Woodworking: Pick a Pocket Joint

close up of pocket joint in cabinet face frame Like most DIYers, I’m not a master woodworker…not by a long shot.

While I fully appreciate the inherent beauty and strength of well-crafted dovetail, mortise & tenon, and dowel joints, I’m just not that committed to traditional joinery when there’s a faster and easier solution – like pocket joints.

So am I guilty of woodworking “sloth”?

I’m sure even the masters would give me a break when it comes down to practical wood joinery. Whether you’re a pro cabinetmaker or just puttering around in your garage workshop, pocket joints may be just the ticket for many situations.

If you haven’t yet added “pocketing” to your joinery arsenal here’s why you should.

face frame attached to cabinet with pocket joints So… what’s a pocket joint?

Pocket joinery has been used in the furniture and cabinet-making trades for ages – joining pieces with screws inserted in an holed drilled at a steep angle.

It ain’t rocket science, but it works for all kinds of applications and in many cases it’s as strong as traditional joinery.

The three keys to making pocket joints are:

  1. the jig
  2. the drill bit
  3. the pocket screws

Note that “skill” isn’t included in that list. That’s because anyone capable of holding a drill can make good looking, reliable pocket joints with one eyeball tied behind their back.

Let’s look at the key components.

The jig

The pocketing jig is a drilling guide that lets you drill into a workpiece at a steep angle – about 15 degrees. The jig is clamped to the wood and usually has two or three aluminum-lined guide shafts for drilling the “pockets” for screws.

pocket jig with stepped drill bit and pocket screwThe drill bit

Pocketing requires a special stepped drill bit designed to create a “shoulder” within the angled hole for the screw head to grab and hold the joint together. Some bits come with an adjustable stop collar to control hole depth.

The pocket screws

Pocket screws are specifically designed for this task. They have self-tapping threads so you don’t need to drill mating holes in the piece you want to join. They also have an integral “flat washer” under the head. This flat surface applies the force directly onto the the shoulder of the pocket hole.

Avoid using regular wood screws – the cone shaped head is designed to penetrate the wood and exerts more outward force which can weaken joints or split the wood.

Where can you use pocket joints?

pocket jig guides drill at 15 degree angleThe most common applications for pocket joints come from the furniture and cabinet-making business – assembling cabinet face frames, cabinet cases and putting the two together. In these situations the pockets are drilled in the back side of the frame or cabinet where they won’t be seen (if you have a wooden table with an apron connecting the legs, chances are pretty good the top is held on with pocket screws).

While you can buy wood plugs to fill pocket holes, the plug is likely to be visible unless you’re painting the piece.

Other situations where pocket joints work well:

  • shelf or counter edging
  • odd angles and segmented curves
  • stair risers and treads
  • window jamb extensions
  • edge joining boards

I’d never thought about using pocket screws to edge join boards but it seems like a good alternative if, like me, you don’t have enough long clamps to glue up wide panels or cabinet tops.

clamping workaround for edge glueing wide panelThe picture on the right shows one of my creative (meaning desperate)workarounds clamping a cabinet top – which subsequently split along one of the joints – an obvious clamping failure.

Placing a pocket screw every 6 or 8 inches along each joint would have solved my clamp crises and left me with a solid wood top that could survive the humidity swings. Oh well, next time….

When it comes to jigs – Kreg is king

I bought an inexpensive pocket-hole jig several years ago – it does the job, but it can be a bit fussy to set up. Spend five minutes Googling “pocket joints” and you’ll find Kreg is the hands-down favourite brand for pocket jigs and accessories. They have several different jig designs and complete pocketing packages for pros or DIYers. These packaged systems range from about $40.00 to $140.00 on Amazon.

Since my woodworking activities are rather sparse at present, I’m not in a huge rush to upgrade my pocket-hole paraphernalia but there’s absolutely no question that when I do, I’ll be investing in a Kreg.

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