Trestle-style Sawhorse

Sturdy, space-saving shop assistants

A lot of shop accessories have to do with holding workpieces by either securing them or simply supporting them. Sawhorses fit the latter category, providing a great solution for setting up a temporary bench or portable staging during milling and other operations. My rickety commercial sawhorses and shop-made A-frame versions left a lot to be desired. I needed something stout but with a small footprint, and the strong, sleek models shown here fit the bill nicely.

Their design features durable joinery and solid construction that’ll withstand a lifetime of hard work. Plus, the top beam can be easily replaced if you happen to saw into it one too many times. You can spread the horses out for long work or nestle them together to support shorter stuff. And when the job is done, they compact together against a wall until next time.

In addition to yielding a pair of capable, enduring shop assistants, this project offers a great way to practice clever joinery techniques such as stop-guided notching, drawbore mortise-and-tenon joints, and wedged through tenons.

Angled feet with cutouts attach to notched uprights via drawbore mortise-and-tenon joinery to form sturdy leg assemblies. These assemblies connect solidly to a stretcher with stout, handsome wedged through tenons. A replaceable notched and beveled beam is attached using trim head screws. A wide chamfer breaks the edges and lends styling to these durable work supports. Their svelte design allows nesting pairs to be tucked away until called into action.

Plunge-rout the mortises

Mill parts to the dimensions shown in the drawing and use the triangle marking method to identify pairs. Fully lay out a mortise on one foot and mark out the mortise length extents on the remaining feet. Clamp all four feet together and to the bench, arranging the laid-out mortise on the inside of the group. Set up a plunge router with an edge guide adjusted to position the bit. Plunge the bit to the full depth at each end of the mortise, and then rout the remainder in several shallow passes. Rotate the assembly to mortise the second inside foot in the same manner. Pull apart the pieces and position the mortised feet to the outside. Repeat the process.

Next, completely lay out a mortise on one leg of one pair (for router setup), and simply mark out the mortise ends on one leg of the other pair. Clamp paired legs together to the bench to rout both mortises at once. Again, plunge to full depth at the mortise ends before clearing the waste in shallow passes. Repeat for the second pair. Then flare the mortises as shown.

Mortise the feet. Use a plunge router equipped with an edge guide to rout the mortises in the feet. Clamping all four feet together and rotating and reorienting the pieces makes for quick, consistent work.

Mortise the legs. Making multiple passes, rout the mortises in both legs of one sawhorse at once, using a backer board to prevent tearout. Repeat for the second pair of legs.

A flare for strength. Lengthen the mortises toward the outside faces of each leg by about 1⁄16" at each end using a round file. The flared opening will allow the wedged tenons to lock in place.

Saw the tenons at the table saw

Lay out a tenon on one leg where shown in the drawing (p. 41). At the table saw, set up your crosscut sled with a stop to register the tenon length. Saw kerfs to establish the shoulders and then nibble the tenon to width as shown. Use the same procedure to saw the stretcher tenons. A shop-made tenoning jig (see onlineEXTRAS) can help you quickly cut the leg and stretcher tenon cheeks. The stretcher-to-leg connections are through mortise-and-tenon joints. For mechanical strength and aesthetics, round the tenon edges using a file as shown. The stretchers’ through tenons are also kerfed and wedged to increase the connection’s strength. Drill two holes near the shoulders to prevent the tenons from splitting when driving the wedges that you’ll make later. Use a handsaw to cut kerfs from the tenon ends to the drilled holes.

Nibble to width. With a stop on a crosscut sled establishing the length of the leg tenon, saw the shoulders on the leg’s faces. Then raise the blade to nibble the tenon to width as shown. The stretcher tenons are cut in the same fashion after adjusting the stop and blade height to suit.

Saw the cheeks. Use a tenoning jig to saw one cheek on every tenon. Then adjust the rip fence to saw the opposite cheeks, keeping the same face as before registered against the jig. This approach ensures that all tenons are a consistent thickness regardless of any inconsistencies in stock thickness.

Round the tenons. If necessary, use a shoulder plane to tweak the tenons’ thicknesses to fit their mortises. Then chisel and file the tenon ends to match the rounded mortise ends.

Kerf the tenons. After drilling holes near the stretcher tenon shoulders, use a handsaw to cut a kerf inward from the tenon end to accept the wedges.

Notch the legs and shape the feet

Using the beams’ thickness as a reference, lay out the notch in the top of one leg and use it to set up your table saw to cut the notches for a snug fit around the beam. Dry-assemble the sawhorses to mark the notch locations on the beams, and cut them using stops as well. Next, mark out the foot cutaways where shown in the drawing. Crosscut the ends of each cutaway using the table saw, then use the bandsaw to complete the shape. I cleaned up the bandsaw marks with a spokeshave. Dry-assemble the sawhorses once more to drill a pilot hole through the top end of each leg and into the beam. Then finish up the shaping by making the angled cuts at the ends of the feet and beam, and at the top of each leg. 

Saw the leg notches. With your blade raised to the notch depth and stops clamped to your crosscut sled to regulate the width of cut, nibble away each notch by taking a series of contiguous passes.

Top-notch cutting. After dry-assembling the sawhorses to mark out the notch locations on the beams, saw them using the same nibble-between-stops procedure as for the legs.

Profile the feet. After kerfing the ends of each foot cutaway at the table saw, finish up the shaping at the bandsaw.

Wedging, drawboring, and assembly

Make the tenon wedges so that the grain runs lengthwise. Begin with a 3/8"-thick piece of stock that’s 1" long and wide enough for safe handling at the bandsaw. Make a plywood sled with a 1"-long wedge-shaped notch in the edge that tapers from 1/8" to nothing. Then use the sled to feed the wedge stock as shown. Also make four 3/8 × 1-1/4" dowels, chamfering one end by chucking the dowel in a drill and rotating it against a power sander running in the opposite direction.
Lay out and drill the 3/8"-diameter through hole in each foot using a brad point bit at the drill press. To prevent exit tearout, fill the mortise with scrap and rest the foot on a backer board. Dry-assemble each leg-to-foot connection, insert the same bit into the hole, and tap it to mark the hole center in the tenon. Then detach the legs and mark the tenons for the drawbore hole centers as shown, and drill the drawbore holes. At the router table, chamfer all perimeter edges, skipping the bottom of the feet and all joint intersections.

To assemble the horses, first glue each leg tenon into its mortise. Then tap a glue-coated dowel through the offset holes to draw the joint tight. Use clamps to pull the leg assemblies onto their stretchers and install the wedges as shown. Tap the top into its notches and drive in the screws. After trimming the dowels and tenon ends flush, sand everything through 180 grit and apply a protective finish if you want. You’re ready to work.

Making wedges. To make tenon wedges, press the edge of your wedge stock into a wedge-shaped notch in a plywood sled, then push the sled past the blade. Flip the piece over to saw the next wedge, and repeat until you have enough

Mark the drawbore hole center. Lightly tap the 3⁄8" drill bit into the leg tenon to make an indentation 1⁄32" above the center hole mark you made while the pieces were connected. Drill the 3⁄8"-diameter drawbore hole at this offset center hole mark. Note the mortise filler and backer board that were used to prevent exit tearout when drilling the dowel holes in the feet.

Install the wedges. Pull the glued stretcher joints together squarely with clamps, then apply glue to the wedges and tap them into the tenon kerfs. 

Flush the joinery. With the glue set, saw the wedged tenons and dowels flush. Then smooth the joint surfaces with a block plane or card scraper.

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