Am I an elitist builder?

Pocket screws.

There, I said it. That dirty little phrase that so many ‘fine furniture’ makers disdain with all their hearts.

The epitome of cheap and dirty joinery. The lowest common denominator. A sure sign of poor craftsmanship.

But are they, really?

Let’s consider the reasons joinery is necessary, and why pocket screws exist.

  • Near the beginning, people needed furniture; a place to rest the body, a means of holding food within easy reach. The earth is full of natural materials that can be used to fashion such items. Stone, clay, and wood are all viable options, but of the three, wood is the most suitable. It is easier to work than stone, and more forgiving to the body than fired clay, yet still quite strong and durable.
  • The simple cylinder shape of a tree trunk or the fork of a branch are not the most useful shapes for making furniture. Logs might be hollowed to create some usable forms, but the result is still rather heavy and cumbersome. Some way was needed to connect smaller, lighter pieces into a shape that could support a body or an object.
  • Lashings are a very crude form of joinery. Branches, or split sticks, are simply tied together with cordage to build up the desired shape, say for a stool or chair. But lashing has its drawbacks. The resulting object has bulky corners, and becomes loose, easily.
  • Simple lap joints can be made with even stone tools, and improve a lashed system by removing bulk. The flat mating surfaces also resist twisting. However, lashings still become loose over time.
  • The mortise and tenon is a vast improvement over lashed joints. It can be pegged or wedged to create a strong, rigid joint that will last a long time. Specialized variations, like dovetails or finger joints, offer compact strength for the appropriate application
  • The development of practical adhesives eventually made the wedges and pegs obsolete. Basic interlocking joints and glue will hold together for years.
  • Mechanical fasteners of metal (nails and screws) offered a strong way to join wood for many applications. However, the ease and speed offered by these devices often led to improper use, especially as a replacement for mortise & tenon. Nailing or screwing through the face of one board into the end grain of another produces a joint quickly, but it is incredibly weak, as compared to a mortise & tenon and its cousins. And mechanical fasteners, in general, are unsightly in “fine furniture’.
  • Thus, the pocket screw sysyem was developed. By making the “pocket” so that the screw is oriented in line with the grain of one board, the screw head becomes the point of force against the wood. This avoids the lack of strength that comes from turning the screw threads into the end grain. The threads cut into the face or edge grain of the opposing board, perpendicular to the screw shank. This also provides a good deal of strength. The drawback is that the thin screw shanks can be levered out of the wood if the joint is placed under torsional (twisting) force. However, it would be very unusual for so much force to be applied in most types of furniture. In addition, the “pockets” form an unsightly hole in the wood, so placement and orientation is critical for maintaing aesthetics of the piece.

      So, would I use pocket screws? Well, the answer is, “It depends”. For almost any furniture application that uses solid wood and a clear finish, I wouldn’t even think of using pocket screws. I’m not fond of hiding metal fasteners in the wood, and frankly don’t trust the screws like I would proper joints.

      For a piece that was to be painted, where I had the opportunity to plug or cover the pocket screw holes, I might use them if the project’s time/money buget was too small for cut joinery. Especially if plywood was being used. But that’s a big “IF”.

      For shop fixtures, and even shop furniture, I wouldn’t be averse to using pocket screws. My attitude regarding shop furniture is that utility outranks appearance, so I am in favor of whatever materials and methods get the job done quickly. Strength might be a concern, but in most cases, I’m sure it would be fine.

      Many hobbyists take the view that anything they build should receive the same care and attention to material selection and construction techniques, be it for the shop, or someone’s home. Some argue that using advanced joinery techniques in shop furniture is good practice for other projects. I applaud both points of view, and encourage them. But for me, time in the shop is limited. I want to spend my time building things that other people will see and use, so the nice joinery is reserved for those projects. Utility furniture for the shop just has to do its job.

      So, now you know my feelings on the subject. Pocket screws are pretty far down the joinery totem pole, as far as I am concerned. Does that make me an elitist? 

      How about you? 

      Leave a Reply