Toolsday: Dowel Plate

One thing I mentioned in yesterday's 'small box' post is using wooden pegs/dowels as fasteners instead of metal nails. I just think this is cooler. It's not necessarily more historical or authentic, I just like it a lot more.

The difficulty comes when you need dowels. Most hardware stores sell dowels in oak and poplar, and crafts stores maybe have balsa and basswood. Even those are pretty expensive in terms of wood per dollar, and if you hunt down something special like cherry or walnut it can get very expensive. It's probably not worth buying expensive dowels if you're just going to cut them into two-inch lengths, smear them with glue, and hammer them into a hole so that only the very end is visible.

Constructing something with wood peg fasteners of the same wood as the project is just so much cooler, though. What's an economical woodworker to do? The answer is to spend some money up front and buy a dowel plate.

Dowel Plate

This one from the Lie-Nielsen tool company costs about fifty bucks. If you're lucky, you might be able to remove one from your granddads workbench before the rest of the family notices. If you are (or know) a machinist, the dowel plate is just a slab of hardened tool steel with precise vertical holes cut through it in specific diameters. People tell me the underside of each hole flares slightly after the first eighth-inch or so to make it easier to remove the dowel, but if they do flare it's by the tiniest fraction of an inch.

I have my dowel plate screwed down to a piece of cedar board that I can clamp in my workbench vise. The way you make pegs with it is to split off square pegs from a scrap piece of wood that is about the length of the dowels you want. Then you hammer them through the right size hole to shave off everything that isn't part of the dowel. You can start by cutting them down to nearly the right size by hand, or run them through some of the larger holes first to take off the corners. You can also taper one end of the dowel using a pencil sharpener just to make it easier to get the dowel started.

Typically, you're making several dowels in a row, so once one dowel is hammered flush with the surface, you drive it the rest of the way through with the next dowel. I put a small bucket underneath to ctach the completed pegs.

This kind of plate works best with shorter dowels. You have to work to keep the dowel striaght as you hammer, and over a large distance that might not be easy. You can also hammer just a portion of a piece through, for instance just the first half inch of a square rod, to round off the end for joinery. I tried this out, making a 5/8" tenon on the end of 3/4" square rod, and it was tricky but possible.

I put off buying this tool for a while, since $50 is quite a bit to be spending on such a thing, but being able to make cypress pegs for cypress projects and cedar pegs for cedar projects is going to really make this item worth its weight.

I put a Dowel Plate Demonstration video up on Vimeo if you're really interested in hearing me hammer and talk at the same time.

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2012.09.11 at 12:00am EDT