A dowel joint is most often used as a reinforcement for other woodworking joints. Glue is applied to the wooden rods (or dowels) and then the dowels are inserted into holes drilled in the two workpieces to be joined or reinforced.
Dowel joints are a relatively strong woodworking joint when done right, but loose fitting dowels and dowels made from inferior materials will result in weak joints that will take little stress before failing. Straight, sharp drill bits will help ensure properly fitting dowels.
By far the most common use for dowels is joining together two workpieces with a butt joint. It's an economical way for the home craftsman to produce a strong, clean looking joint free of nails, staples and screws.
This type of joint is used in furniture construction to join frames together, attach legs to frames and even in the construction of drawers.
Dowels reinforcing a butt joint.
Dowels being used to pin a mortise and tenon joint.
Other woodworking joints, such as mortise and tenon, bridle and lap joints can be pinned with dowels to strengthen them and help keep them from pulling apart when used in stressful applications such as bed frames.
The joint is first assembled with glue and left to dry. Then the holes are drilled and tight fitting dowels are glued and tapped into place to secure the joint. Some woodworkers do this just for the look.
The most common type of dowel stock found in most hardware stores is made from birch and poplar. Other hardwoods such as maple and oak are a little harder to find, but available.
Dowels can be cut to length from dowel stock or bought already made. The dowel in the foreground is fluted.
It's usually more economical to buy lengths of dowel stock and cut them to the size you need. Dowel stock can be found in diameters ranging from 1/8" up to 1" or more and lengths of 12" to 36".
Precut packaged dowels are more expensive, but are usually fluted which allows for better glue distribution along the length of the dowel. The ends are also tapered to ease installation.
Like most things that come in packages, dowels are cheaper if bought in quantity. If you plan on doing a lot of doweling, this is the way to go.
In order for the two pieces of a dowel joint to be perfectly aligned, the holes must be drilled precisely. Any misalignment of the holes will result in a joint that either won't go together or has one piece out of whack with the other.
The self-centering Big Horn doweling jig in the photo on the right makes it easy to get precise alignment of the holes for perfect dowel joints. This jig works on round, square and irregular shaped stock up to 2-Inch thick.
Because it can be used on round stock, it's useful for joining store bought spindles and legs to rectangular or square stock. Great for building your own tables and chairs.
Another, less expensive method that works well is to use dowel center transfer plugs to align the holes. These work by drilling the holes in one piece of the joint, inserting the plugs in the holes, and then carefully aligning the two pieces and pressing together.
The tapered points on the end of the plugs transfers the center hole location to the piece without the holes. A nice center-punched depression is left to help start the drill bit. Cheap and accurate.
If you're looking for a strong, inexpensive way to join two pieces of wood, don't overlook the dowel joint. It's been around for a long time because it works.
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