Over the past decade, pocket hole joinery has enabled millions of people to make strong, great-looking furniture and other projects without years of training or experience. Anyone can purchase a relatively inexpensive pocket hole jig and start building immediately! It’s not just a great introduction into woodworking, but a great technique for experienced builders too.
Some people will argue that pocket screws are “cheating” and the only proper way to build is by spending countless hours practicing and refining techniques such as mortise and tenons, or hand cut dovetail joints. While I am not interested in getting deep into this topic here, it is pretty hard to discuss pocket holes without touching on it.
There is a wide spectrum of building and woodworking. Some people find that the process alone is woodworking’s greatest reward. And I totally get this. Spending time perfecting difficult skills and procedures can be personally satisfying and enjoyable. Quiet time in the shop can be a centering, healing experience. At the other end of the spectrum are the “project based” makers. These folks are more interested in completing a project they can use, rather than relishing in the shop experience.
Of course most of us are somewhere in between and that’s what makes woodworking interesting. We can awe at the work of others and get inspired by their approaches and goals. It’s a big community and there is plenty of room for all of us!
How Pocket Hole Joinery Works
It’s good to understand good grain and direction to learn how pocket screws work. All boards have three types of surfaces. The important thing to always keep in mind, whether you are using pocket screws or not, is that screwing into the end grain of a board provides the weakest connection.
For a project that won’t be subjected to a lot of stress, screwing into the end grain can work, but a far better choice is to avoid this practice, especially when using softwoods such as pine.
The solution is to drive a screw at an angle so that it goes into the face grain (or edge grain) of each board. Additionally, this may actually be stronger than screwing straight into face grain, because the angle will ensure a longer portion of the screw will be embedded in the wood.
The Drill Bit and Screws
A pocket hole’s stepped drill bit has a narrow tip to guide the screw and a wider part to bore the pocket hole.
A regular screw would likely blast all the way through the pocket hole. A pocket screw has a wide head that rests on the little “shelf” made by the bit.
In this cutaway, you can see the flat ledge the head of the screw will stop on.
Setting Up the Kreg Jig
There are other brands of pocket hole jigs, but the Kreg Jig is clearly the king and the only kind I have every used. There are two versions: the K4 and the newer K5. They both accomplish the same task, but the K5 is a little easier to set up and adjust. The K4 is less expensive though. I use the K5 jig.
First, set this drill bit guide part to match the thickness of your board. I hardly ever have to adjust this because I mostly use 3/4″ lumber when making pocket holes.
The drill bit comes with an adjustable collar that is held in place with a set screw. Use an Allen wrench to loosen it.
Drop the drill bit into one of the guide holes until the tip touched the plastic base.
Then back it up just a hair. This will keep it from drilling into the plastic.
Lock the collar by tightening the set screw. Again, this is an adjustment I rarely have to change.
While not absolutely necessary, I highly recommend a vacuum attachment. Drilling pocket holes is messy and this removes the chips very effectively.
Drilling the Pocket Holes
The jig had three holes spaced apart in such a way that helps you to bore holes whatever distance apart you like. The nice thing about pocket hole joinery is that you only have to drill a hole in one board: you don’t have to drill a matching hole in its mating piece like you would for a dowel joint. This allows for a lot of flexibility when positioning your holes. Anywhere you place them on the board it fine.
Lock the board in place with the lock down mechanism.
With your drill set to its highest speed, start drilling holes. The collar will stop the bit.
Admire your hand crafted pocket holes!
Screwing the Boards Together
Most of the time, you will use the jig to drill pocket holes in the ends of boards. Make sure the board the screw will be driving into is the face or edge grain board. This is the correct way:
INCORRECT: In this direction the screw will be entering the end grain of the board and be weak.
There is a chart on the back of the screw package to help you decide what length of screw to use.
There are fine thread screws for joining hardwoods and coarse thread screws for everything else. Since I use 3/” lumber so much I almost always use 1-1/4″ coarse thread screws. I like to keep a stock of these on hand.
The boards need to be clamped together before driving the screws in place. Without clamping, the twisting of the screw will cause the boards to slip out of alignment and the joint won’t be flush and even. Kreg makes this clamp with wide pads just for this purpose.
This long driver bit makes driving the square head screws simple.
Set your drill to its slowest speed and drive the screws in until they draw the boards together and stop. If you drive them in to fast or with too much torque. the threads will strip out on the joining board. You might want to set the clutch on your drill to a low number so that it stops twisting when it reaches a certain tightness.
For joining boards on their edges, you can hold them together with this right angle clamp. A bar clamp will work too.
Again, plan the direction the screws are headed. This is the correct way: the screw goes into the face grain of the board away from the end.
Don’t screw them in with the tips pointing toward the outside edge of the board’s end. The screw doesn’t have enough wood to hold it in place.
Concealing Pocket Holes
Usually it’s not a problem to place pocket holes in the backs or undersides of projects where they won’t be visible. But sometimes, there is no other way and they have to be positioned in a visible location. If this happens, you can plug the hole either with a dowel or one of these pre-made wood plugs. Glue them into the holes and sand them flush. If you paint over them, they will be invisible.
Shop for Pocket Hole Tools & Accessories
Here are the tools I mentioned in this video.