Have I mentioned lately that woodworkers are some of the most opinionated and set-in-their-way people who you will ever have the good fortune to meet? If you are a professional woodworker, then yeah, I am probably talking about you. If you are a beginner, be warned! We are going to discuss when to NOT use pocket hole screws!
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Asking a simple question from a group of woodworkers will garner you dozens of opinions, and is likely to end in a heated debate where names may be called and lineage may be questioned. If you don’t believe me, toss a question out on a woodworking board or forum, any question, and wait for the tide to roll in.
Okay, so I am exaggerating just a bit. But seriously, we are a passionate lot with our way of doing things and a tendency to poo-poo anything that is not up to our standards. Because I grew up being taught by, and sometimes disagreeing with, my grandfather on woodworking techniques, I have tried to stay open-minded about things that are new or different.
And because I have this love for teaching others to create their own pieces, I am not quite so snobbish about making something the easy way. Most people do not have the benefit of years of experience to draw on to build something. Even more, people just want to make something on the cheap and quick.
Which brings me to my topic for this post – when to use pocket hole screws. You see, there are many woodworkers out there that do not like nor use pocket hole screws for woodworking. And when they do, they restrict the use to a few mundane tasks.
However, pocket hole screws have become the mainstay of the beginner woodworker and the DIYer. So, rather than ignore their potential, I have embraced the ease and simplicity that they bring to most projects. In fact, if you browse through my archives, you will find a lot of things that I build with my Kreg K5* and my Kreg R3 jigs.*
But, and this is a big but, there are times when I am completely against their use, and when I find it unprofessional to recommend them. So, let’s discuss when to not use pocket hole screws!
If It Will Be Visible…
This one may be obvious, but you should avoid using pocket holes in locations where they will be visible. The only exceptions to this would be 1) if you don’t care about the aesthetics of the piece, or 2) you are using plugs and will be painting the piece.
Table Top Assembly…
This one has got to be my biggest pet peeve. I see people doing this all over the web and it just makes me cringe. You know what I am talking about – those DIYed farmhouse tables where they use pocket hole screws to assemble the table top.
I’m not saying that you can never use pocket hole screws for table builds. After all, I do have a console table on this blog that was built with pocket hole screws. But, I am saying that you should be aware of the results and build accordingly. I also would recommend that you never use that method for a dining table top.
If you see someone building a dining tabletop with pocket hole screws, let me just tell you that you may want to move on. If you have done this yourself and are now offended that I have knocked your build-up, please let me explain it to you before you close me down.
Wood moves. It always has and always will, and when it moves it does so mostly across the grain or width of a board. You can’t stop it from moving, and if you try you will only cause damage to the wood. Best construction methods will take wood movement into consideration and work with it, not against it.
Yes, you can build a tabletop using pocket hole screws, but it will eventually separate and possible develop cracks and/or splits. In addition, you are really just creating more work for yourself by doing it that way.
The proper way to connect solid wood boards into a solid piece along the vertical (length) is to use glue. Yes, just glue. Glue is as strong as the wood itself, so don’t be afraid to rely on it by itself. Glue will also allow that wood to expand and contract as the seasons change.
On the other hand, pocket hole screws will bind areas of the wood across the grain. Picture if you can a dried out sponge. Now, if you pinch a section together with your fingers and then hold the sponge beneath the water, what happens? The sponge will expand, but the area beneath your finger will remain held in place.
In fact, you will likely see that the sponge will expand fully in the area that is farthest away from your fingers and less so as you get closer to where you are pinching the sponge. This is sort of what happens when those farmhouse tables start to move.
What If I Use Glue AND Pocket Hole Screws?
Well, that would be better, but I would still caution you on this. Most of the time this is done as an alternative to using clamps. You add glue and then screw it and you’re ready to move on to the next step.
However, inserting those screws without clamps holding everything in place can cause the boards to shift out of alignment. And, if you are going to clamp everything in place, why not just use the glue-up method and save the time and expense of the screws.
My second pet peeve about pocket hole screws is when they are used on the breadboards. If you are asking yourself, “what are breadboards?” No, it is not something that you set on your counter to slice bread. It is those two pieces of wood that are located at the ends of a table.
In addition to the people using pocket hole screws to assemble a tabletop, I often come across people attaching breadboards to those tables with pocket hole screws, as well. I assume they have seen a table somewhere that they want to duplicate, and they set out to build one without really knowing the construction purpose for each part of a table.
Breadboards are not just placed on a table because it looks nice, it is there to encapsulate the exposed ends/grain of the tabletop and to allow for them to move. When you use pocket hole screws to attach a breadboard to the ends of a table, you are inhibiting that action.
This is the number one reason why so many of those DIYed farmhouse tables develop cracks. The Woodwhisper had a nice little article about wood movement that I believe to be helpful for beginners. So, you may want to check that out, too.
However, the proper way to attach a breadboard is to use mortise and tenon joints. Now, I know that may be out of the range for some people’s skill. But, keep in mind that a farmhouse tabletop doesn’t have to have a breadboard. But, if you plan to attach one, maybe this is a good time to learn how to do something new and expand your abilities.
To Attach TableTops To Aprons…
Another big no-no for building tables is that you shouldn’t use pocket holes for attaching the tabletop to the apron. Again this inhibits the movement of the wood. There are several options to get your attachment done correctly, and they are quite easy.
I prefer to use figure 8 connectors* just as I did for my kitchen island. The reason that I like these is that as the wood moves in different directions the figure 8 swivels in its groove. I also love these because they work well as hidden hangers, which you can see in my post on building honeycomb shelves.
If figure 8 connectors aren’t your style, then you could also use tabletop clips. They work in a similar fashion as the figure 8 connectors,* but you will have to create a groove in the apron for these to sit. Another option is to make your own connectors. Just make sure that you make them in a way that allows for the tabletop to move.
Cabinet Doors or Drawer Fronts…
When building a cabinet door or a drawer front, the rails and stiles should be assembled with tenon and groove connections. I am not talking about the cabinets or drawers themselves, just the doors and drawer fronts. I have seen a lot of projects out there showing doors built with pocket holes, and while this isn’t structurally an issue like the tabletops are, it still screams amateur.
Now, there is nothing wrong with being an amateur. We all start at that point. So, if you have doors that you built with pocket hole screws, don’t worry about it. As long as you are happy with the outcome, leave them be.
However, for your next project, you can always up your game and get those professional quality doors. To see how to build a cabinet door, I refer you to my shaker doors. I know that you are saying to yourself that you don’t have the tools to do that sort of thing. But, you can create those tenon and grooves without tools.
Take, for example, my Christmas easel. My construction method was just for the purpose of showing others how to properly create joints, even when you don’t have power tools. Take a look at that post/video and apply those same concepts to your next set of cabinet doors.
Melamine or Particle Boards…
Working with melamine and/or particle boards can be an incredible PITA, especially if you are new at it. I recently posted all of my tips and trick for building with these. So, I recommend that you read that for an in-depth explanation on getting the most of these materials.
I know that some of you have probably already used pocket hole screws on melamine and didn’t suffer any ill effects. So, why is it an issue?
Well, while you can probably get away with using pocket holes for some projects, anything that will receive day-to-day use is likely to come apart. Melamine and particle board requires special screws for construction. And, if you have ever purchased any assemble-at-home furniture, you have probably seen that these pieces always use cam locks and dowel pins for their construction.
They don’t manufacture it that way because it is easier, and they certainly don’t do it because it is cheaper. In fact, if you could use pocket hole screws with melamine, I bet Ikea would have switched over a long time ago. They simply don’t do it that way, because they know it wouldn’t hold up.
Across The Grain…
Finally, because I can’t cover every possibility in this post, I just want to say that when you are building anything with pocket hole screws, consider the grain. If you are going across the grain of solid wood with a pocket hole, it is possible that you will be restricting movement.
Since most pocket holes are placed at the end of a board or into plywood, we usually don’t have to worry about movement with pocket hole screws. But, if you are going against the grain, evaluate your piece to determine if restricting the movement is going to be an issue.
Now, if you have used pocket hole screws in one of the ways that I say you shouldn’t, I hope that you aren’t offended by my post. I am certainly not one of those bloggers that live off controversy. Nothing here is meant to put down anyone else’s efforts.
I also am not here to malign any other woodworker. I fully admit that there are different ways to construct with wood. I also fully admit that my way is not always the best way. I am just here to help and offer what I know from my years of experience. So, I hope that you are able to take something useful away from this post. 🙂
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