It’s one of the most common situations in any type of remodeling, repair or woodworking project: how to join two pieces of wood together. There are all kinds of possibilities, from a hammer and nails to complex interlocking joints, and you’ve probably tried several of them on your own projects.
But one you might not have tried yet is the pocket hole. Pocket-hole joints are strong and durable, and with a few simple tools, they’re also very easy to make.
Pocket-hole joints involve drilling a long, shallow, precisely angled hole in the back side of a board. The drilled board can then be butted to another board, and the joint is secured with a special screw.
Pocket-hole joints can be used with wood, plywood and composite materials, and work for everything from small pieces to large panels. You can use pocket-hole joints for building face frames and cabinets; making repairs in furniture and other items; building just about any type of storage box, bin or shelf; building decks; and many other projects.
The three key elements
As you might expect, one of the keys to a pocket-hole joint is drilling the hole correctly. The hole needs to be started a specific distance back from the end of the board, and drilled at a precise, low-slope angle. It’s pretty tough to do that freehand, but as you’ll see in a moment, there are some excellent drilling jigs on the market that make it a snap to align and drill the holes perfectly.
You’ll also need the correct drill bit. Pocket-hole drill bits are long and sharp, with fairly aggressive flutes for removing chips. The bit is two different diameters; the first half inch drills a small-diameter pilot hole, while the remainder of the bit drills a clearance hole. An adjustable stop collar limits the hole’s depth.
The final key element is the proper type of screw. Pocket-hole screws are the same diameter along their entire length, as opposed to being tapered like a normal wood screw. They have a very sharp, self-tapping auger point that draws the screw easily into the wood, and a washer head that bottoms out against the shoulder at the end of the hole, preventing them from being driven too deep.
Fine-thread pocket-hole screws are used for most hardwoods to reduce the chances of the material splitting, while coarse-thread screws for used with softwoods, plywood and composite materials, such as MDF and melamine. Lengths range from 1 inch to 2 1/2 inches, and there are coated screws available for use in exterior applications, such as deck building.
Jigs large and small
To make these handy little holes, your best bet by far is to purchase a pocket-hole jig. You can also make your own — there are lots of plans available on the Internet — but a manufactured jig is much easier and more accurate.
Kreg is one of the leading manufacturers of pocket-hole jigs. At the most basic is their "Mini Kreg" ($19.95 for the jig and drill bit). This basic, single-hole jig is fine for the occasional user, and its small size is great for doing repair work. The Kreg Jr., at $39.95, offers two holes in the jig. This simplifies drilling two precisely spaced holes for such things as face frames, without having to reposition the jig each time. This kit also includes a screwdriver bit, a sample of screws and a handy case.
For a lot more versatility, step up to the Kreg K4 Master System ($139). This well-designed tool has three holes at different spacings, giving you more flexibility in your hole layout. The jig has a built-in clamp that holds work pieces from 1/2 inch to 1 1/8 inches thick, which makes precise drilling that much easier. The surface of the jig is marked with setup lines, with simplifies setting the depth collar on the bit, and also selecting the proper length screw for a specific task. The insert with the drill guide holes can be removed from the jig to use separately, for repair work. The complete kit includes the jig, drill bit, stop collar, screwdriver bits, a dust collection attachment, a face frame clamp and more, including a case.
For even more speed and versatility in making pocket hole joints, there’s the QuikJig Pocket-Hole Joinery System from Porter-Cable ($209). This brand-new jig is easily one of the most clever and innovative tools I’ve seen in a while.
With the QuikJig, you need to set the stop collar on the bit only once, no matter what thickness of material you’re drilling. An on-board setup jig positions the collar accurately, and doubles as a storage area to protect the bit when it’s not in use. The location of the drilling guide holes can be varied with the turn of knob, and markings help you set them up for material of different widths. A built-in stop allows for easy repeatability of the hole settings.
The built-in clamp adjusts automatically for materials from 5/8 inch to 1 1/2 inches thick, so it can accommodate 2-by-4 framing lumber. Simply place the material on the jig, turn one knob and pull down on the clamping handle, and the material is locked in place without any further adjustments. And once the material is in place, a guide on the side of the jig automatically indicates the proper length screw to use for that thickness of material.
As you drill, the entire guide mechanism pivots forward, so the hole is very precise and the depth adjusts automatically for the thickness of the wood. Chips drop into a chip bin, which can be attached to a vacuum or dust collector. You can also flip the entire jig 90 degrees onto its back, allowing it to easily accommodate long pieces of stock.
The QuikJig includes the jig, drill bit and collar, screwdriver bits, a clamp and an assortment of screws. The only drawback I found is the huge, roadmap-style instructions.
These and other pocket-hole jigs, screws and accessories can be found at some home centers and other tool retailers, as well as online through Amazon.com and other online retailers.