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Template Doweling Jig

Introduction
Assembly
Use
Tips
The other side (for dressed lumber)
DIY templates

 

Introduction
I am a big fan of a well-executed doweling jig, but they can be outrageously expensive.

Commercial jigs are typically heavy affairs made of machined aluminum and steel.  They can run north of $150 (with one well-known manufacturer offering a model approaching $300).

I've developed a doweling jig system that rivals these spendy aluminum monsters.  Combining a CNC-machined (accurate to within thousandths of an inch) acrylic template with a single drill "bushing" mounted in a plywood block, this jig combines tremendous accuracy and value.

Pictured above right, the template is two sided.  One side offers a fairly conventional 3/8" hole layout.  The 2nd side is designed for making quick work of tables/stands/benches made from "dressed" construction lumber.  "Dressed" means these boards have been run through a jointer and planer to get straight and uniform stock measuring 1-1/4" by 3-1/4" (more about that later).


If you want one of these jigs, I'll ship one for just $40 (includes shipping/handling to any of the fifty states).  Just use the Buy Now button below.  You will get the precision-machined template, the fence (now with sandpaper grip), the screws, and the drill bushing mounted in the BB plywood block.  You will need to supply your own 3/8" drill bit and depth stop (read more about that below), and a 4mm Allen wrench.

WARNING:  I suppose in this day and age I should provide some sort of safety warning.  You will need to use your power drill so you should be familiar with, and observe all instructions, that came with said drill.  Read my instructions here as well, wear safety glasses, work safely, use common sense.


 

Assembly

The unit arrives as three pieces in a padded envelope.  Assembly is straightforward:

  1. Remove the two screws from the fence, place the template on top of the fence, and replace the screws.  Orient the side of the fence with the sandpaper grip TOWARDS the holes you plan to use first.  These are machine screws threaded into wood, watch the first turn or so to make sure you catch the existing threads.  You may observe that the holes in the fence are slightly off-center, this is by design and allows the jig to be used with relatively thin stock.

  2. Adjust the fence/template for the stock you are going to use (see examples below), and tighten the screws with a 4mm Allen wrench.

  3. Mount the drill guide block on a vise and run your 3/8" bit through it a very times, to make sure it doesn't catch.  I've done this before shipping the units, but drill bits can vary slightly in diameter, so it is a good idea for you to repeat this step with your intended bit.

 

Use

Enough already, let's make a joint, that is the best way to show how it is used.

I'm going to use the "conventional" (wider) side of the template and join two pieces of narrower stock together (similar to what would be involved in making a face frame):

Step #1, The two workpieces are placed in the correct orientation on my bench.

Step #2, I've made some marks to show the orientation of the dowels, and to remind me which edges should be aligned when I'm all done.  I've used permanent marker here to make things visible for you, you'll want to use pencil.

Step #3.  I need to adjust the jig for the thickness of the stock I'm using (3/4" in this instance).  The template's holes are centered 3/4" from the front edge of the template.  If I use a 3/8" thick spacer (in this case, 3/8" BB plywood), the holes will be centered in the boards when I'm done.

Step #4.  With the screws loosened and the fence sitting on top of the 3/8" spacer (which in turn is on top of my stock), I push the plastic template against the bench and snug the screws.  That's it, my template's holes are now centered for my stock.

Step #5.  I want the screws very snug, I don't want any shifting going on.  The screws have 4mm Allen heads, and I have a nifty ratchet I use with interchangeable bits.  You will need to supply your own Allen-head tool for tightening the screws, just an Allen wrench is great.

Step #6.  I've aligned the edge of the plastic template to the edge of my workpiece, and added a clamp to hold things.  That clamp is a quick clamp I got with an old Kreg pocket hole jig.

Step #7.  I can now hold my drill bushing in one hand and drill the holes with my other.  Unfortunately, I don't have a third hand to hold the camera.  I'm only drilling two holes here, as my stock is somewhat narrow.

Step #8.  Now it is time to drill the end of the other workpiece.  I've clamped the workpiece in my vise, and I've clamped the jig to the workpiece making sure to align the edge of the template with the marked edge (marked with an "X" in step #2) of my workpiece.  I'll drill two holes in the end of this board.

Step #9.  I've inserted a couple of dowels and I'm about to push the joint together for the first time, so exciting!

Step #10.  The joint is pushed together and the alignment is outstanding, another perfect joint!!!

 

Tips

Aligning your workpieces
Get everything laid-out properly and mark your pieces, do not skip this step as it is easy to lose your orientation when moving pieces and drilling holes.  I used permanent marker above but suggest you use pencil (or some chalk on darker woods).  Anything easy to get off when you're ready to finish your project.

Adjusting the jig
The fence on this jig is infinitely adjustable, and scrap stock spacers make short work of setup.  I use my 3/8" and 1/2" spacers most.  The 3/8" spacer allows me to get my holes centered in 3/4" stock, while the 1/2" spacer allows me to create an offset/reveal when joining aprons to legs (for example).

But I also have 1/8" and 1/4" spacers, and thicker spacers, too.  They all come in handy, and sometimes get stacked.

Spacers need to be flat.  Any deviation from flat will be transferred to the fence and ultimately to your joint.  Scrap pieces of lumber really are ideal.  Mark them with their thickness, drill a hole in them, and hang them over your workbench.

Do holes need to be perfectly centered in the stock?
Absolutely not!  The jig references off one face and one edge of your workpiece.  If you want your holes to be off-center and almost to the edge of your stock, go for it.

In fact, my first doweling jig was one of those self-centering gadgets you can still buy today (at about 2x the cost of this one).  And although it was supposed to center the holes, it never really did.  They were a little off-center and the row of holes were always a little less than parallel to the edge of the stock, too, it was very frustrating.

I know some say "this is woodworking, it is close enough."  Well I once needed to make eight large brackets from 1x4 material and the joints were all off enough that significant sanding was required.  This added quite a bit of time and frustration to the project.  Mostly for my wife, because I made her do all the sanding.

If my holes needn't be centered, why are we discussing it?
Because it is so easy to do, why not?

There are reasons why you may not want centered holes.  Maybe one face of your board has a groove or other detail that would interfere with centered dowels.  So offset your holes in that case by being creative w/ the spacers.  It doesn't matter, you can center or not center.

Clamping the jig
The jig typically needs to be clamped so the edge of the plastic template is aligned with the edge of your workpiece.  I typically just use the wood block that holds the drill bushing as an alignment aid.  With the block held against the edge of the workpiece, the template is slid up to the block, and the jig is clamped.  Boom.

One important point is to align the edge of the plastic template with the edge of your workpiece.  Don't use the fence for alignment, it isn't always aligned perfectly with the template's edge.

Quick clamps like the one pictured above work fine.  Small F-type clamps are great, too.  Clamp the jig snugly, you don't want it moving as you're drilling holes.

Drilling holes
The drill bushing is pressed into an undersized hole in the plywood block, and isn't fastened with any sort of adhesive.  It can slide up and down in the block with moderate pressure.  When you first place it on the template, push the bushing all the way down to your workpiece before drilling your first hole.  Subsequent holes shouldn't need any further adjustment of the bushing, the depth stop or collar on the bit will push the bushing down.

Give your bit a chance to remove the chips from the hole by partially extracting it every 1/2" (or so) of drilling.  Once you hit the depth stop, ream the hole a little by moving the bit up and down a few times.

Wait, why allow the bushing to move at all, why not glue that sucker in?
For maximum flexibility, of course.  You don't have to use my acrylic template, you can make your own templates by drilling holes in anything from 1/8" hardboard to 3/8" (or so) plywood.  Being able to adjust the bushing to the thickness of the template makes for the best hole quality (less chip-out).

Making your own templates will allow you to achieve CNC-like precision and speed on all sorts of larger projects.  You will read about that more below ("DIY Templates").

Drill bits
I use mostly split-point bits (metal-working bits).  Right now I'm using Dewalt 3/8" bits purchased at the local Home Despot, but I've used other brands.  The points on many brad-point bits are often a little off-center, and may compete with the drill bushing when it comes to hole alignment.

There is an exception to my bit rule, though, and that is when brad-point bits work better, use them.  That is mostly with some softwoods like SYP (Southern Yellow Pine) or DF (Douglas fir).  The dark grain in these woods is extremely hard, and the lighter wood pretty soft.  Split-point bits can struggle here and rip big chunks out of the stock, brad-point bits may work better.  Test your bits in scraps of your stock before starting.

No two drill bits are equal, it seems, often drilling slightly smaller or larger holes.  The important thing is that the dowels fit into the holes.  We don't want the holes so tight that the dowel won't go into the hole once the glue is in.  Likewise, so loose that the dowels fall out means the joint's strength will suffer.

Stop collars
I don't like conventional stop collars, they can be a PITA to adjust and are prone to moving.  While it is possible to change bits or even change drills (each drill being setup with a separate bit/collar) to save time and frustration when drilling holes of differing depths, I prefer to make depth stops from plastic tubing (purchased at my Ace hardware store) cut to required lengths:

 

In the pic on the left, you can see my plastic stop collar/depth stop made from tubing I purchased at my local Ace hardware store.  In the pic on the right, you can see a nylon washer (3/8" ID) is slipped over the bit before the tubing.  The washer keeps the tubing from riding-up the bit into the chuck.

To determine the length of tubing required, I slip the washer over the bit, then the drill bushing.  I measure the length of the bit extending beyond the bushing and subtract the depth of the hole desired.  That is how long I cut my tubing.  I have a little cream-cheese container with pieces of tubing of various lengths, I almost always have one that is just right.  I also have a couple of extra washers in there, these can be stacked for making 1/8" adjustments.

BTW, I still often use two bits and two drills to speed-up the process of drilling holes at different depths.

Testing joints
It is a good idea to have a collection of a few looser-fitting dowels available for testing joints.  Some dowels can be so snug that you need a channel-grip pliers to remove them (and that is without glue!).  My test dowels aren't loose, they just aren't so tight that I cannot get them back out with my fingers.

I make 1-2 test joints before starting any project, and I test the joints of my project before assembly.  This saves filling the swear jar.

Dowels:  Spirals vs. flutes
I use whatever I can source at a reasonable price.

Applying glue
I use 1/8" dowels to apply glue.  Squirt glue into the hole, then use the 1/8" dowel to make sure the walls of the hole are covered.  I use a Stanley mallet with plastic head to tap the dowels into the holes if they're too snug once the glue is in the hole.  Don't go crazy with the mallet, you don't want to mushroom the ends of the dowels with the thing.

FWIW, this is the method prescribed by James Krenov in one of his books.  Yes, James Krenov was a dowel-head.

Clamping
Be ready with your clamps, they may be required to pull the joints closed.  I use white PVA glue (just Elmer's white glue) for my dowels because it seems to give me longer open times.  Determine your assembly steps before applying the first drop of glue.  If you can, assemble your project in smaller steps to save frustration from large/complex glue/clamp-ups.

Wait, are joints made with dowels even strong enough?
Testing indicates joints made with dowels are extremely strong, approaching or surpassing (depending on how you define failure) the strength of mortise and tenon joinery.  If your project relies on any incremental increase in strength provided by another type of joint, you need to go back to the drawing board (change the design, add bracing, whatever).  It just isn't wise working within the margins where strength is required.

Hey, this thing is plastic, is it durable?
Sure is, I've whipped them at the ground repeatedly and can get edges to chip but that is about it (and I'm whipping them at concrete).  I actually had one ricochet into the garage door and leave a pretty nice gouge, but the template was fine!  Wife hasn't noticed the gouge, so I'm okay, too.

Remember that the drill bit never touches the plastic, only the drill bushing does.  So there is no wear/tear on the template.

The fact that they're plastic and light-weight and relatively inexpensive makes them quite a joy to use compared to the heavy aluminum jigs I have (yes, I have those, I use my template jigs instead).  Having an inexpensive acrylic jig fall off the bench and hit my concrete shop floor isn't a huge deal.  Having a $200 heavy aluminum jig hit the floor?  My heart would stop!

 

The other side (for dressed lumber)
The 2nd side of the template is designed to drill holes for five 3/8" dowels in dressed 2x4 lumber.  Dressed just means it was run through the jointer/planer/table saw to get uniform 1-1/4" x 3-1/4" stock.  Construction-grade materials typically have slight dimensional variances, eased edges, and can be slightly out of square.  Fine for building structures, not so great for woodworking tasks.  So dressing it fixes all those issues and makes it ready for projects.

Below is a picture of a bandsaw bench I built with dressed 2x4's.  It is incredibly strong and the materials came from 2x4's I found discarded in the neighborhood!  I have two bandsaws mounted on this stand, setup with different types of blades for two different applications.  I call this my bandsaw mainframe, because the bandsaws are not actually mounted to the stand.  Rather, they're mounted to plywood bases that float on the top of the stand.  Cleats under the plywood keep the bases from sliding off the top, but each bandsaw can easily be lifted off the stand.  Why?  Because at one time, I had three of these bandsaws and also a small jointer and a planer I used on this same stand, all with the same sorts of bases, so I could rotate the tools quite easily.

 

 

Using the 2nd side of the jig isn't too different from using the first, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, here are ten-thousand words on using the second side of the jig:

Step #1, The two workpieces are placed in the correct orientation on my bench.  I've once again used permanent marker to note the edges I want aligned, and to show the orientation of the dowels.  You should use pencil, the marker is only to make the markings clearly visible in the images.

Step #2, If you look closely you can see a pencil line indicating where I want the bottom of the cross-piece to meet the leg.  I made the pencil mark with my combination square set to 4.5" (so the cross-piece will be 4.5" from the bottom of the leg).  I'll align the edge of the doweling jig template with this pencil mark.

Step #3.  To adjust the jig, I first reversed the fence so the sandpaper grip faced the correct set of holes.  Then with the screws still loose, I placed the fence on top of the stock and pushed the template towards the bench and tightened the screws.  No spacers are required this time, the holes on this side of the jig are set to center on 1-1/4" thick stock.

Step #4.  I've aligned the edge of the template with the pencil mark I mentioned in step #2 (above) and I've clamped the jig + the workpiece in my vise.  A vise is a handy clamping method for my template doweling jig.

Step #5.  Now I use the drill guide in each of the template's five holes to drill a hole in my workpiece.

Step #6.  Five holes drilled, just moving the drill guide from hole to hole.  It goes quickly.

Step #7.  Now I'll drill the end of the cross-piece.  I align the edge of the template to the marked edge of the stock, clamp (this time I'm using an F-clamp), and drill my holes.

Step #8.  Five dowels inserted into the five holes I just drilled in the cross-piece.  That is going to be a strong joint.

Step #9.  Time to test the joint, I'm bringing the two pieces together (no glue here) to make sure everything aligns.

Step #10.  The joint is pushed together and the alignment is once again perfect!

I've made approximately ten of these sorts of stands over the years.  Some have been sold with tools that were on them (the most recent being a small Ryobi jointer from Japan).  Some are used elsewhere in the home and home office (like my printer/scanner/everything else stand).

Almost each time I visit the home center, I check the stop couple of rows of any 2x4 stock for Douglas fir that is relatively clear and straight.  I keep a stockpile of these in my garage for the next time I need another stand/table/bench.

I also keep an eye out in the neighborhood for discarded 2x4 materials, I've made a couple of stands from this absolutely free wood.

 

DIY templates

As I mentioned earlier, you can make your own templates and achieve CNC-like precision and speed.

An important aspect of my drill bushings is that, with moderate pressure, they can slide up/down in the blocks of wood holding them (they won't fall out, resistance increases as you near their ends).  This allows you to make templates of various materials (and thicknesses) and guarantees the bushing can be fully seated against your stock (having the bushing pushed against your stock minimizes tear-out).

Here is a brief pictorial on DIY templates:

Image #1:  Two workpieces (an imaginary side and bottom), a 1/4" drill guide, and a purpose-made template.

Image #2:  This is the first side of my template.  It is just some BB plywood cut to 3/4" wide and a couple inches longer than the intended joint.  My joint will be 12" long so I made the template 14" or so long.  I marked a line at 12" and drilled three sets of two holes that are 25/64" (sized for the 1/4" drill bushing).  I've drilled another hole that is 3/8" for a dowel that acts as a stop.  If you click on this photo you can see a larger version that shows this side is marked "I" and there are arrows pointing to the edge I've selected as my reference (can be either edge, just have to be consistent on the next side).

Image #3:  Same template as above, but I've rotated it.  Click on the photo for a larger version and you'll see this side is marked "II" and there are again arrows pointing to the same reference edge.  This reference edge is always placed towards whatever we're using as our fence.

Image #4:  I've clamped my two workpieces in my vise, and I'm using one of them as the fence.  That is, I've merely lifted one of the pieces about 1/4" higher than the other, to give the template's reference edge something on which to register.  I've placed my template on my workpiece (my imaginary side), made sure my arrows point towards the fence, and that the dowel is pulled snug against the edge of the workpiece.  I simply place my drill guide into each hole, pull against the dowel and push against the fence, and drill the hole.  I'm not using any clamps for the template, this is all done with hand pressure.

Image #5:  Now I've clamped the two pieces together with a 3/8" thick x 1" wide piece of plywood between them to act as a fence.  Hard to see but there is an "X" on the right-hand workpiece, right under the fence (and adjacent to the clamp), that is my reference edge of the workpiece my stop-dowel will hug.

Note that I don't really need the two pieces clamped together, this just allowed me to use a single clamp instead of two.  If I wasn't demonstrating a single joint, I'd clamp the top and bottom together with three fences, two fences on each outside edge and one in the middle.  With that arrangement, I'd be able to drill all four rows of holes in a single clamping operation (FAST).

Image #6.  Just like in Image #4, I've placed the template against the fence and pulled the dowel (the stop) against the reference edge of the workpiece, and I've drilled my six holes.  Again, the clamp is only holding the workpieces, not the template.  When I insert the bushing into the template, I pull against the dowel and push against the fence, and drill my hole.

Image #7:  I've inserted six 1/4" dowels into my holes and I'm pushing the joint together for the first time (the moment of truth).

Image #8:  Perfection, the edges are all perfectly flush.

The astute observer will recognize why this works so well:  The template is being flipped when changing from drilling our imaginary side piece to our imaginary bottom piece.  Those arrows on the template that always point at the reference edge (in this case whatever we're using as our fence) guarantee our holes are perfectly aligned.

While I took some care to nicely lay-out my template holes, it wouldn't matter if I made them in a random zigzag pattern, the holes between the two pieces are aligned because of the way the template is oriented during drilling.

As you can probably imagine, this method allows one to make a template for almost any task and join even large workpieces with a great degree of precision and speed.

Below is a pic of one of several subwoofer enclosures I built using a custom template.  I kept one of the enclosures (the others went elsewhere), I still have to load it with the driver.

 

 

DIY templates are especially great for larger sheet-good projects.  I still prefer my acrylic template for more conventional projects, though.

The point is, once you understand the genius of the template system, there really is no end to what you can accomplish with a great deal of precision and speed.

 


If you want one of these jigs, I'll ship one for just $40 (includes shipping/handling to any of the fifty states).  Just use the Buy Now button below.  You will get the precision-machined template, the fence (now with sandpaper grip), the screws, and the drill bushing mounted in the BB plywood block.  You will need to supply your own 3/8" drill bit and depth stop (read more about that above), and a 4mm Allen wrench.


 

--Phil
phil@cgallery.com

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