Pocket Holes: When It’s Not Such A Good Idea To Use Them
Updated: Jul 16
written by Chelsea Rodgers
Pocket hole screws have become the mainstay of the beginner woodworker and DIYer for quite some time. Rather than ignore the potential of pocket screws, you want to embrace the ease and simplicity that they can bring to most projects. With that being said, there are certain times where using a pocket hole will not do you or your project any good. Don’t believe us? Here are different situations when you should not use pocket holes:
If They Are Visible…You Don’t Want Them
You want your finished project to look flawless. If you can see your pocket holes when you look at your finished project, flawless would not be the word you use to describe it. You want to avoid using pocket holes in locations that will be visible. There are some exceptions to this. One exception being if you don’t care about the aesthetics of the piece. Another exception is If you are plaining to use plugs in the pocket holes and paint over the whole piece. With these two exceptions you can use pocket holes.
Table Top Assembly
Wood moves. It always has and always will, and when it moves it does so mostly across the grain or width of a board. You can’t stop it from moving, and if you try you will only cause damage to the wood. Best construction methods will take wood movement into consideration and work with it, not against it. You can build a tabletop using pocket hole screws, but it will eventually separate and possibly develop cracks and/or splits. You are just creating more work for yourself in the long run.
The proper way to connect solid wood boards into a solid piece along the vertical (length) is to use glue and clamp them. Our Merle clamps (MLCS item#9013) are perfect for jobs like these. Yes, just glue. Glue is as strong as the wood itself, so don’t be afraid to rely on it by itself. Glue will also allow that wood to expand and contract as the seasons change.
We Know What You’re Thinking…What if I Use Glue AND Pocket Hole Screws?
Using both glue and pocket hole screws would be better, but still not the best idea. Woodworkers usually use this glue and pocket hole method as an alternative to using clamps. You add glue then screw it in place and move on to the next step. In this case, if you add screws without clamps holding everything in place, the boards can still shift out of alignment. If you’re going to use clamps, you might as well save time and save screws and just use the glue method.
Pocket hole screws should not be used on the breadboards. No, Breadboards are not what you use to cut bread on. It is those two pieces of wood that are located at the ends of a table. Breadboards are not just placed on a table because it looks nice, it is there to encapsulate the exposed ends/grain of the tabletop and to allow for them to move. When you use pocket hole screws to attach a breadboard to the ends of a table, you are inhibiting that action.
This is the number one reason why so many of those DIYed farmhouse tables develop cracks. We talked about the mortise and tenon woodworking joint in last week’s post: Wood Joints: Get To Know Them. You want to attach breadboard with mortise and tenon joints. Not all tables need to have a breadboard attached. But for those designs that include it, the mortise and tenon is best approach to attach them
To Attach Table Tops To Aprons…
Another big no-no for building tables is that you shouldn’t use pocket holes for attaching the tabletop to the apron. Again, this inhibits the movement of the wood. There are several options to get your attachment done correctly, and they are quite easy.
You can use figure 8 connectors. The reason the figure 8 connectors work so well is because as the wood moves in different directions the figure 8 swivels in its groove. You can also use tabletop clips, but you will have to create a groove in the apron for these to sit.
Cabinet Doors or Drawer Fronts…
When building a cabinet door or a drawer front, the rails and stiles should be assembled with tenon and groove connections. We also talked about tenon and groove woodworking joints in our last post, Wood Joints: Get To Know Them. We’re not talking about the cabinets or drawers themselves, just the doors and drawer fronts.
Across The Grain…
When you are building anything with pocket hole screws, consider the grain. If you are going across the grain of solid wood with a pocket hole, it is possible that you will be restricting movement. Since most pocket holes are placed at the end of a board or into plywood, we usually don’t have to worry about movement with pocket hole screws. But, if you are going against the grain, evaluate your piece to determine if restricting the movement is going to be an issue.
Now, if you have used pocket hole screws in one of the ways that I say you shouldn’t, it doesn’t mean that the way you project turned out is wrong. These are just some situations were pocket hole screws don’t work as well as other woodworking joint options. Options meaning there is more than one way of doing things. Some are just easier than others.