupted surfaces. The handle needed to be made in an unobtrusive way so as not to disrupt the flowing grain on the door panel faces. It also provides protection to the piece. Since the doors open downwards, the handles create a built in a rest for the fully opened door so that it will not hyperextend and over-stress the hinges.

Using leftover ebony pieces from a previous project I was able to create a low profile, custom handle that creates a simple but elegant composition when opened. This Instructable is for those interested in traditional woodworking techniques using only hand tools.

The techniques explained are rooted in traditional Japanese joinery that solely relies on compressionfit joinery (meaning no nails and no glue). It's possible (and much faster) to use a router and table saw, but with small pieces, and a small workspace you can create distinctive work without any power tools, using only your hands, patience, and practice. It takes time but is a very satisfying process.

Tools you'll need:

pencil and square

Chisels (they need to be very sharp- see a future post about chisel sharpening), at least a small (1/4") and medium (3/8") size.


Japanese pull saw, or miter saw

wood glue (Tightbond or similar)


Step 1: The Layout

An accurate layout is critical to the success of the finished joint. Take you time and make sure all the lay out lines match up. Otherwise all the work you do after will be compromised by a bad foundation. (At this stage it's assumed you'll have the handle and the door face ready.)

Find the center of the door panel and the wooden handle. Measure the width of the handle and inscribe it on the door face. Find the width of the door face and draw it on the handle.

The dovetails are formed by connecting the corners of the inscribed square. This ensures that the angles will match consistently.

The groove should be at least 1/3 the thickness of the door face. The maple door face will be cut as the positive (male) part and the ebony will be cut as the negative (female) piece (picture 3)

The two pieces' layouts should be identical once completed

The joint is essentially a lap joint with a shape cut into it to provide more contact surface (and thus a stronger joint) for gluing. So the depth of the lap on the handle should be half it's thickness. The depth of the door should be the full thickness and a mark for half the thickness of the handle. See picture 2

Material notes:

Make sure the layout on the handle runs parallel with the grain direction. Grain direction is important when working with hand tools. This will make cutting the joint much easier later on. It also provides a stable joint fitting for the natural expansion and contraction of the wood.

Step 2: Cutting the Mortise

Always cut the mortise first. It's easier to make the final adjustments to the tenon later. In this case the mortise is the handle.

1. Clamp the piece.It's much easier to saw a little piece like this if it doesn't move.

2. Cut the layout lines of the mortise using a Japanese dovetail saw. You can also use a miter saw. The trick is to cut into the waste side of the layout lines. Be careful not to cut past the halfway mark. Keep checking both sides of the cut to make sure that you don't oversaw the mortise-picture 3.

Sawing Tip: Put your eye directly above the piece and use the mirror finish on the saw to line up the blade to the pencil line. You should see no gap between the line and the blade-picture 2. Start the cut at the corner of the piece and tilt it slowly down as you're progressing the cut. if the saw catches on the wood your adjusting your sawing angle too quickly.

3. Chisel the groove. Use a chisel slightly smaller than the groove to take out the waste of the groove. Place the chisel -bevel side down -and shave off thin sections of the groove using a hammer to hit it towards you- picture 4-6. This technique (popular with Japanese carpenters) of drawing the cutting blade towards you gives the maker more control of the tool. After cutting out most of the waste, turn the chisel over to pare the groove flat using a square to check for flatness. Sneak up on the pencil line so you don't over chisel the groove.

4. Chisel out the dovetail ends. Once you have cut the groove, it should be realivtely easy to pare out the small pieces left over in the dovetailed ends. Use the chisel bevel side up to pare out these pieces and clean up the joint.

Material Note: Warning: be very careful when chiseling into thin straight grained materials. Pay attention to the properties of the wood you select. In this case ebony is very dense but also very brittle, the thinner it is the more likely it'll split. I split one handle because I chiseled it incorrectly picture 7. Splitting is also a risk when doing the dry fitting. if it's too tight, forcing it may cause the wood to split down the grain.

Step 3: Cut the Tenon on the Door Face (part 1)

First you need to cut a simple lap joint to the halfway mark of the thickness of the handle. The next step is to cut out the tenon shape that mirrors the handle shape you just mortised

1.Cut parallel cross cuts in the waste section about 1/16"-1/8" apart. Be careful not to oversaw the depth. It's often easier to saw to right before the layout line and then pare the wood down after you've roughed out the shape. Picture 1.

2.Rough out the lap- Split or pare off the waste. You can strike the gap in between the cuts to break the wood on the grain at the depth you sawed, or pare the waste from the side. Use the saw marks and your layout line as guides to determine the depth you need to pare off. Picture 1

3. Clean up the lap- use a wider chisel to pare off the waste (bevel side down), flatten and square the lap joint. Picture 2

4. Redraw the layout lines- picture 3

Step 4: Cut the Tenon on the Door Face (part 2)

Now you only need to take off a little bit off the's easy to make it smaller so start with cutting it a little proud (or bigger) and size it down during the dry fitting and final adjustments.

1. Saw parallel depth cuts to the layout line on the sides and top. It'll ultimately be a 45 degree cut corner to corner and then you clean the rest up using a sharp chisel. This is a similar technique to making the lap. Picture 2

2. Chisel out the shape Start with making stop cuts perpendicular to the grain Picture 3. Bevel side out, and progress the cuts slowly. Tap the hammer, don't slam it. This will prevent risk of overparing and splitting out the groove tenon that you are trying to create. Come in and pare from the sides Picture 4.

3. Clean up the mortise Using a chisel and square, flatten and square the joint being careful not to cut past the layout lines. Take very thin shavings and sneak up to your layout. Picture 5 & 6

Step 5: Final Adjustments and Installation

During the dry fitting go back and forth between fitting it and making small adjustments. Here's where you need to stay patient or risk blowing out the piece trying to force a fit that's too tight. Take small shavings and don't use the hammer.

Tip 1: Use your pencil and scribble on the mortise until you've made an even coating. When you fit the piece on the door, the graphite will come off where there's the most compression. If it's too big then use those graphite marks made on the dry fit to shave off the areas of the tenon that are too big.

Tip 2: Take the edge of your chisel and create a slight bevel to the edges of the joint and the handle Picture 2, by lightly scraping the edges.

Once it's fit and flush then glue and clamp it for 24 hours. Apply a finish of choice. I prefer a traditional oil finish like linseed oil. Picture 3

Install the door and you have a beautiful and functional accent to your fine furniture project. Picture 4