A simple but effective design to improve the strength of thick adhesive composite strap joints is validated with experiment and finite element method. The strap joint under investigation, with a particular application to naval ship structures, consists of two thick woven E-glass/vinyl ester laminates joined together with two steel doublers. Longitudinal tensile loads are applied to the joints, resulting in large concentrated shear and peel stresses near the free edges of bondlines. The new design intends to reduce the adhesive peel stress by application of through-the-thickness compressive pre-stress along the bondline and thus leads to an increase of joint strength. Experiment results show that all the joint failures are delamination of the top layer of the laminated adherends. The test further confirms that joint strength increases significantly by applying the transverse pre-stress. Finite element analysis reveals that the pre-stress can effectively reduce the magnitude even reverse the sign of the peel stress in the adhesive layer and the adherends. Recessing the adhesive leading edge could magnify the pre-stress effect and reduce the adhesive peel stress, but would increase the shear stress. For those composite joints with low transverse interlaminar strength and susceptible to delamination, this simple design/technique can considerably improve their joint strength. (c) 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.