As much as I love all things relating to sawdust, for a long time my experience in joining two pieces of wood together was limited to things that could be attached with framing nailer, a screw, or Gorilla Glue. Which may get you a pergola or a donkey barn, but there comes a point where you have to start being slightly more sophisticated for interior work.
Since I have a small tool addiction, my arsenal already consists of more than one router (I used the big one to build this cabinet) but sometimes it’s still hard to convince myself that I’ll be able to survive without owning a biscuit joiner or some other specialty joinery equipment. However, cooler heads prevailed for this project (or possibly someone put my wallet on lock-down) so instead instead of buying more tools I decided to try something less intense for the bathroom vanity I’m building.
Dowel joints. What could be easier?
(I feel like there’s some irony in that question. Like… just buying a vanity instead of building one? Getting professional help? And okay, easier yes, but not nearly so much fun.)
Since I couldn’t find a decent pictorial representation of making dowel joints on the entire internet, here’s my take on it.
What I used:
- Things to be joined
- A drill (and bits)
- Handmade or store-bought dowels
- A straightedge and square ruler
- Wood glue
- If you want to get fancy and/or not be tempted to pull out any of your own hair in the process, a dowel jig is also handy
The Manual Way
After I wrote the first version of this post I happened to spot a $28 dowel jig at Lowe’s, and so the second half of my bathroom vanity had some very straight, very easy to drill holes. If you don’t want to spend the thirty bucks, here’s how I made dowel joints the manual way. If you’re so inclined, you can skip down to the end of the post for a tutorial on using the dowel jig– or as I like to call it “The Sanity Saver”.
How I did it:
I’ll save you any suspense and tell you the two key factors for dowel joints working out well in the end are precise measurements and accurate hole-drilling skills.
Step 1: Clamping
There is some thinking that needs to go into this before you dive into clamping and drilling things, but every project is different so you’ll need to figure that out for yourself. The point here is to line up the pieces with the faces of the two boards that will be together when you join them facing out.
In this case I was joining the side panel of the vanity to the much thicker legs. The pieces were already cut to the exact size, and I used a square to help me link up the top and faces before clamping.
Step 2: Mark across boards
I used the square to mark a line across both boards to line up the dowels.
You may also be able to see the marks on each piece indicating which way was “out” and “top” for later reference. It helped me to imagine the two boards connected by a hinge so I could make sure I was marking the correct spots.
I’ve seen varying things on what size and how many dowels to use. I felt comfortable with my dowel being 1/3 the overall thickness of the smallest board. (For the 3/4″ plywood, that was a 1/4″ dowel). I used no less than 2 dowels on each board, and for the large panel I used 3.
Step 3: Hole placement
After the marks were made across the boards, I determined where the holes needed to be on each individual board. For the panel I centered the dowel in the middle. For the legs, the dowels were marked to give me a 1/4″ setback when the side was assembled.
I used a straight-edge (or spare piece of wood) to run the line down each board.
Step 4: Drilling
So up until this point it was pretty much a breeze, but keeping the drill bit dead-center on those holes was one of those excuse-me-while-I-go-bang-my-head-against-the-wall kind of experiences. I did a couple of test holes, and tried alternately pre-drilling with a small bit and using an awl to start the holes. I didn’t have a 100% success rate with either method.
Other than “use a drillpress” (and god knows I don’t need another excuse to go buy one of those) I haven’t found any actual useful tips for drilling accurate holes on a mark.* I mean, clamp your piece, predrill, and hold your drill straight–duh– but things still won’t always go as planned, so you can always try my two backup plans. 1.) Swear. 2.) Pray.
The nice thing with dowel joints is that they’re hidden so if one of my holes was a little off, I just drilled another set an inch or two away and everything worked out fine.
*Actually, yes, I totally figured this out. Go buy a dowel jig. (See below.)
Step 5: Dry Fit
Just checking to make sure everything lines up as planned…
After the whole thing is dry-fit, it needs to be taken apart and sanded before gluing the joints.
Step 6: Glue & Clamp
First the dowels get glued into place on one side. I went old-school and used elmers wood glue this time, even though I’m usually a fan of the gorilla version. I like that the elmers doesn’t expand, plus it made me feel like I was in 7th grade shop class all over again.
The second piece gets glue along the entire side, including in the holes…
Then assemble and clamp.
Using a Dowel Jig
If you’re going to be doing this more than once, I strongly recommend buying one of these:
Here’s the gist of how the jig works. You still need to clamp and mark your boards like in step 1 & 2 above, but the jig makes sure your holes are accurate, straight, and perfectly in line.
You start by clamping it on to your pieces.
The arrow on the jig should line up with your vertical line between the two pieces.
You can then slide the jig until it matches up with the horizontal mark on the first piece. After you drill this hole, the jig slides into place (without being unclamped) to drill the hole in the second piece.
This kit came with new bits and depth stoppers, which is way fancier than my usual method of putting a piece of painters tape around the bit. Hey… work with what you’ve got and all that.
The jig keeps the bit perfectly level, no matter how many beers you had the night before. Ahem.
Actually, it makes the whole thing a complete breeze. I think it took me a third of the time to make the holes with the jig, and everything lined up perfectly the first try when I dry fit it.
The joints should still be clamped and glued as described in step 6 above. Even if you have to get a little creative on the clamping of a larger piece…
All in all the dowel joints were a great choice for this vanity and I’ll definitely be using more of them in the future.