How to Cut a Slot in Wood Without a Router

How did humans survive for hundreds of thousands of years without power tools?  Caves didn’t require any framing or flooring, of course, but eventually, humans built shelters themselves when a cave wasn’t handy.

Shelters became houses, furniture was made, and here we are.

All of this was done for centuries without power tools.  Human ingenuity devised ways to create, size, fit, and make their living conditions better by hand and hand tools.

Today, our power tools make those tasks easier.  But the old school methods aren’t forgotten and sometimes must be relied upon for some woodworking tasks when power tools aren’t available or when the best power tool for the job isn’t among our power tools set in the home shop. 

Sometimes we need to cut a slot, a channel, a groove, or a keyhole slot for a woodworking project.  We know a router is the easiest tool to use for this purpose, but we don’t have one.  What to do, then?

Let’s see what we can come up with to help you on that project.

We’ll Start with Other Power Tools First

Cutting a Slot in Wood with a Jigsaw

Jig Saw

No router for that slot?  No problem.  If you have a power drill and a jigsaw, you’ll be just fine.

Mark where the slot will go, and drill two holes, one at each end of the intended slot.  Make sure that at least one of the holes is of sufficient size for the jigsaw blade.  Cut the slot from one hole to the other along the lines you’ve marked, being sure to stay within the lines you’ve drawn.  Don’t worry about being too far within the lines, as you can always use a chisel with a sharp edge to finish removing wood out to the lines.

Cutting a Slot in Wood with a Circular Saw

It’s not the best idea or use of a circular saw, but it can be done.  Safety first here, as this can be dangerous if you aren’t careful.  It’s a bit safer than using a table saw for a plunge cut, but it’s still dangerous.

Make sure your blade is sharp; safety goggles and woodworking ear muffs are musts and clamp your wood in place securely.

Mark your guide lines accurately, and set your blade to the desired depth.  Tip the saw, wait until it is at maximum speed, and plunge it slowly into the board. You should practice this first on a piece of scrap wood before you work it in the final piece.

Cutting a Channel in Wood with a Table Saw

The term “rabbeting” refers to the cutting of a groove in a board.  Perhaps your project is building a new drawer for a bedroom bureau, and a channel or groove is needed for the drawer slide; or, you’re joining two pieces of wood and a groove or channel on the edges of the two boards to be joined is needed.

You’d use a dado blade for the task, a stack of blades adjusted to the width of the desired groove or channel.  Measure carefully, mark the board well, and run it over the dado blade.  You’ll get a good channel surface that will glide smoothly over the drawer slide guide.

We’d suggest a test cut first, just to be sure your measurements are accurate.  This will be especially important with regard to the depth of the cut.  In the case of the drawer slide, for instance, the cut depth must match the slide guide height. 

You also want to be accurate in the setting of the fence, so the channel is aligned perfectly with the guide.  A test cut will answer both of these questions and help you make any necessary adjustments.

Cutting a Channel in Wood with a Dremel Tool

There’s also the Dremel tool option for cutting a channel.  It’s not an ideal solution, but it can be made to work. 

It’s challenging to get a clean cut with this tool alone, and we recommend cutting the edges first with a utility knife guided by a straight edge.  If you’ve worked with a Dremel tool, you know it’s designed mainly for short cuts with its small rotary bit.  Long cuts will be time-consuming, and you’ll need patience and perseverance to complete the channel. 

Cutting a Keyhole Slot in Wood with Mixed Tools

This is where we begin transitioning to hand tools but still holding tightly to power tools for some of the work.

You’ve no doubt seen keyhole slots before but perhaps didn’t know they were called keyhole slots.  They look like inverted keyholes (thus the name) with an opening at the bottom end of the slot wide enough for a screw head to fit and a narrower slot extending up from the hole.  They are used to hang objects on walls like photographs and floating shelves.

They are usually cut with a special bit on routers and using a fence.  But, keyhole slots were being used long before power tools and routers.

Here’s the workaround.

Map out and measure where the keyhole slot is to go and draw your line for its length.  Drill a hole at the bottom end of the line that will be wide enough for the screwhead you are using to pass through it.  Drill a second hole at the top of the line smaller in diameter than the first but wide enough for the screw to fit.

Draw two lines down from the top hole the same width as the hole all the way to the larger hole, and make sure these lines are centered on the larger hole.  Using a keyhole saw (yes, there is such a thing) to cut along these lines and remove the wood from the slot.  A keyhole saw is a small hand saw with a very narrow blade and a pointed end. 

Keyhole Saw

How Do You Cut a Wooden Slot By Hand?

We’ll complete the transition from power tools to hand tools now for cutting slots in wood.

Long before power tools, especially routers, came along, slots in wood were cut by hand.  The two more frequent methods involved a rabbeting plane and a chisel for both slots and grooves.

Rabbeting Plane

Whether a wood or metal bodied plane, the body is the same width as the blade.  Their blades can be up to 1 inch in width but offer a variety of widths for a variety of cuts.  Those cuts can be either with the grain or against it (crosscutting).

You will want to mark your slot or channel dimensions carefully.  Using a utility knife to cut the line offers a good guide start, but so does a straight-edged metal, such as a level, which can serve as your makeshift fence.  After the slot or groove is started, though, the plane can take it from there.

The Chisel

Tried and true over centuries, the chisel was the tool of choice for cutting slots and grooves.  A sharp edge and a sure hand could create slots and grooves as accurately as today’s routers.

As with all these cuts, measure twice and cut once is the rule.  Mark your slot or groove carefully and at both ends.  A second hand tool, a back saw, comes next.

A back saw is a hand saw with a stiff brace on the edge opposite the cutting edge of the saw that provides better control of the blade and more precise cuts.  Because of this control, they are used in work requiring precise edges in joinery methods like dovetails and tenons for fine cabinetry work.

Back Saw

Use the back saw to cut along these lines to the desired depth of your slot or groove.  Then, after making sure your chisel is sharp, begin removing the wood between the cuts. 

Pick a chisel size that is close to the width of the slot or groove, and be careful not to be too aggressive in your cutting as you near the desired depth. The sides of the slot or groove can be straightened and smoothed as the final touch once the depth has been reached.

The absence of a router is not fatal, as you now see.  Other power tools can be used to create slots, grooves, and channels just as well, if not perhaps as quickly and easily.  And a combination of power and hand tools can accomplish the same tasks. 

Part of the joy of woodworking is the work itself and not necessarily the finished product.  Ingenuity, and old knowledge pre-power tools, can create works of both utilitarian and aesthetic value.  After all, we don’t live in those caves anymore.

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