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Low-Budget Mechanized Biscuit Joinery

Most finish work is a matter of repetition. And if you don’t come up with a good system for all that repetition, you’ll never make any real money. I had one job where we had to glue up almost 100 panels made from a mixture of recycled beech and maple. We wanted to biscuit all those glue joints, but the last thing anyone on my crew wanted to do was plunge a hand-held biscuit joiner a few thousand times. And the last thing I wanted to do was invest in a big-dollar tool that I might not have a real need for again.

So Adam Myers took charge of making a good idea work in 3D.

Here he is routing out the top cover to help hold the biscuit joiner in place.


(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

02-EdWilliams-1 The biscuit joiner had to fit just right in the cradle. That hole in the side is for a vacuum. You can imagine the mess you’d make otherwise.
Inverted in the table, the top was perfectly flush, and the housing was held back far enough so that it wouldn’t interfere with the plunge action of the joiner. 03-EdWilliams-1
We designed the top as a torsion box, rigid and perfectly flat. 04-EdWilliams-1
05-EdWilliams-1 And we finally got some use out of a mis-cut cabinet from a previous job. That switched outlet was a piece of ingenuity, too. Always remember to think about power when you build any workstation.
One outlet powered the joiner, and the other powered a shop vac. We could turn both on or off simultaneously. 06-EdWilliams-1
Next, we set up a few easy-to-use clamping stations. 08-EdWilliams-1

We built a 1/4-in. plywood rim around the tables so the barclamps would stand up.

09-EdWilliams-1 10-EdWilliams-1

The tables were wide enough for the widest panels we had to glue up. In case you haven’t figured it out, we had a lot of panels to assemble. With this many tables, we were ready to work.

Set-up for the operation was simple. Once we had the biscuit joiner mechanized, and the lay-up tables ready, we only needed a table saw, a joiner, a chop saw, and a LOT of space. 11-EdWilliams-1
12-EdWilliams-1 We set the shop up to move the lumber from the tooling area (saw, planer) to the table joiner, to the clamp tables, to the stacking area.
We had to S4S all the material to uniform widths and thickness. We also had to fumigate and de-nail the entire 3,000 bdft. The lumber was shipped to us from Ohio—it was reportedly over 100 year-old reclaimed beech and maple. Once it was planed, we found a few pieces of poplar mixed in. 13-EdWilliams-1
14-EdWilliams-1 Here’s Mike Bell at the table joiner.
Each panel was dry fit and laid out with pencil lines for biscuits. 22-EdWilliams-1
Then each piece was pushed against the table joiner at the pencil lines. 15-EdWilliams-1
By holding the boards down tight and flat against the table, each pocket was perfectly aligned. After all the pockets were cut, the boards were returned to the clamp table. 16-EdWilliams-1
17-EdWilliams-1 We weren’t quite done with the job when I wrote this article, but we had already gone through 25 gallons of white glue. We like to use white glue for this kind of set-up because it dries slower than yellow glue, which allows for more work time.

All end joints received biscuits, too, and a little persuasion was necessary on occasion.

18-EdWilliams-1 19-EdWilliams-1
As you can see, some of the panels were pretty wide. 20-EdWilliams-1
07-EdWilliams-1 We kept them flat with additional clamps and bracing, but first we wiped off all the excess glue with wet rags.
Most of the wider panels (some over 60 in. finished) were laid up to 40 in. wide, then sized and assembled in the field. You guessed it: we had a serious restriction on the width and length of our panels—the size of the elevator; the residence was on the 18th floor! 21-EdWilliams-1
Here’s a pile of panels ready for the drum sander. 23-EdWilliams-1

As you can see, there are a lot of panels, and they’re wide. But it’s the frames and the trim that really make the room.


We milled the face frames, the panel molding, and the baseboard cap. DSC00492-1
DSC00493-1 We shopped out the crown molding to a local millwork company, but supplied them with our material. And if you’re wondering what that drywall is doing up there, in the way of the suspended ceiling…haven’t you ever worked on a commercial job where they want you working, but they’re not ready for you?

Gary Katz says that this is one of the best times to be a finish carpenter, because of all the new tools, technology, adhesives, and materials we’re able to use. At the time I wrote this article, it was also one of the best times because the economy had fueled jobs of this quality. Still, it’s a lucky thing to be a finish carpenter today.


(This article originally appeared on


21 Responses to “Low-Budget Mechanized Biscuit Joinery”

  1. Ed Latson

    Very cool! I’ve been practicing in this profession for 41+ years and, ‘Wow!’, you’ve taught me several really great ideas for large format glue-ups. And that trick with the biscuit joiner table is priceless, too—–excellent!

    Any chance of seeing the finished work in place????
    Thank you for some cool ideas.
    Best regards and continued goo luck,
    Ed Latson Danby VT

    • Ed. Williams

      Hey Ed,

      Unfortunately, the finished product is located in a penthouse apartment here in Dallas, and the original owner has since sold the place. There’s no telling if the new owners kept that billiard room intact or if they gutted it which is often the case in high-end residences around here.

      I’m glad to hear you found the tricks useful. It was a real time saver for us.


      Ed. Williams

  2. Art Wehnert

    Very Nice! Glad you mentioned that it was a billiard room, I thought it might have been for a public bar or restaurant. I hope if someone did revise it later, they had the foresight to disassemble and save all the workmanship for re-use. My question is on pricing – did you quote this project or were you fortunate enough to run it T&M
    Art Wehnert
    Yorkville, Illinois

    • Ed. Williams

      Hey Art,

      T&M. It’s the only way I would agree to the project. There were too many unknowns to try to give what would be considered a reasonable price. I would have had to put in so many contingency dollars that the project wouldn’t have happened. There were issues with an unknown amount of waste with this material, the extra costs to rent the empty warehouse next door to my shop for assembly, plus being in a penthouse, I would have to try to factor in downtown traffic, and waiting on a very busy freight elevator to get the material up there.

      As it turned out, the material was infested with powder post beetles and we had to have the entire shipment fumigated before we could bring it into our shop environment. That was a cost I didn’t anticipate.

      But it was one of those lucky projects. I knew the GC very well, and the clients were people of means. We did a budget for all the costs we could foresee, and we kept everybody abreast of where we were with the budget as things progressed. As we were doing all the woodwork for that project, I don’t remember the exact final cost for that room, but I do know that we hit pretty close to our cost projections.


  3. John Graybill

    Very cool, A friend mounted a Virutex Biscuit joiner in a similar set up to make drawer sides. He attached a little air piston and foot peddle together to automate the process. The downside was the blade slammed into the material sometimes causing tear out.
    Your way gives greater control on the plunge.

  4. Lee Place

    A great project but I did not see how you operated the plunge of the biscuit joiner.


  5. Ed. Williams

    Hey Lee,

    You just push the wood into it. Instead of pushing the joiner into the wood like usual, you push the wood into the joiner.


  6. alex sela

    Why are the biscuits used? I would think that the glue would do its job just as well.

  7. Ed Williams

    Hey Alex,

    Yes, the glue was the binding agent that held it all together; the biscuits added nothing to that aspect. But they were indispensable with regard to keeping the faces of the boards all in the same plane. The wood was re-claimed English Elm and although it had been surface planed to the same thickness, there were still boards that were not perfectly flat from end to end.

    Trying to keep those long wide panels as flat as possible during the glue-up process was the reason we used biscuits. We still had to do a lot of dead-blow hammering to keep the edges of the boards in line between the biscuit points. We were trying to keep the finish sanding to a minimum because every panel had to be a uniform thickness for the installation to go smoothly.


  8. Dave Cutherell

    When you say white glue. I am not familiar with that. What brand is that? Thanks, amazing post!!!

  9. Barry Shepard

    I began reading this article and pictured a biscuit joiner being held. I mean what other way could you possible use one right. This just goes to show that finish carpenters are engineers at heart. Excellent thinking out of the box.

  10. Steve Bello

    Great write up and an excellent finished product. Any chance we can get a diagram with measurements of all the pieces you used to make the box the biscuit jointer is held in. Thanks

    • Ed. Williams

      Hi Steve,

      A set-up like this would have to be individualized to work with whatever brand of biscuit jointer you happen to have available. The tool we used at the time was a DeWalt. Today we use the Festool Domino system (GREAT tool) for applications where this kind of joinery is required. All you have to do is build a cradle to hold your machine upside-down and then start building a table around it. It’s more of a fill-in-the-blanks kind of process. But then, that’s the fun part!


  11. Rene Dumond

    Lots of expended labor– a simple tongue and groove would have saved tons of time and labor

    • Ed. Williams

      We thought about T&G. All the boards came in random widths and the client wanted them laid in random widths. Plus, it was reclaimed lumber and wasn’t the flattest of lumber to work with. The first strike against the T&G idea was we would have had to equalize all the widths in order to run them through a two head moulder, and we didn’t have a 2 head moulder anyway. We also considered setting up on two shapers – one with a tongue and one with a groove. But by the time we got both shapers set up, dialed in and tuned up, and all the stock feeders feeding just right, we could have had eight panels already in the clamps. There was also the issue of tear-out as the lumber, which was very old, dry, and brittle, ran through the knives. Even a little tear-out or blow-out would have turned a usable board into cull. Also, trying to clamp up T&G boards that long can be a real fight. With the biscuits spaced out like we had them, it wasn’t much of a battle to get tight glue joints. It’s not that we didn’t consider T&G, but when we really considered the pros and cons, the biscuits won hands down.

  12. Drew Johnson

    Very impressive!!

    Was any thought given to simply routing a biscuit-sized groove the full lenth of all boards, on both edges? (…referencing off the finished side to keep that face in the same plane.) Then, you can put your biscuits any where, or even spline to reclaim the lost glue surface entirely.

  13. Ed Williams

    Hi Drew,

    Thanks. Your idea would work. My only concern would be the same one you addressed which would be reducing the glue surface area and weakening the joint between the biscuits by taking out that much more stock. Trying to fill up the voids with splines sounds like it might be a pain trying to get biscuits and the splines to all line up with each other to then slide into the groove of the adjoining board. It was enough of a pain with just the biscuits! But it’s always good to consider all the options.

    Ed. Williams

  14. tony cerrito, the house carpenter

    Got me thinking. Your pushing the material into the joiner instead of plunging the tool . Could it be done with a slot cutter in a router table or putting the plate joiner cutter on the spindle to have the proper radius and not have to slide the board. But just not to make the cradle . I love the idea.

  15. Tim Johanson

    Ed, what’s the story on the dual-mounted miter saws in sequence?

  16. Ed Williams

    Ah! I wasn’t sure what you were talking about by “dual miter boxes” until I revisited the photos. That set-up was not just for this particular paneling project, but used only as a space saver. We wanted to have at least one compound box and a slider set up at all times, and putting them in line seemed the most efficient use of space at the time.

    We have since expanded our shop and have several kinds of miter boxes in various locations around the shop so we broke down the “dual” set-up. But it was real handy at the time.



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