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Dowels instead of screws?

yogi's picture

I am to build some pine adirondack furniture, all of which has a jillion woodscrews, all of which have to be countersunk & plugged or otherwise filled-  Would dowels work just as well, assuming the joints to be clamped & glued up?  I'd rather flush cut a bunch of dowels than fill a bunch of holes-  Thanks for any thoughts-

Jim's picture

(post #104930, reply #1 of 36)


I use a plug cutter for similar projects.  You can at least get close to a grain match.


JohnH's picture

(post #104930, reply #2 of 36)

If the furniture is to be used outdoors and/or stored in an uncontrolled environment, there may be trouble with the screws from differential expansion and contraction, as described by Hadley in Understanding Wood

My choice would be to use Titebond III and the Miller dowels especially made for outdoor use. Since any exposed dowel shows end grain in an expanse of face grain, matching wood species doesn't really gain you much. Think of the contrast as a design feature. ;-)

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #3 of 36)

My main concern is whether the dowels will serve as well as screws for connectors in the joints, which are mainly 1x laid flat against 1x-  Thank you-

JohnH's picture

(post #104930, reply #4 of 36)

My experience is with 200 or so Miller mini-dowels used to reinforce butt joints in plywood. So I have no direct experience with your application.

Certainly, the dowels will not pull the parts together, as the screws will. But if the face-to-face joint is glued, clamped, and reinforced with glued Miller dowels, in my opinion it will be stronger than a simple screw joint, both in the short term and in the long term.

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #7 of 36)

Thanks for your feedback-  I suppose I can regard the whole thing as a glorious experiment and make an adirondack chair sans metal fasteners-  When a project fails. it's a bummer, but, heck, experiments don't fail, they provide data!

JohnH's picture

(post #104930, reply #8 of 36)

Yogi, You've hit it right on the head. Fine Woodworking should be about learning new skills and developing innovative designs and techniques.

May I make a suggestion? If you are not in a flat-out rush, try an experiment. Make two test pieces, one with a screw in a dry joint and one a glued joint with Titlebond III and a Miller dowel. Soak them both in a bucket of water with a little detergent to help the wood really soak up the water. After a day or two, take them out and test their strength. A couple of well-applied blows from a hammer would be enough. It's not scientific, but it gets close to a practical test.

The clamping and gluing will slow your work. The way I convince myself is to say, "I will be looking at these pieces for the rest of my life. Wouldn't I rather feel proud than make excuses?"

bigfootnampa's picture

(post #104930, reply #9 of 36)

Miller dowels do a pretty good job of pulling stock together.  They are so nicely fitted that they will grab immediately and the force of the hammer driving them in will squeeze the parts up tight.  I believe that they have an advantage over screws in this regard... certainly so in side grain to end grain applications as the screws get but a marginal hold in end grain while the miller dowels are at their best in such situations.  I made a bunch of drawer boxes last spring with the miller dowels for corner joining and also used the miller dowels for joining the plywood boxes.  I was very happy with the results.  I will use them again.  I found that the dowels tightened my joints more than my clamps could do. 

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #10 of 36)

Bigfootnampa:  (not here in Idaho?)

Thanks for your feedback-  Actually I've since purchased the mini and 1X bits and dowels and scrapped together a shaker step stool with them-  I was surprised at how they clamped & held the pieces together-  Beats heck out of screws for any kind of a clear finish-  Time will tell, but I'm sure happy so far- 

bigfootnampa's picture

(post #104930, reply #11 of 36)

I was raised in Nampa but now live in Saint Louis.

EricArey's picture

(post #104930, reply #20 of 36)


It was good to hear we had similar experience with Miller Dowels.  I made this shaker step stool one afternoon.  I always have a supply of baltic birch plywood and some scrapes of purple heart from another project.  I left a picture.  It is from one of Norm's books.  I am surprised as how much it is used in the kitchen and at the table as an extra chair.


Shaker_Stool.JPG39.33 KB
yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #21 of 36)

Your purple heart is a lovely contrast, as are the dowels securing it-  I am using the dowels more and more myself-  Very versatile- 

lwj2's picture

(post #104930, reply #33 of 36)

Nice job, Eric.

I've reduced the size of your photo and cropped it a bit, for those on dialup.


Leon Jester, Roanoke VA

Shaker-stool.jpg39.66 KB
JohnWW's picture

(post #104930, reply #5 of 36)

Screws will pull the joint together and drilling for dowels, driving in the dowel, and then cutting it flush will probably take as long as plugging counterbored screws.  Also, plugs have trouble staying in place in furniture exposed to the weather. 

The best solution might be to use stainless screws with trim washers, strong, fast, and decorative.

John White, Shop Manager, Fine Woodworking Magazine

John White Shop Manager for FWW Magazine, 1998 to 2007

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #6 of 36)

Thanks, and yes, it's all true-  I've just never found anything decorative about a screw head-  I suppose I could make a career of this and wedge all my 1 1/2 inch dowels-

Lataxe's picture

(post #104930, reply #12 of 36)


In our house we are garden-mad.  There are many sheds, gazebos, chairs and tables about the place.  British weather is what you might call variable.  The outdoor stuff takes some punishment in terms of wet/dry and hot/cold cycles.

Screwed stuff stays together much better than jointed parts (assuming the screws are brass, coated or S/S and not merely mild steel).  Dowels shrink and expand relative to the wood they're dowelled into and eventually go loose.  So do other joints, such as M&T, housing and bridle joints, where the grain runs differentially and there is consequently differential expansion/contraction.  End grain in such joints also tends to wick up moisture unless you oil it all the time.

I would use best quality screws and put them in with a dollop of wood preservative, oil or similar.  If you cover them over with (grain-matched) plugs, that will further protect them.  Plugs with their grain running the same way as the wood that the plug is in will stay put, if you use a waterproof glue.

Of course, if the screws loosen a bit, the plug will be a nuisance.  This has happened to a large garden trellis structure I built.  I swore a bit as I dug out yet another plug, just to tighten the screws half a turn.

Alternatively, you could try to weatherproof the chairs with some tough paint or other.  But it wouldn't be the same, would it?  :-)  Also, you'd be painting every year.

I'm myself am about to replace some delapidated store-bought garden chairs with fold-up Arondiracks (is that spelt right?) using Lee Valley plans and folding-chair bolts.  They will be made of iroko and screwed throughout.


yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #13 of 36)


Thanks for your thoughts-  Our weather here in N Idaho is also what you might call "variable", although I don't think we get quite the humidity you get there-

I recognize that I'm going out on a bit of a limb, joining with dowels in outdoor furniture, but I'm somewhat taken with the Miller dowels and, I suppose, am testing their utility-  I can always drill and screw if things loosen up-  But I'd like to see whether the right combination of dowel, glue and clear finish or sealer (any thoughts?) will produce the desired results, both in appearance and long-term service- 


Lataxe's picture

(post #104930, reply #14 of 36)


You are a wood scientist and I hope the experiment succeeds.

The only finish I use on outdoor stuff is Liberon Garden Furniture oil.  It appears to be identical to their normal finishing oil (a Danish oil consisting of tung oil, bit of varnish and some driers).  I think the Garden oil has some anti-fungal stuff and anti-UV in it too.  If the furniture is to retain its colour, you need to coat this oil on to it at least 4 times a year.  Tedious, really - and it doesn't stop the humidity changes in the wood, just stops surface rot, growths and what would otherwise be a fade to grey.

Structural wood that's part of the house gets coated in one of those stretchy paints.  It covers very well and lasts for some years before a new coat or touchup is needed; but it completely obscures the wood and its grain.  Not good for nice furniture.  This stretchy stuff also seems to at least slow down (but not stop) humidity changes in the wood.  Certainly the rain just bounces off and doors don't stick in winter.  I haven't seen a clear version, though.


yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #15 of 36)

Lataxe: (What's that mean?)

I expect I'll use something exotic like spar varnish-  The furniture will for the most part be on the porch, under the roof-  Recoating yearly seems to be the price of a clear finish on outdoor wood-  Does your Liberon perform substantially better than spar varnish?  I would hope so considering the maintainance schedule you mentioned-

Our's is a log home, about 26 years old now, and I've never put a thing on the logs-  No preservatives, uv protecters, zip, and it looks as nice (and as natural) as ever-  It sounds as if your climate is much more rigorous than ours-  It'll go over 100 F here in the summer, and below -30F in the winter-  But the extremes are shortlived and the   humidity is rarely noticable-

As for a clear version of your stretchy exterior paint-  A thread which appears from time to time in these forums relates the experiments & experience of a guy in search of that very thing-  Used the deep tint base (with no color added) of an exterior enamel paint and claimed it was clear when dry and wore as well as the paint ever did-  Might be a thought?

I was in England a couple times many years ago-  Don't recall anything in particular about the weather-  People talked funny though-  Wouldn't you know?


Lataxe's picture

(post #104930, reply #16 of 36)


Whit dee yer mean, man, we taalk funny heeyah?

Good job we don't type as we sound, eh?  :-)

Lataxe is a Cumbrian name for a froe, a large, crude blade used to split logs into smaller pieces in green woodwork.  My Uncle Cornelius alleges that even with the most expensive machine tools, my efforts with wood all look like lataxing to him.  (He's an old tease).

The oil treatment works but I don't know if spar varnish is better because I've never used it.  Things do shrink and expand a lot in our garden, though, so I suspect that varnish would crack and peel.  English weather is not extreme but it is very changeable.

My shed is built of tanalised timber - some kind of Norway pine.  Tanalising is a treatment using copper and arsenic salts, forced into the wood under pressure.  As long as you don't lick your shed, it's quite safe (no nasty emissions).  The shed is just over 2 years old and looks as new as the day it arrived.  The maker tells me that it will last 50 or more years with no treatment at all, but it will go grey.  If I slap wax on it every 3 years, it will keep its colour.

Me, I like wooden stuff to look like wood.  I'm not keen on shiny surfaces in the garden so the oil is my choice.  I'm sure there are better preservatives but suspect that you'll be looking at the coating as much as the wood with varnishes or clear paints - which is OK if thats what you like of course.




yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #17 of 36)

Y'all take caeh, y'heah?

JohnWW's picture

(post #104930, reply #18 of 36)

Spar varnish is relatively soft even when fully cured, it will stick to clothing, not good for chairs.

John W.

John White Shop Manager for FWW Magazine, 1998 to 2007

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #19 of 36)

Don't be shy, John-  What's a good clear finish for my porch/deck furniture?  Thanks for your thoughts-

KJ's picture

(post #104930, reply #34 of 36)

Lots of boat builders swear by Penofin. It is not surface building but has kept my yellow cedar adirondak chairs in good shape. Touchup is pretty easy for annual maint. But it does smell a little strong until about 1 week of rain (happens pretty quick here in the Pacific NW).



storme's picture

(post #104930, reply #36 of 36)

Re: finishes. I'm no expert but my investigation of this point basically came up with: nothing works well; some things work less badly than others.

Spar varnish is polyurethane but long on the oil so it's softer, a benefit because it can stretch with the wood as it moves. It also has UV inhibitors. When it fails it fails because the UV destroys the wood underneath the varnish and then the varnish flakes off, water penetrates etc. The solution is to coat and recoat with some frequency and/or keep the furniture out of the sun as much as is practical. As a consequence, the more opaque you make your finish the better UV resistance it has and fewer issues down the road.

The spar varnish I have doesn't seem sticky actually, quite usable for chairs - perhaps a brand issue?

I've also heard that other finishes aren't recommended because the oil becomes food for bacteria which makes oil based finishes undesirable.

My knowledge is all book learning so grey beards: feel free to school me.

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #22 of 36)

John-  I certainly don't need my furniture sticking to our clothing-  So, instead of spar varnish, what would you suggest for a clear finish for my porch/deck furniture?  Thank you for your thoughts-

Edited 3/25/2006 6:21 pm ET by Yogi

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #27 of 36)

Nevermind, John-  That's okay-

JohnH's picture

(post #104930, reply #35 of 36)

If you are still wondering which finish to use, you might be interested in Steve Schoene's reply in the Finishing forum on "Outside Finish ---- deck furniture."

Edited 4/7/2006 9:11 am by JohnH

froemallet's picture

(post #104930, reply #23 of 36)

You might want to consider white oak or cedar if the chairs are going to be outside in the weather-I also gave mine three coats of spar varnish-some guys also use epoxy on the bottom of the feet to seal out moisture. I wouldn't think pine would last too long after all the work of shaping and screwing together...

yogi's picture

(post #104930, reply #24 of 36)

How did your spar varnish do?  John W replied earlier in this thread saying spar varnish would not cure and would stick to clothing-  Was this your experience?

What sort of cedar would you recommend?  Cedar seems to me to be practically frail in 1X size, particularly where butt joints are screwed together, but what do I know?  Is there a cedar you would find particularly well suited?

Thank you for your thoughts-  I appreciate the feedback-


froemallet's picture

(post #104930, reply #25 of 36)

I made a adirondack chair two years ago in the spring, applied three coats of spar varnish to it over the course of a week-let it dry outside in the sun. The chair gets covered for the winter but is out the other 3 seasons and still looks great.  As to the cedar, I wouldn't know what type to advise-I was just thinking of a wood that would weather well in the elements.