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Pocket Holes vs. Dowels: Which Should You Pick?

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Two of the most popular choices for woodworking joinery—pocket holes and dowels—offer contrasting approaches. One relies on mechanical fasteners while the other uses a hidden pin made from hardwood to bridge the joint. They both work well, but if you’re wondering which to use, which method wins in the pocket holes vs. dowels debate? 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer, as certain scenarios are better for dowels while others might call for pocket holes. But, we won’t leave you hanging there. Let’s take a deep dive into this joinery method debate. 

The difference with pocket holes vs. dowels

At the question’s core, the difference with pocket holes vs. dowels is that pocket holes utilize a mechanical fastener (a screw), while dowels are wooden pins that bridge between the joint. But there’s more to it than that.

Pocket holes

When assembling a pocket hole joint, the user needs a jig to guide a special drill bit. With the jig attached to one of the boards, the user drills a series of holes (how many depends on the width of the board) to a specific depth controlled by the jig. Unlike the holes drilled by typical brad point bits, these holes are flat with a smaller hole bored in the center.

When assembling the joint, the user applies glue and then drives special washer-head screws through the pocket holes and into the other board. The point of the screw guides through the smaller hole, while the flat bottom of the washer-head screw seats against the wide, flat shoulder in the hole. This creates a lot of clamping force without the need for clamps, holding the joint securely until the glue dries.

Dowels

Doweling also requires a jig and a specifically sized drill bit. However, instead of screws, this method uses hardwood pins and wood glue to fasten the joint. Also, this method requires more precision than pocket holes.

First, the user clamps the doweling jig to one of the boards. Then, using a properly-sized drill bit for the jig and dowel, he or she drills a series of holes in the board. After this, the user swaps the jig over to another board, aligns the jig perfectly, and drills another series of holes to match the first set.

With the pairs of holes bored, the user squeezes an adhesive glue into the holes and along the joint with a wood glue dispenser, inserts a dowel into each pair, and clamps the joint shut. The dowels increase the glue surface to provide a strong joint, but the joint must remain clamped until the glue dries. 

Are pocket holes stronger than dowels?

Joints assembled with dowels are stronger than pocket hole joints. And the reasons are simple: glue surface and grain direction.

If we consider the traditional butt joint, the pocket hole simply butts the end of one board against the face grain of another. This creates a relatively poor glue surface, as end grain will absorb the glue like a straw rather than bond fibers with the long grain of the other board. Much of the strength comes from the threads of the screw.

On the other hand, a dowelled butt joint increases glue surface by boring holes into both boards, with each hole providing more area for glue. Additionally, the dowel’s long grain bonds with the fibers in both boards. As the glue dries, all the fibers lock together to create a very strong joint.   

When to use pocket holes

Pocket holes in a board

Regardless of comparative strength, pocket holes are plenty strong in most situations. For this reason, choosing when to use them is more often about appearance than strength.

For basic woodworking projects such as cabinetry, picture frames, and even some smaller shelving units, pocket holes are fine. However, understand that there is a common theme among those projects: They’re typically visible from only one side. Pocket holes can hide inside a cabinet, behind a picture frame, or under a shelf, and they won’t deter from the look of the project. 

When to use dowels

Dowel joints can be very strong, but they can also be difficult to align correctly. However, given that this joinery method isn’t visible once the project is complete, this method can be worth the extra effort.

Anytime a project will be visible from several angles, consider using dowel joinery over pocket holes. Projects like blanket chests, cutting boards, jewelry boxes, and furniture where it’s more difficult to hide a pocket hole completely from view or touch are good candidates for dowels. 

Also, for homemade tabletops, benchtops, or other flat, wide plank glue-ups, dowel joints can actually be more accurate than pocket holes. Dowels will keep these boards aligned better during glue-up than pocket holes. Pocket hole joints tend to shift slightly upon tightening, pulling one surface proud of the other and requiring a lot of sanding. Dowel joints will remain as accurate as they were drilled.

What about pocket hole screws vs. wood screws?

When comparing pocket holes to wood screws, the concept might seem similar at face value. First, neither method is particularly helpful at increasing glue surface. Also, both use mechanical fasteners and don’t require clamps. However, there are stark differences. 

With pocket hole joinery, the screw drives from inside the pocket and into the face grain or long grain of another board. These fibers are strong and don’t separate easily, giving the screw threads something sturdy to bite into.

In most applications, simple wood screw joinery involves driving a screw into end grain. End grain separates more readily than face or long grain, which makes these joints inherently weak. In most cases, these joints require additional bracing or gussets to be strong and sturdy. However, this method doesn’t require a jig or special screws—basic wood screws will do the trick. 

In this case, pocket holes come out on top. The joints are stronger because the screw takes advantage of stronger wood fibers. However, neither method increases glue surface. Since they’re stronger than screws or pocket holes, dowels might be the method of choice when strength is a concern.

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