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I have been looking at many websites for woodworking and while I have been an advocate for "proper" woodworking as my late father who was a bench-joiner professed, I have seen many profess that pocket hole screwed furniture is just as strong.

I was initially asked by my step-daughter and her partner to build a terrarium for them and whilst I was costing up the wood needed they decided to just buy an off-the-shelf one at a reptile store. Looking at it I was disgusted with the fact that despite the price they paid which was high in my mind, although mitred fine, there was not one joint in the work. It was all screwed together with unsightly exposed screw heads.

Not only do the pocket holes and exposed screws look unsightly, but I have always been taught by my father that proper glued jointing (mortise and tenon, box or dovetail joints etc.) is far superior in strength to metal fixings.

I even saw on a Facebook group a question asking what screws are best for cabinetry and I was amazed to find people responding as though it is a good question. My father would be turning in his grave.

Have I been taught an old-fashioned idea which has been disproved or was my father correct?

Considering these shops are able to sell these products which I feel are shoddily made at extortionate prices, am I wasting my time with proper joints when I can knock something together in a fraction of the time using screws?

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    I think most commercial, high-volume wood-working, is done with screws because of the easiness of assembly, not because screws are more solid then proper(glued) jointing. Think about IKEA, they wouldn't have enough storage to keep so many assembled furniture. – n1kkou Jun 24 at 11:59
  • I'm not convinced this is on-topic for WW, but it does raise the question of comparing global factory and traditinal joinery techniques, which does come up occasionally. – jdv Jun 24 at 14:48
  • Yeah, not 100% on topic, but valuable nonetheless. – FreeMan Jun 24 at 17:24
  • "VS joints" What joints ? – Alaska Man Jun 24 at 17:38
  • "Visual Studio" joints, obviously, @AlaskaMan. </computer nerd> – FreeMan Jun 24 at 18:00
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Good, fast, or cheap. Choose any two.

Factory methods like pocket holes, screws, and even finger-joints are good enough for mass market construction without having to hire journeymen carpenters. This is how furniture can be made as cheaply as it is. This is just a fact of modern globalism. This is the only way to offer furniture to a global market at scale for the prices you see.

The item price you are seeing has more to do with the cost of fuel to send it in a container ship from the factory and truck it to the warehouse and then to the showroom. Then, it is the showroom labour and fixed costs like electricity and rent that drive the rest of the cost. Even if this showroom had it marked up to some ridiculous amount, just wait a few months (or go to another showroom) and discounts of well over 75% can be expected. The material and labour is not the major cost here.

Remember that the only way to send this stuff around the world cheaply is if you can minimize mass and (more importantly) volume. I assure you that this furniture was assembled by the store, or someone working for the store. And the only way to allow for that effectively and cheaply is to use screw-and-dowel construction or something similar.

If this stuff was made with more traditional joinery and mostly solid wood of any decent variety I guarantee you that the cost would be much, much higher. Because trained expertise, commercial labour, and good materials are very expensive. And if you have to buy diesel fuel by the tonne you start to notice small costs in mass and volume at scale.

There are ways to minimize the look of pocket screw construction to some degree, but it is always a trade-off. It's fine for factories and weekend warriors who want to build with sheet-goods. Glue and pocket-hole construction with some careful prep before finishing is perfectly fine in most cases.

The decision you have to make is whether or not you want to trade your time for money to make your own furniture. You have to decide what sort of material costs you want to spend, and how much time you have to complete the project. As hobbyists, we often disregard our labour because we aren't in it for the money. But this is also why it isn't easy to directly compare traditional woodworking and global factory techniques.

Or why, if you asked a local woodworker to make a similar piece out of solid wood and good veneer using more traditional joinery, even their cheapest price would make your eyes water because their labour isn't cheap (nor should it be). You might be able to find one of those local factories, where they hire semi-retired craftspeople so most of your cost is the material (we have one of those in my area). But you will wait a month or so for delivery, you will pay for delivery, and you will probably get decent, but not great, fit and finish.

Ugly big box flatpack furniture today has real value to other people in your household when compared with a half-finished beautiful home-built project that is still in the shop.

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    So much truth. Great answer. Especially the last sentence. Throws a blanket over the latest 1/2 completed project... – FreeMan Jun 24 at 17:24
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    @FreeMan I FEEL SO SEEN – jdv Jun 24 at 17:58
  • @FreeMan, ROFL. – Graphus Jun 25 at 15:57
  • Great Answer but I do want to take issue with just the opening line "Good, fast, or cheap. Choose any two." This is not a universal Truth, despite how it's held to be and how many good examples there are that it is true. There are clear exceptions which show it's not a Rule. The best example I know to point to these days are the cheap diamond plates from China. They are genuinely all three. And seem consistently so too, which is interesting given just how inexpensive they are (under 5 bucks a piece). – Graphus Jun 25 at 16:01
  • @Graphus, the maxim describes the tension between the poles as continuous values, not binaries. It describes the tendency for all things that can be described as Good, or Fast, or Cheap that you cannot maximize all three. But you can borrow from either to move one up. Thus, it describes your diamond plates perfectly: some larger value of Cheap, with the rest split in some manner on the others. Increase Cheapness and something has to give. – jdv Jun 25 at 17:10
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In addition to the economic factors @jdv mentioned, there's been a change in social norms over the last few decades: People now move very frequently compared to the past, and those moves are often far away. Some of my furniture is clearly designed to be cleanly disassembled and can then be packed compactly for moving. Woodwork that is assembled using permanent joinery, on the other hand, is a single piece, which may be heavy, unwieldy, and an obstacle to packing. The legs of grand pianos are always attached with screws for precisely this reason.

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    Excellent point. Though, not all such furniture is designed with this in mind. I remember noting that Ikea furniture came in two varieties at one point: items that would survive a move, and items that would not. – jdv Jun 25 at 13:37
  • @jdv No question. I have some flat-packs (mostly bookshelves) that, while they'd probably survive a move, are built with dowels and glue; my tables and chairs, though, are either regular screws or cam locks. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jun 25 at 14:57
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I think that there is a huge 'it depends' in the question. The dependence is based upon 4 things:

  1. The nature of forces on the joint (lateral vs. compression vs. expansion)
  2. Time Expectation - The willingness of both you and the 'customer' (whoever it is) to pay for your time. (even if its a spouse, your time in the garage and not with them is worth something).
  3. Visibility of the joint
  4. Quality Expectation - is the furniture piece going to a showroom for 'Fine Woodworking' Or is going to be used to hold paint cans in the garage?

If I know that a joint will receive 'lateral' pressure (its going to be working side to side), then the pocket hole jig is no good. Its probably worth the time to try and mortise the traditional way. (I even do tenons on fence gates, which see a variety of forces). When properly sanded, I do not feel that pocket holes are too 'unsightly' and in most joints they can be easily hidden when planned correctly (against a wall, at the back,etc). For those few that are not, there is a jig to make 'pocket hole inserts' out of hardwood to plug the holes. So unless it really bothers you or your customer, a tradeoff of 'time' may be worth something 'unsightly' - especially if its inside a closed cabinet, filled with 'stuff'. Consider that every mortise joint will take several hours - the same time it takes to assemble an entire cabinet with pocket-hole jig assembly. (or maybe I'm just no good at tenons and mortising).

jdv is correct in his answer - in every way - I have a PhD in manufacturing engineering (and 30 years as a cabinetmaker/luthier/handyman). Some of what I have said adds very little other than re-enforcing their answer.

To be honest, I normally use pocket holes for better 'alignment' and ensuring glue joints stay together than I do for any structural purpose. I would never use a pocket-hole joint as a structural component alone - expecting disassembly. I would argue that the strength of a tenon or dovetail joint is very dependent upon the wood species in question. Metal and aliphatic glue or epoxy are nearly always more structurally sound than wood (exceptions might be ironwood, ebony, oak, ash, etc). Your wood is always the 'weakest link' in the chain. Without an adhesive, though, your father is correct - the worst joint is dry wood held together by exposed screws.

Edit: By request - the ELI5 version of the last paragraph. A few definitions: "Aliphatic glue" - yellow glue (Titebond, Elmers wood glue). "Epoxy" - a 2 part clear glue that gets mixed (J.B. Weld or some Gorilla glues). If I know there will be alot of pressure on a joint (like a rocking chair, or a table, something that holds the weight of a human or > 100 lbs) then I would never use pocket hole joints. Those joints can wiggle and come apart because the stress comes from all directions - not just 1). However, for assembling a cabinet front (which will only need to hold the weight of a door, and humans cannot sit on it..), pocket holes are ideal - they can be easily hidden inside the cabinet, and provide more strength than just 'yellow glue'. The screws for the pocket hole with a clamp allow you to attach 2 pieces of wood the same thickness very easily without that slight 'movement' from putting in the screw. When you put in a screw, the wood wants to rotate with the screw and throw off the alignment. Then you have to sand the difference in the edges. Regarding stresses - GLUE is always stronger than WOOD once it hardens. Picking 'heavier' types of hardwood (oak, ash) like the ones above make for better projects that will experience heavier stress and constant use. Softer wood like pine or fake woods ('whitewood', particle board, MDF) are not the best choice for structural projects without a good design (ever seen an MDF rocking chair? Nope - it wouldn't survive a human sitting on it). You also rarely see tenons used in pine, balsa, and lighter soft woods for furniture because they aren't very good for high stress projects (pine drawers do not survive a generation). If you put a screw in these woods.. you better leave it there, because once you take it out, its so soft, it will be loose the next time you try to install it and probably wiggle out again. Anybody who has disassembled anything from Ikea knows what I'm talking about in that regard. So if you try to make a project out of pine with just screws and no glue, be prepared for it to end in tears or lots of bad words.

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  • I think I might need an ELI5 just for that last paragraph. Oof. – William Jun 25 at 15:47
  • "GLUE is always stronger than WOOD once it hardens" No, not quite. Glue joints are stronger than the wood.... IF done properly..... but this does not mean the glue is stronger than the wood. The best evidence for this is simply this: bad glue joints where the glue line is too thick easily split along the glue joint, and by comparison good glue joints where the glue line is invisibly thin or close to it will never split along the glue joint. – Graphus Jul 7 at 13:16

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