Woodworking Basics

Use these three powerful woodworking basics to bring your wood projects together.

| June/July 2007

If you’ve got a vision for building your own furniture, storage shelves, cabinets, tables and various built-ins, there’s good news: Success has never been easier. Three revolutionary options now make it much simpler to create the kind of strong, attractive, long lasting joints necessary for woodworking success. You don’t need to spend a lot of time or money tooling up, either. You can become proficient in one afternoon with the wood joinery options you’ll learn about here.

You need to begin by understanding something fundamental about wood. You can’t simply shove the glue-covered edges of two boards together and expect the union to hold. Take a bookshelf, for instance. If you join the shelves to the uprights with glue alone, the joints will break under minimal stress. Glue is great, but it does have limitations. This is why most successful woodworking joints involve both glue and some form of interlocking connection. Understanding wood joinery is really about understanding your options for creating these all-important mechanical connections. New to woodworking? Take a look at “Woodworking Words,” below, for a glossary of basic technical terms you’ll find here.

Dowel Joints

Dowels have been used to join wood for centuries, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t kept up with the times. You’ll find dowels in everything from antique furniture to barn frames, but modern refinements make dowel joints stronger, more accurate, and quicker and easier to create.

To make a dowel joint, drill holes in mating surfaces of wood. Half the length of the dowel goes into each hole, spanning the joint line between the two parts. It’s an easy concept to understand, but there’s a technical challenge: Pairs of holes drilled across a joint must be perfectly aligned with each other. Without a high level of precision, dowel joints simply won’t come together.

You can produce accurate dowel joint holes using nothing more than an ordinary drill and bit and a homemade drilling guide made from a block of hardwood. This is the traditional method cabinetmakers have used for centuries to guide dowel drilling, but there are easier ways to do it today. The simplest is a tiny device called a “dowel center.” These small metal cylinders have one flat end. The other end has a rim and a raised point at its center. Drill holes in one side of a joint, then insert dowel centers into all these holes before temporarily bringing the two parts of the joint together. The points on the ends of the dowel centers will mark the locations of the corresponding holes you need to drill in the mating part. As long as you drill each hole square to the face of the wood, you’ll get a reasonable fit.

Doweling jigs are an even more accurate way to regulate the location and angle of matching dowel holes. Numerous tool companies make doweling jigs; good ones can cost more than $100. Most include a built-in clamp that holds the jig steady on the wood during drilling.

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