How to Notch Wood by Hand Easily and Quickly

Incorporating notches in woodworking is something I recommended in a previous article called “Why Wood Notching – Tips and Benefits”, but in this article I’m going to cover the step by step process you can use to actually do the job. There are several tools and methods you can choose from to accomplish this task, and I’ll be listing them below for your reference:

  • Good ol’ hammer and chisel. This method has been around for a very long time, but its presence has not diminished. When all is said and done, power tools can do many things faster, but there are just those times when the job still requires a hammer and chisel.
  • Router. By setting the depth on a plunge router to the desired depth, you can simply “plunge” down into the work-piece and quickly remove a uniform depth. But unless you have a template set up, you’ll have to stop shy of the outer edge and finish it off by hand – aka hammer and chisel.
  • Circular saw. By setting the saw blade to the desired depth and slicing perpendicular to the grain, you can make a series of parallel cuts 2 or 3 millimeters apart. After making the required cuts, you simply “knock” and chisel the thin slices of wood out. Note that this method is only practical when slicing perpendicular to the grain (as cuts parallel to the grain would make the clean removal of remaining slices impractical), and when slicing straight across the board.
  • Power drill. This method is only practical when needing to notch out rather deep notches. Any notches under an inch in depth should be done with a router, as there’s just more control that way. However, when needing to go deep, there may not be any other way than to use a drill.

All the above methods have one thing in common. That is that they all need a hammer and chisel to finish the job. Ideally, you’d try to set things up so the power tool can do the whole thing, and there are times when this is feasible. If you’re notching the exact same profile repeatedly, you should probably think about rigging up a template of some kind so your router can rip through the entire notch.

But in cases where this isn’t feasible, for any number of reasons, you should be prepared to pull out your good ol’ hammer and chisel. Most carpenters will have several chisels of different sizes and depending on the size of your notch, you’ll need to pick one out accordingly. And due to the fact that two bodies will be colliding rather forcefully (hammer hitting chisel), you should work on a table that can take the expected impact without too much “jump”.

  1. Start by measuring and cutting your lines on your work-piece with a cutter knife. That’s right, cut your lines. You may already know this technique, but for those who don’t, cutting your lines as opposed to drawing them, makes for far more accurate dimensioning. This is of course, limited to lines that will be cut so as to render the damage the cut line caused irrelevant. Pay particular attention when cutting along the grain – it’s very easy to get pulled along the grain. The first few passes should be light, gradually increasing in pressure.
  2. Now you can begin removing the material within the marked lines. My first choice for shallow notches – in the half-inch neighborhood – is the router. Take your router, set the depth, and slowly plunge down into the work-piece. Remove the material as close to the marked line as possible after which you can finish it with a hammer and chisel.
  3. Being that you made your markings with a cutter knife, you simply place your chisel into the conveniently prepared cut line – another excellent reason for using a cutter knife for marking. This ensures that the outer boundaries of the notch are clean and straight – as that’s the part people will be seeing. The base of the notch should be perfectly flat due to the precision of the router with only the edges slightly rough from the chiseling.

And there you have it! If you don’t have the luxury of a router or any power tools, you can still incorporate the basic principles above. You’ll just have to chisel the whole thing out by hand instead of relying on the amazingly fast and precise mechanical wonder called the router. Well hey, people have been using hammers and chisels for generations before the advent of power tools and they’ve gotten along just fine.