In this article, we are going to learn how to make biscuit joints without a jointer. Biscuit joinery is a very simple option to make a bunch of solid joints quickly. It’s the perfect choice for a variety of projects, especially for cabinetry stuff. Getting a biscuit joiner is definitely a good idea, but maybe you are not too sure about spending money on a tool that you are not going to use very often. Don’t worry, you have a couple of alternatives you can choose from. In summary, you could either use a router with a rabbet bit, or you could carefully chisel the necessary slot for the biscuit with a thin chisel.
If the previous options don’t do the trick for you, maybe you should consider using a different joinery technique. There are many biscuit joiner alternatives you could possibly choose from. Dowel joints are the most similar to the biscuit joint. We are going to talk about them briefly at the end of the article.
The first way to make biscuit joints without a biscuit joiner is by using a router. Let’s talk about that.
Using a Router
This is the most logical alternative you can choose. If you think about it, routers and biscuit joiners are very similar tools. While plate joiners are only able to cut slots to fit biscuits in, routers can also be used for trimming, to give a more pleasant look to your project.
So how can you use a router to make biscuit joints? You’ll need a bit that allows you to cut an appropriately shaped slot. You’ll need a rabbet bit for that. They are usually employed to cut all alongside the board, for a rabbet and dado joint. In this case, you’ll have to start in the middle of the board, where you need your biscuit joint to be.
How to cut at the right depth? Luckily, these rabbet bits let you install a ball bearing on their tip, which functions as a depth guide. For example, a #20 biscuit is 1 inch wide, so it will require a 1-inch bearing. Cut all the way through in the middle of the biscuit, until the bearing touches the board, then carefully move in both directions to finish the slot. Check its size frequently by putting the biscuit in it, in a trial and error fashion.
For biscuit joints, you’ll need a 5/32 inches wide rabbet bit, and 3 appropriately sized guide bearings, for #0, #10, #20 biscuits. Luckily, you can find kits like this one that contain all the necessary stuff to make biscuit joints using a router.
Alternatively, if you have a plunge router, you could try using veining bits. This could also be a solution for side slots, which might be hard to cut with rabbet bits. Use them very carefully, since it’s very easy to break them when cutting in deep, tight spots.
Using a Chisel
If you need to make a side joint, it might be very difficult to do it with a router, since you’ll miss a reference surface. You could get by if the joint needs to be positioned close to the end of the board. Extend the support surface for the router by aligning the end grain of your board to the workbench surface.
On the other end, it might be impossible to use a router to cut a slot in the middle of your piece, for example, if you need to add a shelf to a bookcase. In that case, you could try chiseling out a slot for your biscuits. You’ll have to cut a very tight slot, approximately 5/32 inches wide, so you’ll need a very thin chisel. Your best chance would be using a carving chisel.
Another tricky thing is getting the right oval shape for the biscuit. Same as I suggested for the router, proceed step by step: carve a little bit of wood, and then try to fit the biscuit in. Draw a line in the middle of the biscuit to check how much fits inside the slot. A solid, stable joint required half the biscuit to go in each slot.
Biscuit joinery doesn’t require you to be super precise. Even when using a biscuit joiner, the resulting slots have some wiggle room. That’s a good thing. It means that you can get a biscuit joint that is good enough even with a chisel.
A Solid Biscuit Joint Alternative: The Dowel Joint
Instead of finding ways to cut biscuit joints without the appropriate tool, what about changing the joinery technique? Dowel joints are the most obvious alternative. Instead of having ovally shaped biscuits, here you have cylindrical pins, which are often called dowel pins. They require a simple hole to be put in. That’s one of the advantages of this technique: it doesn’t need a specific power tool, a simple drill is enough. You might need a dowel jig to get the cuts in the right position and avoid errors. If you need to make just a couple of dowel joints, consider making your own jig. Try to be as most accurate as you possibly can: dowel joints are less forgiving than biscuit joints.
Try to get the same depth in both boards. You don’t want the pin to be deeper on one side than the other. That could produce an imbalanced joint. To make sure you get it right, use a drill stop like this one. There are also a couple of DIY alternatives. For example, you could apply some tape on your drill bit to mark the wanted depth. Alternatively, you could use a piece of scrap wood as a depth stop.
Strength-wise, dowel joints are usually considered stronger than biscuit joints. Not everyone agrees with that: some say that since the contact surface is way bigger when applying glue the resulting joint is stronger. On top of that, biscuits are made of compressed wood, so they swell when in contact with wood, resulting in a tight joint. Either way, both are solid types of joints.
As you can see there are some ways to make biscuit joints without a jointer. The main alternative to the plate joiner is a router with a rabbet bit. If you already have a router, this is a good option, since you can get a kit with all the necessary for less than 50 bucks, like this one. Biscuit joiners can cost more than 3 times that.
If you don’t own a router, you could try carefully chiseling the biscuit slots. An inexpensive, but tedious alternative. If you don’t have the time and patience, you should consider using a different type of joint. Dowel joints are the most common alternative.