I'm starting to construct larger pieces (chests, display cabinets,
night stands, etc.) and I very much like the "arts and crafts" style.
I would prefer adhering to those principles and use dowels instead of
screws as much as possible. But I don't want to ignore practicality
either. Would I be better off using screws which are countersunk and
then hide the heads with plugs? (This would, of course, be totally
dependent on the dynamics of the attachment point in question.)
Dowels are cool...but require clamps.
Screws are quick and one can hide the head with a plug.
Your call. (I use both.)
I have found, however, that smaller spindles work better with dowels.
There is a smaller chance of splitting the wood.
Depends upon (among other things) how good you are, and how fussy you are.
Dowels require precise fits; screws are much less demanding.
On the other hand, dowels are invisible, but screws are pretty obvious
unless you do an incredible job of matching color and grain on your plug.
I use pocket screws where they can't be seen, but wouldn't consider using a
screw with a plug where it could be seen.
I only use dowels when biscuits or pocket screws aren't possible. But once
I get my domino...!
Ooooo . . . no, no, no! You misunderstand me. I have seen many arts
& crafts pieces where the dowels are an actual feature - either by
coloration, grain orientation or protrusion. Hiding them is something
I do NOT want to do. Even if a screwed joint is necessary, I would
make it so the plug is visible.
I guess the question I wanted to ask was, everything else being equal,
is a dowel as strong as a screw?
I expect you are mistaken. They often have exposed tenons, but no furniture
features conspicuous plugs or dowels. Are are are simply ugly.
Dowels are more rigid than screws, but screws will hold even if a joint is
busted. Does that make them stronger or weaker?
Years ago I built a rather shoddy TV stand out of scrap, always wondered how
strong it was. When I replaced it with something nicer, I tested it.
With 300 pounds of weight on it the glued joints gave way, but I actually
had to hit it repeatedly sideways with a sledge hammer to get it to fail for
(I haven't used a nail, except to hold a back on, for a while now)
You might tell that to Sam Maloof and let him know he's been wrong all
these years... :)
"There are many places in my furniture where a dowel or
mortise-and-tenon joint just does not work because of the thinness of
the wood; so I use screws. In effect the screw is a metal dowel. I am
not a purist. .... I have no qualms about this."
--from Sam Maloof, Woodworker.
"...as an example, it's nothing more than an end grain to long grain
glued joint, drilled through the rail with 3- to 4-inch screws pulling
it tight. Then the screws are just plugged over with a rosewood or ebony
plug for contrast. ..."
From Gary in KC, from having taken one of his classes on chairmaking...
No, a dowel is not a mechanical fastener. Screws, nails, brads,
clips, etc. are.
Let me try restate the question.
In a project where screws would normally (and acceptably) be used to
attach one piece of wood to another, is there anything lost (i.e. in
strength or structural integrity) in using glued dowels instead of
It's certainly possible. Screws are metal, and have higher strength/size.
It's possible to invent scenarios where screws would hold better than
dowels, because dowels of sufficient strength would not actually fit in
the space required.
That, of course, is the precise reason Maloof uses screws many places he
Given the tensile strength of steel, it would take a very large dowel to
exceed it from a purely mechanical viewpoint. The screw will almost
invariably pull from the wood by the wood failing long before the screw
itself will fail.
That said, in most situations well-fitted long-to-long grain glue joints
will be nearly as strong as the wood itself. Dowels can be used to
increase glue area or for alignment. In most cases, it's the extra area
that adds strength over the joint without them when there is added
strength or they add the cross grain breaking resistance where otherwise
there might only be a _relatively_ narrow long grain which could break
along the grain (and not necessarily or even likely at the glue joint
At least initially...like anything else he does, I think he's pretty
pragmatic -- before deep thread thin shank wood screws other than
drywall screws were very common, they were about the only choice w/o a
real specialty search...
Food for thought:
Old timey, wooden shutter frames around here were often made with M&T joints
(one side, top and bottom, purposely unglued to facilitate replacing the
shutters) and with a screw countersunk into the edge of the shutter frame
and driven directly into the end grain of the tenons.
The screw hole was plugged to keep out the elements, but could be drilled
out later if/when it eventually came time to replace the shutter slats.
It made for a helluva strong joint on big window shutters, even without
Haven't seen them made that way in a long time, but it was once a common
method in this part of the country.
As it is a very similar principle, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that was
where old Sam got his idea for screwing his chair joints together?
There's not much new under the sun.
Yeah, all the windows on the old barn use pins (essentially a 16d cut to
length) for the same purpose. If need to make a new bottom rail, for
example, just drive them on through, take it apart and do whatever...
I think the impetus for SM was that his pieces were simply too thin and
he had a long vs end grain joint that wouldn't hold at all w/o a
fastener. Being self-taught, he didn't know any better that he wasn't
supposed to do that. Since they worked and lasted, it became his
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