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I'm a newbie woodworker and the struggle is real. My current project needs me to cut a 2" wide by 1/2" deep slot in a 3" wide by 1" by 1" piece of soft maple. A 2" wide piece of 1/2" plywood will be inserted and glued into the slot.

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I have access to a co-op workspace, so assuming I have all the standard power tools, what is the easiest way for me to do this? I tried drilling it out with a drill press and it came out like s**t.

Appreciate any input!

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The traditional way to cut a shallow mortice would be using a ½" chisel and mallet, it should only take a few minutes.

Setting up a guide-jig for a router would take longer and still need a chisel to clean up the corners.

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While RedGrittyBrick is correct, an alternative is a mortising chisel, also called a square hole bit.

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You would use this in a drill press, and for best results use a guide to get the edges lined up exactly. With strong downward pressure, the bit removes wood, while the square chisel cuts and diverts the waste into the bit for removal. The bottom requires cleanup. Note also the top clamps, which prevent the aggressive bit from pulling the workpiece up off the table.

Keep in mind that this is not the same as a mortise chisel.

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You'll notice that these babies are much beefier than standard chisels, and are intended to cut and lever out wood. For any depth of cut, they will work much better and faster than a standard chisel.

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what is the easiest way for me to do this? I tried drilling it out with a drill press and it came out like s**t.

Ignoring the scale for the moment, the way you'd traditionally approach something like this* is 1) excavate the bulk of the material, 2) flatten the bottom of the recess, 3) clean all four edges up and then 4) do any final flattening of the bottom that's needed. Steps 2 and 4 would generally have been done with a hand router where the bottom needed to be particularly flat and clean, if that wasn't needed you could just scrape to flat(ish) using the edge of the chisel.

In many cases step 1 above would have been done by drilling to depth using a suitable bit (these days a Forstner or sawtooth bit would be most commonly employed, back then usually a centre bit). All three of these bits will leave dimples from the central lead screw/point on the drill bit, but that's not a big deal on a non-show surface.

So drilling away a good bit of the waste is actually a good way to approach this sort of thing, the small size is probably what gave you trouble. The smaller you're working the more careful you have to be in a relatively coarse medium like wood because just one errant splinter can ruin the piece you're working on, where on a full-size table leg that same size of splinter might barely be noticeable.

Now because this is so small you can quite easily accomplish the task entirely by chiselling (after careful marking out of course). But if you need the recess to be very neat and the finished size very accurately 1/2" x 2" I would strongly recommend not using a 1/2" chisel. An expert could, but you are virtually guaranteed to end up with irregular edges no matter how careful you set out to be and these would need to be trimmed back to neaten up so you'll end up wider than 1/2". So if you do this with a chisel it would be preferable to use a 1/4" or 3/8" chisel for the excavating work, then trim the 2" edges back to your knifed layout lines with a 3/4" or 1" chisel (not essential but a wider chisel = fewer cuts = better chance at a cleaner result).

In case it needs to be said the chisels should be very sharp for this — as chisels should always be — so if necessary hone them or strop them immediately before starting. Chisels only work properly if very sharp and although it seems paradoxical they're safer to use.

Also make sure the workpiece is held firmly to work on it! Presumably there'll be a vice of some kind in the co-op workspace so do make use of it, with the jaws padded using folded paper or card if necessary to prevent bruising of the maple.


*For example cutting the recess for an oilstone box to receive the stone, see links in previous Answer.

  • Michael, something I wanted to ask is how many of these are you doing? If you only need the one and you need it to be really neat then I'd suggest you should aim to make two or three so you can then pick the best one. You might luck out and the first one turns out good enough for you, if so that's great and don't bother making any others. But if the first one isn't quite up to scratch you're set to make another rather than it seeming like another setback, and learning from your mistake(s) on the first one you can expect that #2 will be slightly better. – Graphus supports Monica Sep 27 '18 at 17:03
  • I've done one so far but will do multiple attempts and expect marked improvement applying the input received here :) – Michael Sep 29 '18 at 17:09
  • Good to hear. Best of luck! – Graphus supports Monica Sep 29 '18 at 17:14

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