We've had several "Ask Old Town Home" submissions over the last few weeks, but we've been so busy getting things done around our house that we've been pretty lax with getting back to people. Rather than let ourselves slack off any longer, I think it's high time we start to get caught up. We'll be answering several of our pending questions over the next month, and we're getting started with this one.

Usefulness of Pocket Screws

Frequent commenter and wonderful supporter of our blog "Threadbndr" asks:

I notice on your kitchen counter install, you used biscuit joins. Can you give your opinion on the pros and cons of biscuits over the pocket screws (Kreg Jig) that John uses over at Young House Love? I need one or the other to put two cabinet doors back together that have split vertically. Which do you think would be easier for a DYI person who is, at best, intermediate level?

This is a great question, mostly because I feel like I have a decent perspective on it and have "seen the light" as far as pocket holes are concerned. I'll apologize in advance for the long winded response.

Quite honestly, there's been a bit of an epidemic of "pocket-holers" as I like to call them. But I also think it's high time many of us, as ardent and capable DIYers (even those of a self described "intermediate" level, grew out of the pocket hole crutch.

I, like many DIYers, was an eager adopter of the "Pocket Hole Technology," after seeing Tommy or Norm use it on This Old House. Whether they were assembling a face frame for a cabinet, or securing a miter in a long run of molding, I was intrigued and wanted to try it.

I picked up a Kreg pocket hole set and began pocket holing everything. I was a pocket hole master. The jig, drill bit, and screws is an absolutely great tool, and one that almost any DIYer should include in their toolbox, hands down! 

I can say, without a doubt, I absolutely love my pocket hole jig and I probably use it monthly if not weekly. The problem is, it really wasn't the right tool for everything I ended up using it for.

Pocket hole screws are a wonderful way of joining to prices of wood, as long as you don't mind the hole it leaves, and you don't mind the gaps that can easily appear through the growing and shrinking of wood. Pocket holes are perfect for things where the holes themselves are always and forever concealed. A perfect example of their ideal use is in the construction of cabinet boxes. You can use the pocket holes to secure almost the whole thing, and you can do it in a way where you will never see the hole, even if your head is inside of the cabinet. However, not all uses are quite as ideal.

One of the places I used, or rather abused, pocket hole screws is in the construction of our garden gate. I use pocket holes to join all of the pieces of lumber along their edges. This left a whole lot of holes on the exterior of the door that I then need to fill with epoxy wood filler, let dry, them sand them smooth.

It worked, sure, but the results were less than ideal. The pocket holes can only hold the wood together so well, and the gaps left behind allow water between the board which has resulted in a fair amount of warping over the years. Additionally, though sanded smooth, you can still see the outline of the epoxy and holes all over the outside of the gate. And finally, when you have thick material, and you are only pocket holing one side, and the joined boards tend to cup towards the side of the pocket holes.

The pocket holes for our door worked, but if I had used a different tool the job would use been done faster, would have looked better, and I wouldn't be thinking about building a new door today. But I was a young DIY newbie at that time and simply didn't know better.

So, the big question, what tool should you use? Unfortunately, there's not a simple "one size fits all" answer. The tool you should select depends heavily on the job you are doing.

In terms of the performance of biscuit joining versus pocket screws, here's my take on it. This tool is one of my favorites and makes short work of joining two pieces of wood in a permanent and extremely strong bond. As you may remember, I used a biscuit joiner when joining several pieces of butcher block to make our new counter tops

In our reader's case, biscuit joining may be the better option to repair her split cabinet doors, assuming the split is along an already existing seam in the wood and you have a flat face to work with.

It makes slotted cuts in either piece of material, then you glue and insert little wooden "biscuits" in those slots and clamp the joint together. When the glue dries the little biscuits swell as they absorb the water from the glue, which cements them in the materials they are joining. As long as you have a good set of clamps, and a few hours to wait, you are in good shape.

The end result is a joint that is ridiculously strong, extremely clean, and completely invisible. I absolutely should have used this approach to join the pieces of lumber for our garden gate, and I often think about rebuilding it in this way.

Beyond a biscuit joiner, another great approach is through the use of mortise and tenons. This is the tried and true approach to woodworking that has been around for thousands of years (no joke). On our recent vacation to Vienna, during a trip to a local museum I was admiring the mortise and tenon construction of ancient Egyptian sarcophagi (I had to look up the plural of sarcophagus). Yes, I'm a nerd like that.

A mortise is a hole cut in one piece of material that accepts a tenon in another piece of material. The mortise and tenon form a joint made up of only the materials being joined, possible a peg or stay, and maybe some glue (depending on the situation), which creates an extremely strong bond and reliable connection of materials that is completely concealed, and leaving you without holes to deal with after the fact.

The mortise and tenon is tried and true, but it does require a lot of patience and the right tools. From mortising machines or jigs attached to drill presses, to dado blades and/or tenoning jigs to cut your tenons on the table saw, it's a major undertaking for the novice and occasional DIY woodworker. But good news, technology has created an easier alternative.

Today you can buy these great tenonning jigs and pre-made loose tenons. Using your normal drill you attach the jig to the material, drill using the guide to a max depth, then insert the beaded tenons into the mortises along with a little glue.


Photo Credit: Woodworker's Journal

You're left with a joint that is at least as strong as the biscuits if not stronger. You can pick this jig and the tenons up on Amazon or from Rockler.

This may also work really well for joining purposes, and is probably a better option than the biscuit joiner if the split is not consistent. You would be able to drill into either side of the doors, taking care to line up your holes, then pop the tenons into either side and camp the doors together.

There are actually several other similar technologies worth looking into, all with the same benefits and advantages over pocket holes.

Beyond what I've discussed above, there are also countless other approaches in woodworking to join materials together (though most will not apply to split cabinet doors). From dovetails to relief cuts, rabbets, and dados, there are a ton of options for almost every situation. Each one requires tools, jigs, and know how (or at least a curiosity and willingness to try something new), but with each approach you are rounding out your skill set as a DIYer. I actually own a dovetail jig and the necessary router bits that we bought back when I was working on the office desk. I made the drawer for the desk using half blind dovetails (half-blind are the ones were you can see the dovetails when looking at the side of the drawer, but not the front). I absolutely love how they turned out and can't wait to use it on something else in the future. It's just a matter of finding the right project to use it on.

I hope this helps to answer the question, though I'm sure it provides a more complex answer than you would anticipate for a simple question. I guess I should actually summarize with a more simplified response, below:

Though pocket holes and their accompanying pan head screws are great in many situations, and are easy to work with, there are many other options for accomplishing the same or similar end results using alternate tools or approaches. Many times, these alternate options are actually much better suited for the project, and are completely within the realm of the intermediate DIYer, leaving fewer holes to either fill or ignore, and resulting in a stronger bond than pocket holes offer.

For your cabinet doors, I'd look into the biscuit joiner if the split is even and consistent (like the edge of two pieces of wood), or look into the tenons and mortising jig if it is more of a puzzle to put them back together. If you were to use a pocket hole you will end up with large holes on the backside of the doors that you would need to then fill, sand, and paint. You also will end up with the potential for the split to keep showing up in that spot since the hold of pocket holes isn't as strong as glue to wood.

What do you think of my advice to our question? Are you an abuser of the pocket hole approach as I once was? I think the first step is admitting you have a problem, that's when recovery can truly happen. Let me know what you think, and if you have any preferred methods for joining materials.

Disclaimer: Ask Old Town Home is meant simply as a friendly bit of advice and is provided free of charge. It is your responsibility to fully research any and all items related to projects or suggestions to ensure proper safety and code precautions and regulations are fully followed. In other words, any advice we provide is just our opinion, and our opinion is only worth the price we charge for it. :-)

Comments 11

Comments

Dean
11/2/2012 at 1:34 PM
When my old cabinet door split, I went to CVS. I got a syringe and filled it with wood glue. I injected the split with the wood glue and clamped it. After 12 hours it looked as good as new.
Alex
11/3/2012
You're right, that's probably all that's absolutely necessary. Wood glue is pretty amazing stuff as long as you get it in all of the nooks and crannies.
11/2/2012 at 1:36 PM
This is so excellent! I'm glad you're talking about it.
I've been concerned that too many people are using pocket hole screws to join everything. The solid wood/glue joinery is much more stable.

I never bought a pocket-hole jig because I prefer to use a doweling jig and wooden dowels, coupled with glue - even for simple wood joinery projects. Again, there's no external holes to fill and it's a cleaner, stronger joint.

Katie at Making This Home just wrote about biscuit joinery, too - if you're interested. She and her husband built their kitchen cabinets from scratch. www.makingthishome.com/2012/10/19/building-cabinets-the-old-school-way/
Alex
11/3/2012
Thanks for pointing me over to that post. What a cool project they've got going on!

Pocket holes have their place, but more often than not, at least lately, they've been used as an alternative to the more proper methods. Sadly, this is being propagated by the many bloggers and shows that don't realize the difference. Oh well, as they used to say at the end of GI Joe, "Now we know...And knowing is half the battle!"
Karin K
11/2/2012 at 2:22 PM
Should I win the lottery, I am commissioning you with the construction of my personal sarcophagus. Nice post - I will be referring back to this one for sure!
Alex
11/3/2012
Just let me know when and where, sounds like that build might be a lot of fun.
Threadbndr (Karla)
11/7/2012 at 12:01 PM
THANK YOU! A lot of great information here, not only for my poor doors (the splits are along a clean edge where the boards that make up the doors just split apart vertically). So I'll be investigating biscut jointers and the mortise jigs. I will need another set of pipe clamps, too. I'm excited to get back to work on the house now that the office is starting to settle down a bit.
Sharon
6/30/2015 at 4:06 AM

You can always combine wood glue with pocket holes...

To conclude the only disadvantage of the Pock Holes method is the holes they leave behind...

As you can see from the next test, pocket hole is much stringer then biscuit method:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=522&v=6cAUz_eCmbw

steve
7/9/2015 at 9:55 AM

Hello,
Excellent post to be sure.
It is true, there is not one hammer to hammer everything nor is there one screwdriver or plier to do everything.
Pocket joinery is really designed for those who want to delve into wood working and may not have the experience or selection of tools to produce some "nice" end results that the kreg tool can give you.
In order to achieve true high-end products, you will need a full selection and knowledge of wood working methods to get there.
The kreg is simply a means to an end.
I believe that out of 10 kreg owners, 3-4 may be in the trade and the balance just like me, love to work with wood, just don't know enough about it and I'd love to become involved with wood more as it's most amazing when you take a piece of stock and turn it into something...magical - yes!

Jen
10/1/2016 at 11:59 PM

I'm looking to build a Jr loft bed for my daughter based off a blog that uses pocket holes a lot. Just wondering what you think would be the best/most supportive way to join all the pieces?

4/8/2018 at 11:50 PM

Good debate. I am planning to renew the kitchen with new doors and drawer fronts. I'd like to think I am a little beyond beginner. I do like the mortise and tenon, but seems like it would be so much more of a job, especially getting the tenon right every time.

Seems pocket hole would be so much easier. Plus they will painted so filled holes won't be an issue.

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