Using only basic tools and careful layout, you can assemble dowel joints that rival the strength of mortise-and-tenon joinery, and in less than half the time.
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2 board with dowel and holes

Using only basic tools and careful layout, you can assemble dowel joints that rival the strength of mortise-and-tenon joinery, and in less than half the time. In fact, dowels beef up nearly any end-to-end, edge-to-face, and mitered joint.

Jigs vary in price and features

Doweling jigs range from a simple but nonadjustable $12 jig to the $310 multiadjustable Dowelmax, photo below. But for less than $60, a self-centering jig with removable drill-guide bushings handles most doweling. You'll also need a brad-point or bullet-point drill bit to match the jig bushings and a countersink wider than the bit.

4 jigs
There's a doweling jig for any budget. Shown are jigs from 1 Rockler ($12),2 Woodworker's Supply ($36), 3 LeeValley ($59), and 4 Dowelmax ($310).

Dowels expand

Although you can buy dowels in 14 ", 516 ", 38 ", 716 ", and 12 " diameters, the 14 " and 38 " sizes handle most jobs. (See Sources at bottom of page.) Our favorite dowel pins: expandable fluted dowels like those shown in the Shop Tip that allow glue to escape through the flutes but swell to firmly grip the holes. Either 112 " or 2" lengths will work; but the 112 " dowels provide ample reinforcement for most joints in 34 "-thick stock.

Fluted dowels expand to create a solid joint
You could cut your own dowels and score glue-relief grooves in the sides, but you'll save time using commercially available dowels. Like pressed-beech biscuits, the compressed wood in these 38 " dowels expands about 132 " on contact with moisture in the glue, as shown below, creating a tight fit.

Blue gauge

Butt joints

For a simple butt-joint, first label your parts. To ensure perfectly mating joints, number the joints 1 through 4 on each piece of a four-sided assembly before marking the dowel locations, photo below.

Ruler on board
Make a single fine pencil mark across the stile and rail. The doweling jig will space dowels the same distance apart on both pieces, making a second line unnecessary.

We positioned these marks to center two 38 " dowels 114 " apart on 314 "-wide frame parts. You can add more dowels for increased strength, but avoid spacing them closer than 14 ". And leave at least 18 " of wood between the edge of the dowel hole and any surface of the workpiece.

Set the drilling depth

Next set the drilling depth to half the length of your dowels plus 116 " to allow for trapped glue. At that distance plus the length of the jig bushing, wrap tape around the bit, photo below.

Bit with green tape on
A self-centering doweling jig's bushing helps determine the correct drilling depth, which we've marked with tape.

Jig for drilling ends and edges

To drill a dowel hole into the end grain of a workpiece, align a self-centering doweling jig index mark over your marked dowel location, top photo, below. Then drill two dowel holes to the tape at both ends on each rail.

Now repeat the process on the edge of the mating workpiece, middle photo. Moisture in glue can swell the rims of a dowel hole, pushing the pieces apart. To prevent this, bevel the hole edges with a 116 "-deep countersink, bottom photo.

2 photos with drill bit with green on them
You need only one alignment mark to position this drilling jig on a workpiece end (top)or edge (middle). Drilling with the two inside guides spaces holes 1 1/4" apart.
Fat bit with hole below it
A 1/16" countersink keeps the hole edges from swelling and pushing the joint apart.

Then glue and insert dowels into either the stiles or rails. Glue the exposed dowels and joint surfaces, tap the parts together, and clamp the joints for one hour.

To make edge-to-edge joints, use the same technique to mark and drill mating edges. Place holes no closer than 18 " from the ends to avoid breaking out the end grain while assembling the joint.

Edge-to edge joints

To make edge-to-face joints, start by drilling dowel holes along one edge as described in the previous section. Drill the holes deep enough to make the protruding dowels at least 316 " shorter than the thickness of the mating piece.

Use dowel centers (see Sources, bottom of page) to transfer dowel-hole positions from the edge of one piece to the face of the mating piece. Depending on the size of your dowel centers, either place them in the dowel holes you just drilled, or insert a dowel in each hole and slip them over these dowels, top photo below.

To mark the face of the second joint part with the dowel locations from the first one, align the ends of both workpieces using a block. Then tap the face of the second part against the dowel centers, middle photo.

Now use a brad-point or Forstner bit in your drill press to drill the mating holes at each location marked by the dowel centers [Photo I]. Set the drill-press depth stop for the length of the protruding dowels plus 116 ".

Dry-assemble the joint to test for fit; then carefully disassemble it. Then glue and clamp the pieces.

Dowel with metal pointy tip on it
X on board
Green base on drill press

Doweling jigs. 38 " doweling jig no. 35242, Rockler, 800-279-4441, Self-centering, fixed-bushing jig no. 109-142, Woodworker's Supply, 800-645-9292, Self-centering doweling jig no. 25K64.01 with interchangeable bushings, Lee Valley Tools, 800-871-8158, Dowelmax Kit with 38 ″ bushings, O.M.S. Tool Co., 877-986-9400,
Countersinks. Grizzly set of five countersinks no. G5729, from
Dowel centers. Each come in packs of 5: 14 " outside, 316 6" inside no. 66J45.01; 38 " outside, 516 " inside no. 66J45.02; and 12 " outside, 38 " inside no. 66J45.03; Lee Valley Tools.
Fluted dowels. 14 x 112 ", Rockler #70342.